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When inner-city poverty pulls families apart

By KRISTEN HELMORE / November 18, 1986

I live with my mother and my sister,'' says a 16-year-old girl. ``Where's your father?'' ``I don't know. Me and my sister got different fathers. My mother divorced my father when I was nine months old. I ain't seen him since.'' At the subway stop near Julia Richman High School in midtown Manhattan, a group of black teen-agers is waiting for the train back to Harlem. Asked about their families, each tells a similar story.

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``I live with my mother and my four brothers,'' says a young man. ``We got two different fathers. My father is deceased. She's divorced from the other one. I lived with my father for a good while, though.''

``Did you like that?''

``Yeah. That's better. Especially for a boy. A boy feels better being with his father. There's certain things he can talk to his father about -- man to man.''

``My parents is not married,'' says another boy. ``But I live with both of them. I have one sister someplace, but I never seen her. I ain't been home in a while.'' he eyes his listener, apparently enjoying the shock value of his next remark. ``I been upstate in jail.''

``I live with my mother and my grandmother and my little brother,'' says a girl. ``My parents never married each other. I see my father once in a while.''

``What does your father do?''

``He never did tell us that. My mother got married to my stepfather but now they getting a divorce. My stepfather's very nice. My real father never did take time out for me.''

``I live with my mother,'' says another girl. ``I have three stepbrothers and a stepsister. My parents ain't never been married. I see my father every weekend. He lived with us when I was little, but my mother likes being by herself.''

``How about you? Do you plan to get married someday?''

``No, I don't want to get married. I don't like being with just that one person, obeying that person. I don't want no husband because of the way men are these days.''

``How are they?''

``They're hoodlums. They take a girl to the movies and expect everything from them. They roam the streets. They sell dope. They get a girl pregnant but they don't take care of the baby. I do want children, though -- I want two girls.''

In low-income black communities across the nation, it is not unusual to hear of fragmented families like these. Call up a Harlem mother on the phone: You may hear a man's angry shouting in the background. Stop a Harlem father pushing a stroller: You may be told that, while he spends time with his son each day, he and the child's mother don't live together and don't get along. Ask almost anyone you meet in Harlem whether they know any couples with intact marriages, and chances are the answer will be no. Mike, a 22-year-old who works downtown as a messenger, put it this way: ``Getting married is not in the style no more. It's more in style to be a playboy.''

Nannie Bookings lives in Washington. At 24, she is the mother of five children, fathered by two different men, neither of whom married her. The first man, she says, was ``not ready'' for marriage. When she describes what went wrong with the second, lack of communication emerges as the key.

``With that guy,'' says Nannie, ``I guess I was for show or something. That was the only time he needed me, when I was for show. There was no talking. He would watch TV or sleep. I was just there to take care of his kids and cook and whatever. As far as a talking relationship or anything like that -- we didn't have one.''

Despite these frustrations, Nannie wanted to make the relationship work.

``I want somebody I can trust. He knew it and he took advantage. He played around. I'm not for that. If I say I'll be your girlfriend, that's what I mean: be his. He can trust me fully. I was there for him and the children. I didn't feel trapped or nothing. I liked it. Everything was just fine till I started to need him. I'd get lonely or something, the kids'd be asleep and I'd have a couple of hours' free time. I'd want to sit and talk to him or something -- watch TV together, or sit on the front. He was never there for that. He could be home, but he'd be in his own little world.''

Nannie's situation is a common one. She could be almost anybody, anywhere.