More than anything else, Tavon Johnson wants a mother, a father, sisters and brothers. But for now, the 18-year-old junior at Meade High School will have to settle for a makeshift family in which he plays most of the roles.
Tavon, who works part time at Michael's 8th Avenue in Glen Burnie, won custody of his 12-year-old half-brother, Gajuan Adams, last summer in an effort to bring some stability to their lives. Last week, they moved into a subsidized one-bedroom apartment operated by Sarah's House, a homeless shelter in Anne Arundel County.
Their fathers are in jail. Their half-sisters live with their grandmother in Baltimore. They can't find their mother.
"It's not so bad. I've been doing this since I was 13," Tavon said.
Tavon, who has been surrounded by drugs and confronted by homelessness much of his life, easily could have started down a path to jail or death, say the Anne Arundel County police officers who have taken an interest in him.
"Every door was being slammed in his face," said Officer Kyle Stargill, who met Tavon two years ago in Freetown Village, a public housing project in Pasadena. "Somewhere along the line, someone influenced him to go the right way."
It is difficult to tell, however, who that might have been as one pieces together Tavon's story from court records and interviews with him, his grandmother, his father, his stepfather and the police officers who know him and have become his friends and mentors.
Tavon was Yasmin Fairfax's first child, born in 1976 when she was 17. She and his father, Michael Johnson, had known one another since they were students at Highland Park Junior High School. For a time, they lived together in the Flag House Court project in East Baltimore. But Johnson was gone by the time Tavon turned 5.
Now, Johnson is serving time at the state's Pre-Release Unit in Jessup for convictions on drug charges and violation of probation.
Soon after Johnson departed, Anthony Adams, now 33, moved in. In 1982, Gajuan was born.
Ms. Fairfax's relationship with Adams didn't last long, either, but Tavon developed respect for the man he now considers his father. "He told me not to make the mistakes he made," Tavon remembered.
Adams is serving his second sentence for armed robbery at Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown.
While Tavon's friends became involved with drugs, he joined a Boy Scout troop that met at the project's recreation center every day after school. The troop formed baseball and football teams, took camping trips and did homework together. The troop leader, Stanley Smith, would ask the boys, "Have you ever heard of a drug dealer with a pension plan?"
Tavon got the message. "That phrase always stuck in my mind," he said.
But Tavon's mother began to use drugs when she and the boys moved into a rowhouse in the 800 block of Washington Ave. with a new boyfriend, friends and relatives said.
"She thought he was God's gift to the world. He was slick and dressed very good," Adams said in an interview.
But he also sold drugs, and when their relationship began to weaken, Ms. Fairfax began using drugs as a crutch, Adams said.
Life in the rowhouse was difficult. Because his mother would disappear for days, Tavon began skipping classes at Canton Middle School to care for Gajuan and his new half-sister, Takirra Patterson, born in 1988. He failed eighth grade, but learned to cook, creating his own version of spaghetti and meatballs: soup noodles topped with tomato sauce and chopped hot dogs.
Much of the time he was frightened, often by television news reports.
"On the news, we would hear about the police finding a black female, and we would say, 'Please don't let that be our mother,' " he said.
When his mother came home, she slept for days. And when she was awake, she and her friends jammed into the tiny kitchen to make drugs, he said.
For a time, the boys were shuffled among relatives until three years ago when they moved in with their mother's sister, Sharon Evans, in Freetown Village. It was the closest thing to a real family they had known.
"She took us shopping for school clothes. We went bowling and even won a drawing contest at Mondawmin Mall," recalled Tavon, a shy youth with a serious demeanor.
But Mrs. Evans had two children of her own and relationships in the small townhouse became strained as Tavon's mother, who now had a fourth child, Destiny, moved in and out. At one point, Adams moved in, determined to help the children.
Adams, who said he tried to keep house, watch the children and find a steady job, ran low on baby supplies, money and food. Adams said that in 1992, desperate, he got a gun from a friend and recruited one of Tavon's friends to help him rob someone.
"I wasn't looking for anyone in particular, I was in such a rage," he recalled. "I was going to get out and get some money. I was doing it for Tavon, Gajuan and Destiny."