Longform

Myths Over Miami

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The secret stories say the angel army hides in a child's version of an ethereal Everglades: A clear river of cold, drinkable water winds among emerald palms and grass as soft as a bed. Gigantic alligators guard the compound, promptly eating the uninvited. Says Phatt: "But they take care of a dead child's spirit while he learns to fight. I never seen it, but yes! I know it's out there" -- he sweeps his hand past the collapsing row of seedy motels lining the street on which the shelter is located -- "and when I do good, it makes their fighting easier. I know it! I know!"

All the Miami shelter children who participated in this story were passionate in defending this myth. It is the most necessary fiction of the hopelessly abandoned -- that somewhere a distant, honorable troop is risking everything to come to the rescue, and that somehow your bravery counts.

By the time homeless children reach the age of twelve, more or less, they realize that the secret stories are losing some of their power to inspire. They sadly admit there is less and less in which to believe. Twelve-year-old Leon, who often visits a Hialeah day-care center serving the homeless, has bruised-looking bags under his eyes seen normally on middle-aged faces. He has been homeless for six years. Even the shelters are not safe for him because his mother, who is mentally unstable, often insists on returning to the streets on a whim, her child in tow.

"I don't think any more that things happen for some great, good God plan, or for any reason," he says. "And I don't know if any angels are still fighting for us." He pauses and looks dreamily at the twilight sky above the day-care center. "I do think a person can dream the moment of his death. Sometimes I dream that when I die soon, I'll be in some high, great place where people have time to conversate. And even if there's no God or Heaven, it won't be too bad for me to be there."

Research by Harvard's Robert Coles indicates that children in crisis -- with a deathly ill parent or living in poverty -- often view God as a kind, empyrean doctor too swamped with emergencies to help. But homeless children are in straits so dire they see God as having simply disappeared. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam embrace the premise that good will triumph over evil in the end; in that respect, shelter tales are more bleakly sophisticated. "One thing I don't believe," says a seven-year-old who attends shelter chapels regularly, "is Judgment Day." Not one child could imagine a God with the strength to force evildoers to face some final reckoning. Yet even though they feel that wickedness may prevail, they want to be on the side of the angels.

When seven-year-old Maria is asked about the Blue Lady, she pauses. "When grownups talk about her, I think she get all upset," Maria slowly replies. She considers a gamble, then takes a chance and leans forward, beaming: "She's a magic lady, nice and pretty and smart! She live in the ocean and comes just to kids."

She first appeared to Maria at the deserted Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, which Maria calls "the pink haunted house." A fierce storm was pounding Miami that night. Other homeless people who had broken in milled about the building's interior, illuminated only by lightning. Her father was drunk. Her mother tried to stop him from eating the family's last food: a box of saltines. "He kept hitting her and the crazy people started laughing. When I try to help her, he hit me here" -- Maria points to her forehead. "I tried to sleep so my head and stomach would stop hurting, but they kept hurting." A blast of wind and rain shattered a window. "I was so scared. I pray out loud: Please, God, don't punish me no more!"

An older boy curled up nearby on a scrap of towel tried to soothe her. "Hurricanes ain't God," he said gently. "It's Blue Lady bringing rain for the flowers." When Maria awoke late in the night, she saw the angel with pale blue skin, blue eyes, and dark hair standing by the broken window. Her arms dripped with pink, gold, and white flowers. "She smiled," Maria says, her dark eyes wide with amazement. "My head was hurting, but she touched it and her hand was cool like ice. She say she's my friend always. That's why she learned me the hard song." The song is complex and strange for such a young child; its theme is the mystery of destiny and will. When Maria heard a church choir sing it, she loved it, but the words were too complicated. "Then the Blue Lady sang it to me," she recalls. "She said it'll help me grow up good, not like daddy."

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Lynda Edwards