Family's Friday night odyssey returns `a beautiful son' home

This Just In...

October 21, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

THE BOY approached them in the rain on a Friday night in Towson, in a parking lot outside a restaurant set back in a strange, commercial/light-industrial area off Joppa Road. The boy said he had just come from the nearby roller rink and needed money for the bus ride home, and home was miles away in East Baltimore.

The couple had just come from dinner, their first night out in a long time. It was about 9 p.m. They had three children to pick up -- a teen-age girl at the movies, a teen-age son at a middle school mixer and a 10-year-old boy at a friend's house.

"What's your phone number?" the wife asked the boy. "I'll call your mom on the cell phone."

"We don't have a phone," the boy said.

"Well, what about your grandma?"

"She doesn't have a phone, either."

"Hop in, pal," the husband said. "I'll give you a ride to the bus stop."

The boy said his name was Donald, and that he was 9 years old. He had taken buses from his house on Eager Street to get to the roller rink. He had done this alone, the boy said, and the couple, both familiar with the local geography, were impressed with the amount of patience, determination and even courage a 9-year-old must have to pull this off -- to make a long bus trip alone to treat himself to some fun. Donald said the trip had taken three hours, and then he'd been in the rink for a while. But he had no money for the bus ride home.

"Somebody took my money," he said.

He told the couple where to take him to get the bus -- on Goucher Boulevard.

When they arrived there, the rain was heavy again, the bus shelter empty. "I can't leave you here, pal," the husband said, then offered to drive him home. "But first we have to pick up our three kids."

Donald was agreeable.

So the couple began a Friday night odyssey familiar to many couples with kids -- the 10 o'clock pickup run. First they drove to downtown Towson, which was busy and noisy, the wet streets full of scrambling college kids and groups of teen-age girls coming out of the movies. Donald sat in the back of the van and appeared mystified by all the excitement along York Road, near Towson Commons. The couple's 15-year-old daughter spotted her ride and quickly hopped in the van.

She was surprised to find Donald there, but immediately started chatting with him.

"We're giving Donald a ride home," her father said.

There were two more stops to make -- the next one up Dulaney Valley Road, past Pine Ridge Golf Course. As he drove the van, the dad kept an eye on Donald in the rear-view mirror. He knew the boy was being taken through unfamiliar territory -- that he might never have been on a bus beyond the Beltway -- and did not want him to be frightened.

The house where the couple's 10-year-old son had spent the afternoon and evening was huge, and set in a wooded area.

"This is spooky around here," Donald said, and everyone laughed.

The couple's son stepped into the van and got the same, quick introduction-explanation that his mother and father had given his sister. Then he sat next to Donald and tried to make conversation.

The next part of the trip took the family across Baltimore County, to Maryvale Preparatory School on Falls Road, for the last Friday night pickup.

Donald spoke of himself. He told the family he was in fourth grade at a public school in East Baltimore, and that he "used to play soccer," and that he'd "never been to summer camp," and that he lived with his mother on East Eager Street and that his older brother had been shot to death.

This last bit of personal history seemed unbelievable, even shocking, yet predictable and hopelessly sad and scary.

The couple explored the subject gently with Donald. They asked where it had happened ("On the steps of my mother's house") and when it had happened ("Last summer") and they got his big brother's name. (And two days later, they confirmed the boy's story; his 16-year-old brother had been shot in the head in June on his front steps, and police said the victim was not the gunman's intended target.)

At Maryvale Prep, the line of SUVs and vans was long and slow-moving, red taillights of the vehicles flashing off and on in the rain. The couple's 13-year-old son stepped into the van and got the quick intro-info on Donald.

"Are you hungry?" Donald was asked, and he said quietly that he was.

The van turned onto Seminary Avenue and pulled into the Royal Farms store by the light rail tracks there. The couple bought Donald a sandwich and a drink, and he ate it quickly, which made everyone pause and think about everything -- about how some of us live, fortunate and comfortable and secure, while others live hungry and desperate and sad.

The boy became very quiet during the ride down the Jones Falls Expressway and in minutes he fell asleep.

They drove far into East Baltimore, along Monument Street, past Johns Hopkins Hospital, and turned north for a few blocks, then onto Eager, past rowhouses, many of them abandoned and sealed with plywood, and buildings spray-painted with "R.I.P.," to the block and the decrepit house where Donald had said he lived. No wonder the boy had taken the bus to Towson, the dad of the van thought; who could blame him for wanting to get away from here?

"Come on, pal," the dad said as he opened the van door, "we got to get you in the house now."

A couple on the sidewalk recognized the sleepy boy and asked where he had been. The boy climbed the steps on which his older brother had been shot. A cat jumped through the damaged letter slot in the door. His mother opened the door. She was half asleep and in a robe. She seemed worried and excited, and expressed profuse gratitude to the stranger for bringing Donald home.

"Ma'am," the dad from the van said, "you have a beautiful son."

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