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Adverse Conditions

C.W. Post's Ian Smart and his mother, Joyceline, have endured more than most

October 13, 2002

Our first hurdler jogged around the corner to the neighbors with a bullet in her hip just after her husband shot her one night in 1986. Uncertainty pushed her heavy legs; his face gave no clue whether he'd shoot again.

She wore the bullet maybe a few weeks, and he'd call the hospital to check on her. She finally supplied instructions:

"Next time, tell him I'm dead."

Joyceline Smart never competed in track hurdles, but let's not dwell on technicalities. Even at 48 as she watches the second of her five children, Ian, ring up storybook football yards for C.W. Post on New York's Long Island ... even as she cheers with the $20 horn she bought at a reggae show in Manhattan ... even as she knows her son will thrive as a teacher or maybe even an employee of the NFL ... she's every bit a hurdler.

Has life thrown you this much distress?

Born the second of 14 children in Jamaica, she spent weekends of youth washing and ironing siblings' clothes. But first she'd have to heat the iron. In a coal stove.

As a 16-year-old, she weathered appendicitis.

In 1986, she left her husband -- with ample cause.

One night in 1990, right there in the kitchen, she drank some milk, got something like a cramp in the gut and crumbled to the floor. "I could not move," she said, "and it was getting worse."

It wasn't just that she had given birth six weeks before. Nor that she had to spend seven days in the hospital for hernia surgery. It was that she came home to an eviction notice, the last thing you'd want after hernia surgery.

So she rented a U-Haul, loaded it up, retreated to a friend's place in Brooklyn and spent the next two months slogging across a long island taking three children to school.

Money remained scarce, so the power company visited her house in North Babylon one morning in August 1998. She pleaded; they proceeded -- to shut off the switch. She spent a fruitless afternoon explaining her situation at various offices. As she lay on the living room floor that night for a rare nap, she woke around 11:30 to the holler of a house guest.

"Mrs. Smart! Mrs. Smart! Fire! Fire!"

A candle had toppled; "the whole place was orange," she said. She snared her 6-month-old daughter and scurried down the stairs to the front yard. "I could hear windows popping out and fire going up through the roof." She stood and watched, then realized Ian remained in the house. She began screaming until her friend assured her he had left much earlier with a friend while she slept.

Almost everything burned: photographs, clothes, Ian's football and track awards from North Babylon High. "Even my car keys burned up," she said. "I couldn't move the car. My pocketbook. My license. My green card. Everything." Soon she began the wrenching process of sifting through burnt belongings, saving photographs by snipping burned edges.

Her friend Peggy offered refuge. But Joyceline Smart couldn't bring herself to invade someone else's house or go to a shelter, so for two months she lived in her green Nissan Maxima.

The house guest, a friend from childhood, often rode with her. Her 6-month-old daughter, Zenobia, would sleep in the back seat. One daughter and one son stayed at a neighbor's house. Ian slept for a while in his yellow Hyundai. North Babylon raised some money for the family. And Mrs. Smart would park at a 24-hour laundromat to get her sleep.

Well, try to. Matter-of-factly, she says, "I don't think I sleep. Ever. The last time I fell asleep, my house burned down. I never sleep."

She moved to Wyandanch, N.Y., but one recent Sunday morning, Ian found her on her cell phone in nearby Patchogue.

"Patchogue?" Pause. "Mom, why are you killing yourself?"

She had found weekend work at a nursing home -- nurse's assistant -- to complement her other job at another nursing home.

She'll come home after midnight and sit up nights sorting mail and dozing off for a few minutes -- and then it's daybreak and time to take her father for his cancer treatments.

Sometimes she forgets to eat. One day, she sat first in line at a red light in Central Islip. When she awakened moments later, she watched the light turn from green to red, all the cars still behind her.

"Sometimes I say, 'What am I doing wrong?' I always ask myself that question. I say, 'Am I doing something wrong?' because I always work so hard, I always try, and I'm not getting anywhere. It doesn't make sense. So I just leave it alone. If I worry about it, I just have a headache."

Holding on to Hope

Our second hurdler is listed at 5-9, built as enviably as an Oregon tree, eight years after showing up for North Babylon track practice as a ninth-grader and saying, "Coach, can I hurdle?"

"No" was Kurt Langer's answer, and that was that, except that moments later, a senior walked up and said, "Coach, he can three-step," a reference to the magic path to hurdling.

"What do you mean?"

"He's over there three-stepping."

Langer revised: "Son, you're a hurdler."

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