Esther Crighton looks considerably older than her 48 years. Two husbands walked out on her after she gave birth to their children. She had a child by a man she never identifies. Her first child was born when she was 16, her second at 18. She hasn't seen the inside of a school room from the time she first learned she was pregnant. She has been on welfare, worked, then returned to welfare when the doctors told her she had breast and uterine cancer.
She knows precisely why she gets the best medical care that money can buy, while her friends wait out the long hours in hospital emergency rooms. She long ago dispensed with any moral conflicts about her son's activities, taking without evident shame a sizeable portion of his profits. She won't say the exact amount of his earnings. It is enough to know that he is a 12-year-old drug dealer earning, on average, more than $300 a day.
I rarely visit Esther Crighton's house without noticing some change. Blinds on the windows, a new couch with dazzling yellow throw pillows, brass flower pots, fresh plants. There are television setsin every room, including the bathroom. From our visits, I recall six different tea sets. I have been graciously served from them all.
"I know what you want to hear from me," she told me once, with some bitterness in her normally gentle voice. "You're looking for some word from me that I disapprove. I should take the boy by the collar and jam him up against that wall and say, 'That's it with the drug act. You just bring down the curtain or I'm the one going to call the police.' That's what you're waiting for, right? Well, I did that routine for months. Threw him up against the wall,told him there will be no more of this.
"I have a son in prison. Boy stole cars from the time he was 10, court said. Used to make that trip up there to see him. No more. I don't want any of that no more.
"So yeah, I threw the boy against the wall more than a couple of times, only now that wall has been painted three different times with money he provided me. Finished my floors too. We're not talking Mop n' Glo here, we're talking hardwood floors like people are supposed to have. Lamps and curtains and blinds. And when I want to make a change like rich ladies do every day, I have a man who says to me, 'Do what you want. I'll pay for it.'
"I got one breast left, no uterus, and we're waiting around to see where the cancer's going to grow in me next. No one's foolish enough to believe that material things ever going to make up for lost mothers and fathers who wouldn't even hit you to let they know you loved you, and husbands and children, and a son in prison. But it's funny how those material comforts can make a person feel real good. Maybe they take your mind off the fact that people are laying bets on where your cancer's showing up next. Or maybe you pretend you're somebody, clicking all those TV sets like they were going out of style. Maybe I just like to sit in soft chairs and put my magazines on new tables with perfect wax finishes on 'em.
"That sound so wrong? All that supposed to be reserved only for certain people?
"This is America in this house right now for the first time ever. If you can pay for something, then you go out and pay for it. Everything you see in this house is paid for. I don't owe a dime to anyone. No one asks; it's nobody's business. No one asks anybody how they got their money.
"Do I enjoy it? You better believe I enjoy every day to the last second watching Mr. Letterman on a 27-inch TV.
"All this comes from grown men and women getting high on a drug I will not let come into my house? You want to call me a hypocrite, be my guest. You ever notice how when people look at other people and see they have all these things, they stay away from 'em and let 'em live their own lives? They respect you. And you know why? Because you have earned what you are supposed to earn.
"You tell folks you hated your father, never had a family, lost babies, live with cancer, they feel sorry for you, maybe, but they don't respect you. Pretty soon they'll get tired of you 'cause you have nothing good to bring 'em, just complaining. but you tell 'em, like I told my friends at the hospital where I used to work, why don't you come over, watch the Super Bowl with me? You know what they said? 'How big's your TV set?' I told 'em it's as big as it gets, and damn if I didn't have 13 people sitting in this house watching the Super Bowl. They respected me. It came right out of the TV set. That's the way it works.
"Super Bowl Sunday, my son sits with me, lets me hold his hand. We don't say a word, just watching San Francisco do its thing. But he knows when I worry about my cancer. He knows what I'm getting away from. So, if the stuff he sells makes it possible, then I have made my peacewith it.
"Cocaine. I hate the word. But it's the way me and my son get on the big train. We're riding on it now. First class. We'll ride it til they catch us, or the damn train goes and slides off the track."
Without warning. Esther Crighton has begun to cry. "This play will come to no good end," she says. "He'll never survive out there, and I can't stop the train now. It wouldn't do no good if I gave it all back. But I know like a mother always knows. I feel in my heart, I'll outlive my boy."
" Esther Crighton " is not the real name of the subject of this article.