Have You Found Her: A Memoir by Janice ErlbaumHave You Found Her: A Memoir by Janice Erlbaum

Have You Found Her: A Memoir

byJanice Erlbaum

Paperback | February 12, 2008

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And every week, there was the unspoken question, the one I didn’t know enough to ask myself : Have you found her yet? The one who reminds you of you?

Twenty years after she lived at a homeless shelter for teens, Janice Erlbaum went back to volunteer. Now thirty-four years old and a successful writer, she’d changed her life for the better; now she wanted to help someone else–someone like the girl she’d once been.

Then she met Sam. A brilliant nineteen-year-old junkie savant, the product of a horrifically abusive home, Sam had been surviving alone on the streets since she was twelve and was now struggling for sobriety against the adverse health effects of long-term drug abuse.

Soon Janice found herself caring deeply for Sam, following her through detoxes and psych wards, halfway houses and hospitals, becoming ever more manically driven to save her from the sickness and sadness leftover from Sam’s terrible past. But just as Janice was on the verge of becoming the girl’s legal guardian, she made a shocking discovery: Sam was sicker than anyone knew, in ways nobody could have imagined.

Written with startling candor and immediacy, Have You Found Her is the story of one woman’s quest to save a girl’s life–and the hard truths she learns about herself along the way.

“A rich and compelling account . . . Ultimately this is a book about the narrator’s journey and the dangers that attend the urge within us all to believe we can save another soul. A terrific read.”
–Cammie McGovern, author of Eye Contact
Janice Erlbaum is the author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir and Have You Found Her, which was named one of the New York Public Library's 25 Books to Remember. A former columnist for BUST magazine, she lives in New York City with her partner Bill Scurry. You can find her at www.girlbomb.com
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Title:Have You Found Her: A MemoirFormat:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 7.99 × 5.17 × 0.79 inPublished:February 12, 2008Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812974573

ISBN - 13:9780812974577

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Read from the Book

Chapter OneHow I Became the Bead LadyIt’s a Wednesday evening in late May, andI’m at the shelter for my weekly workshop, which is officially listed onthe calendar as “Jewelry Making with Janice.” This has been myshtick for the past two and a half years—every Wednesday evening, Icome uptown to the shelter, and I sit around for a few hours with thegirls of the Older Females Unit making beaded bracelets and necklacesand earrings. I am known, colloquially, as “Bead Lady,” as in,“Bead Lady, you got more alphabet beads this week? ’Cause lastweek you was runnin’ outa vowels.”All of the volunteers here have a shtick. Some teach ballet, somelead prayer circles; theater groups come in to do presentations aboutconflict resolution. Out-of-town church choirs give concerts. The JuniorLeague, a group of young professional women committed to volunteerism,sends representatives once a week to lead workshopsabout things like prenatal health and budgeting. One guy comes inand supervises pickup basketball games in the gym. There’s a guynamed Carl who’s been volunteering on the Older Females Unit forthe past fifteen years—a white guy, mousy, quiet, and kind. I have noidea what his shtick is, but the girls seem to like him.They don’t like everybody. I guess when I started, I thought thegirls would be so grateful for any kind of sympathy or attention thatthey’d fall all over the volunteers, but I’ve seen them turn their backson a lot of people, watched them size up a bunch of white women inhigh-heeled shoes, out to do their annual Good Deed for the PoorLittle Black Girls, and seen them “put it on frost,” as they say, ice uplike snowmen. Because the girls at the shelter do not want your charity.They did not ask you to come stare at them with your pity, likethey’re some fucked-up zebras at the zoo. They know you have somereason of your own for coming, whether it’s to burn off your bourgeoisguilt, spread the word of Jesus, or pad your résumé—you’ve gotyour shtick, and then you’ve got your angle. What are you doing here,the girls want to know. Slumming?They’ll still ask me that, directly or indirectly, the new ones whohaven’t met me before—and there are always new ones, every week.Every Wednesday evening, I’m missing a few girls from the weeksbefore (“Where’s Angela? Where’s Zuzu? Where’s Grenada?”), andthere’s a fresh crop of intakes, girls who watch me warily as I dumpmy bead supplies on the table in the lounge.“What’s this?” they ask, skeptical.“We’re going to make jewelry. You want to make some?”Invariably: “Is it free?”“Yeah, it’s free. You can make earrings, or a necklace, or abracelet.”“What about all three?”That’s when I know I’ve got them. “You can make all three,” I tellthem, smiling. “If you’ve got the patience, I’ve got the time.”“All right then.” And the chairs scrape back, and I’ll have a tablefull of girls sitting with me, just like that, asking for a string “bigenough for my man’s wrist” or “small enough for my baby.”And soon enough, if it’s an all- or mostly new crowd, betweentalking about popular music and cell phone plans and whether or notyou can tell the sex of a baby-to-be by the changing breadth and flatnessof the mother’s nose, the subject will eventually come up: “Miss,Bead Lady, why you come here like this?”As it has tonight. Tonight’s asker is a butch girl of about nineteen,wearing an oversized hockey jersey in black and red, extra-large baggyjeans belted around the upper thighs, do-rag over her braids, andcork-sized fake diamond studs in each ear. She is making a blackand-red bracelet, Blood colors. I always try to dissuade the girls frommaking gang beads, to no avail. The bracelet has alphabet beads thatspell rip pookie.I concentrate on daubing a finished knot with glue. The gluewon’t keep the cheap elastic from snapping, ultimately, but it willforestall its demise. “Well,” I say, without looking up. “I used to livehere when I was a kid.”“For real?” asks the butch girl, eyebrows high. “You lived here?”“Huh,” murmurs someone else. Another girl at the end of thetable elbows her neighbor, Are you listening to this?I keep my eyes on the knot, blow on the glue. “Yep. When I wasfifteen, I got sick of living with my mother’s husband, so I left home,and I came here. I was in the minors’ wing for about two months,then they helped me get into a group home, and I lived there forabout a year.”“I hate my mother’s husband, too,” offers the girl to my left, theone with the tattoo of a bleeding rose on her left boob. She hands mean earring in need of a hook.“Fuck all of them,” agrees the butch in the hockey jersey, andturns her attention back to me. “So, wait—so things was messed up athome, and you came here, and then they hooked you up, and thenthings got better? Things is good with you now?”I bend the hook with my pliers, smiling to myself. Succinctly, yes.“Things are very good with me now. And I’m really grateful to thisplace for helping me get to a place where I can say that.”She leans back, nods. “So that’s how come you came back.”I return the hooked earring to the girl with the bloody-rose tattoo,and she holds it up to her ear, flips her head back and forth like America’sNext Top Model, emits a little squeal of pleasure. “Pretty much,”I say.“That’s crazy,” decrees a girl at the end of the table, pale andhaughty, with traces of a Spanish accent. “No offense, miss, but whenI get outa here, I am never coming back. Never.”“That’s understandable,” I tell her. “I didn’t come back for almosttwenty years.”“So what made you decide to come back, then?” asks the butchgirl.Well, okay. This is a question I’ve asked myself over and over, eversince I walked through that door again—What made me decide tocome back here, goddamn it? I’d successfully managed to avoid thisplace for nineteen years, though I never left New York, never livedfarther than a subway ride away. After purposely staying away for solong, why did I decide to return to the scene of the crime? Whycouldn’t I just leave well enough alone?Two and a half years later, I still don’t know the answer. Survivor’sguilt, I could say, or, because I want to help make a difference. But really,it was something more selfish than that, something I still can’tname.I cut another bracelet length of elastic string, triple-knotting theend.“Well, you know how it is,” I tell her, smiling. “I missed the company.”I’m interested in volunteering here because I’m a former resident of theshelter, and I want to give something back to the place that helped savemy life.That’s what I wrote on my application almost two and a half yearsago, back in the winter of 2004, when I was all fresh and dewy-eyed. Ithad been nineteen years since I’d been inside the building, since theday I’d left the shelter for the group home, my donated bag full of donatedclothes, a skull and crossbones drawn in eyeliner on my temple,ready to impress my new roommates with my hard-core stories aboutstabbings and lesbians and twelve-year-old hoes. See you, wouldn’twant to be you. Anymore.Then there I was again, age thirty-four, in my pinstriped pantsand my good-enough shoes, sitting around the conference table inthe volunteer department with my paperwork in front of me, sneakinglooks at the other prospective candidates: a young white girl withher hair in braids, looking to earn college credit; a woman in her forties,also going for college credit; and a bald, muscular guy with a bigtense grin. When the volunteer coordinator asked him why he was interestedin volunteering, he grinned so hard he almost broke a sweat.“I love kids!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been a foster parent, and I’mreally . . . I love kids. Wanna help ’em out.” Grin, grin.Creep, I decided, for no good reason. Child molester. It was somethingabout the muscles; I could picture him shirtless, screaming athis foster kids while he made them do push-ups. He grinned at me,and I smiled back weakly.The volunteer coordinator put on a videotape about the shelter.“Our crisis center serves two to three thousand kids every year,” saidthe narrator. “Without us, they have few alternatives besides thestreets.” One black-and-white photo of a sober-faced kid dissolvedinto another: kids leaning against walls, kids lying curled up on thesidewalk. Then the happy kids, the shelter kids, in color, with smilesand graduation robes. The music swelled. “With your help,” the narratorurged, “we can make a difference in their lives. We can givethem more than just food and shelter—we can give them hope.”Had this place given me hope? I tried to remember. I rememberedthe food: white bread, cereal, and milk in the morning; bologna sandwichesfor lunch; meat loaf and mashed potatoes out of the box for dinner.SpaghettiOs, canned vegetables, vanilla pudding. Never enoughof any of it. I remembered the narrow metal bed frame, and thescratchy industrial sheets, and the bathroom I shared with six othergirls; I remembered the paneled drop ceiling over my bed. I rememberedthe three dollars a week they gave us for spending money, andhow every Friday night the counselors would open up the supply cabinetand hand out douches, one for every girl.I remembered the douches. I didn’t know if I remembered thehope.I frowned, trying to concentrate, but it was distracting, being backin the building again after all that time, the same building I’d dreadedand dreamed of for years after I left. That smell—cinder blocks andconstruction paper, the ragged, musty, wall-to-wall carpeting, theheat coming through radiators thick with cracked paint—it hit melike an old song. Right. The night I came here was windy, it was November;I was fifteen years old. I walked through those doors downstairs,went into that office I passed earlier, and talked to my very firstnun, who said, “You can stay here, for now, and we’ll find you a placeto live.”There was another nun on the videotape now, saying, “Your firstresponsibility with these young people is to listen. First and foremost,you have to listen to them, and you have to take what they say seriously.And they may not always be telling the truth—in many cases,they won’t be; they don’t know how. But even if you don’t believe thefacts of what they’re saying, you still have to believe in them, and believethat you will eventually get the facts. Believe in them, and listento them, and keep listening, and eventually they will tell you thetruth, and they will tell you how to help them, and how to teach themto help themselves.”Listen, I wrote in my notebook, and underlined it. That’s what thefirst nun did for me, the night I came here. She listened to me, andshe believed me.Now I remembered the hope.All the remembering was starting to overwhelm me; I was gettingdizzy from it, from the heat in the close room, crowded with extra dimensionsof time and space. It was nineteen years ago; it was today.It was in that stairwell right over there, three floors down, those girlswanted my eyeliner and I gave it to them. It was thick in here, the airswollen and static, and I knew from experience that the windowsdidn’t open. The Ghost of Janice Past was squirming on my lap.What are we doing here? she wanted to know. And when are we gettinga smoke?“These young people are suffering,” the nun on the tape continued.“Suffering from abuse, addiction, poverty, neglect . . .” I twistedin my chair, tugged the waistband of my pants, slipped my feet out ofmy shoes under the table and curled my toes. I could feel the baldguy grinning from two seats away. “Heightened risk of gang violence,prostitution, disease . . .” Oh god. Okay! We get it, all right? We’rehere! We’re here, and we’re going to stop all that bad stuff from happening,so let’s quit talking about it and get to work.Finally, the tape was over, and the volunteer coordinator switchedon the lights. “Are there any questions?” she asked.I slumped in my chair, wrung out. The grinning bald guy raisedhis hand and asked my question for me. “When can we start?”I was still flustered when I got back to my apartment that night, pacingthe living room with my three cats in tow, their tails crooked withcuriosity. I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids I’d seen: the younggirl waiting for the elevator with me, carrying her days-old baby,smaller than a loaf of bread; the two roughnecks on the corner, withtheir supersized jeans and their plasticized sneakers shaped likesteam irons—I was three feet away from them when I realized theyweren’t boys. The girl with the pink yarn in her braids, waiting downstairsin front of the intake office, singing softly to herself, that songfrom The Little Mermaid.I want to be where the people are . . .Ever since a few weeks ago, when I’d made up my mind to goback and volunteer, I’d been impatient to start making a difference,to start digging through that pile of needy kids and helping them, oneby one, until they were all good and helped, and I could relax again,knowing they were all right. Volunteering felt like something urgentI’d left undone, something I’d been putting off for years—like thenightmares I had sometimes, where I’d left the cats neglected andunfed for a week and was racing home to see if they were still alive.Now that I’d laid eyes on these kids, I was even more anxious to getback there to the shelter, to help, to listen and believe, as the nun onthe videotape had said.I plucked a half-smoked joint out of the ashtray and lit it, swallowinga deep drag and holding it in my lungs. Such an old habit, my potsmoking—the only vestige of my drug-addled adolescence. I’d quitall my other teenage habits long ago—cocaine, ecstasy, acid, thumbsucking—but now, in my thirties, I continued to smoke pot daily.Self-medicating, I told myself, against the leftover anxieties of a tumultuousyouth; after what I’d been through as a kid, I figured I wasentitled to smoke as much as I wanted. Besides, everyone said I wasthe most productive pothead they’d ever met—I could get up in themorning, run a few miles on the treadmill, then smoke half a jointbefore going to my editorial job; with a few drops of Visine in myeyes, it seemed that nobody was ever the wiser.I paced as I smoked, thinking maybe I’d call my boyfriend, Bill;he should have been home from work by then. I took another long hitoff the joint, put it back in the ashtray, and dialed his apartment inQueens.“Our hero returneth,” answered Bill, his chair squeaking in thebackground as he put his feet up on his desk. “So? How did it go?”I could hear him smiling at me over the phone, could feel it allthe way from Queens. Bill and I had been together for two years already,after meeting online, and I still couldn’t believe my luck infinding him, this smart, funny, nerdy, handsome guy who adoredme, whom I adored. I pictured him—his warm hazel eyes behindhis squared-off glasses, his broad shoulders, his long runner’slegs propped up on his desk next to a stack of comic books andMacworlds—and I wished we’d made plans for him to come overthat night.“Okay,” I said. “I mean, good. They said my application looked reallygood, and my recommendations were strong. So now I just haveto pass the criminal-background check, and then they can place meon a unit.”“Excellent,” he said, sounding very satisfied. “That’s great, Shmoo.”I flopped down on the sofa, disarmed as always by Bill’s support.Even after two years, it was still hard to get used to the idea that I hada partner I could lean on and trust, someone who responded to myplans and ideas with “That’s great, Shmoo,” instead of “Well, theonly problem with that is . . . ,” like the voice inside my head, likeevery jerk boyfriend I’d ever had.“I’m so proud of you,” continued Bill. “You feel good about it,right?”“Yeah, I feel good. I feel . . .” Tired. I felt tired all of a sudden, likeI’d run out of adrenaline, like it was three in the morning instead ofnine-thirty at night. “I just . . . I don’t know what I’m supposed to dofor these kids. I don’t know what the hell I think I’m doing. I’m not asocial worker, I’m just some person off the street.”Bill cut right through this, authoritative. “Babe, you’re more thanjust some person off the street. You lived there. Nobody’s going to understandthese kids better than you. And they’ll train you, right? Imean, once you’re placed on a unit”—he threw a little extra relish on“on a unit,” like I was going to work at Oz Maximum Security Prison,and I was buoyed for a second by his vicarious excitement—“I’m surethey’ll give you instructions, tell you how the whole system works.You’ll be—”“I wish you were here,” I said abruptly. “I love you and I miss youand I wish you were here.”He paused, restarted carefully. “I wish I was there too, Shmoo.”All I had to do, I knew, was ask Bill to move in with me, and hecould be there every night. I didn’t know why I was balking. He wasready to give up his lease in Queens; he was sick of schlepping hisovernight bag to work every other day, of trying not to let the milk inhis fridge go bad, of missing the three cats he and I had adopted togetheron nights he spent alone. Two years—that was more thanenough time to decide whether or not you wanted to move in withsomebody, especially in New York, where rent usually dictates thecourse of a relationship, and it’s not like I didn’t have enough room;I had more than enough. I just had to ask him, already.“Anyway,” I demurred, “I won’t know more until I hear from thiswoman Nadine, she’s the head of Older Females. And it might takeher a while; they’re really busy over there.”“I’m sure they are busy,” said Bill, and yawned. The desk chairsqueaked again; his feet landed back on the floor. “Listen, I’m goingto eat something, maybe throw on the hockey game—you want tocall me back before you go to sleep?”The nightly before-bed phone call—another amazing feature ofthe Bill and Janice deal. I was crazy for not asking him to move in. Irose from the couch, and the cat on my lap made an exasperatednoise. Me and my wanderlust.“Yeah, okay,” I told him. “I love you, Shmoo.”

Bookclub Guide

1. In Have You Found Her, Janice has returned as a volunteer to the shelter where she once lived. She also voluntarily accepts a great deal of responsibility for Sam’s care and well-being. How else does the theme of volunteering apply in this book? Some self-help books discuss the notion of “volunteering for victimhood.” Can either Sam orJanice be seen this way?2. Another theme of the book is addiction. Both Sam and Janice havedrug addictions, but they also exhibit other addictive behaviors. Canyou identify them? How do these other addictions affect their livesand the events of the story?3. Janice often mentions her own skin color, ethnic background, andeconomic class, as well as the color, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientationof the girls at the shelter. How do you think color, ethnicity,class, and sexuality play into the events of the story? Do you thinksuch issues are handled sensitively in this book?4. In the book, Janice admits to lying, taking drugs, and evading rulesa number of times. Does this influence your perception of her as a reliablenarrator? Why or why not?5. Janice is a writer, as is Sam. How do you think Janice’s being awriter affected the events of the story? Does this make her more or lessreliable as a narrator?6. Were you surprised by the conditions of the shelter as Janice describesthem? What do you think of the shelter system, and how doyou think it could be improved? What kinds of services do you thinkshould be available to homeless and addicted youths?7. Have you ever known someone like Sam? Is there anything abouther behavior that you recognize in other people, or even in yourself?How do you think her behavior differs from that of “normal” people?8. On page 336, Janice writes, “Something had happened in thathouse . . . something that had helped make Sam very, very sick.” Doyou agree with her assessment? Do you think Sam’s sickness is a productof her upbringing or do you think it is biological in nature? Areher parents responsible for making her the way she was?9. One title that was suggested for this book was “Sucker: A LoveStory.” Do you think that title is apt?10. What do you think happened to the redhead who panhandled onJanice’s block? What about the other graduates of the shelter? Whatkinds of outcomes do you imagine for these girls?