Andrea Elliott’s New York Times Invisible Child series (photographs by Ruth Fremson) gets more heartbreaking by the day as it chronicles the life of a family consigned to a hellish homeless shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Wednesday’s chapter reads like a novel, with the remarkable 11-year-old Dasani experiencing inexplicable hardships (losing a home on Staten Island), inconsolable losses (having her grandmother’s ashes stolen from the Auburn Family Residence), and inconceivable setbacks (getting suspended from school for defending herself in a fight).
The next day, [her mother] Chanel escorts Dasani to school. In the hallway, she spots the girl Dasani fought in the park. “You can fight my kid,” she says hotly, taking the girl by surprise. “I’m with that.”
Minutes later, the principal, Paula Holmes, sits Dasani down. “I believe you can change, but you’re not showing me that,” she says.
Dasani returns to class feeling jaunty. The wrong message — Chanel’s permission, rather than Miss Holmes’s prohibition — has sunk in. “I’ma fight you,” she tells another girl. “My mother said she’ll let me fight.”
With that, Dasani is suspended.
Miss Holmes knows it is a risky move, but nothing else has worked. The girl needs to be shocked out of her behavior. The alternative is to fail in school and beyond.
“Get your things and leave,” Miss Holmes tells her.
Dasani will be out of school for a whole week. She cannot speak.
To be suspended is to be truly homeless.
And then there are the unexpected triumphs.
On the Brooklyn block that is Dasani’s dominion, shoppers can buy a $3 malt liquor in an airless deli where food stamps are traded for cigarettes. Or they can cross the street for a $740 bottle of chardonnay at an industrial wine shop accented with modern art.
Dasani is hardly conversant in the subject of libations, but this much she knows: A little drink will take off her mother’s edge. Without further ado, Chanel heads into the wine shop on Myrtle Avenue, trailed by four of her eight children. They are lugging two greasy boxes of pizza and a jumbo pack of diapers from Target.
The cashier pauses. The sommelier smiles.
“Wanna try a little rosé?” she asks brightly, pouring from a 2012 bottle of Mas de Gourgonnier. “I would describe it as definitely fruit forward at the beginning.”
Chanel polishes it.
“But really crisp, dry, refreshing ——”
“Not refreshing,” Chanel says. “I just think dry.”
“No, it’s very dry,” says the sommelier, a peppy blonde in wire-rim glasses. “It’s high acid, a little citrusy.”
Chanel sticks out her tongue. She finds the woman’s choice of words unappetizing. To the side of the wine display is a large, silver vase that recalls the family urn, prompting Chanel’s son Khaliq to ask if it contains the ashes of a dead person.
“Oh my gosh, for cremation?” the sommelier asks, shaking her head. “We just use it for spitting in.”
“For spitting?” Chanel says with horror.
“Yeah, it’s got rejected wine in it,” the sommelier says.
Chanel scoffs. She might not like the wine, but she sees no reason to spit it out. She moves on to a Tuscan sangiovese.
Ignoring the spectacle, Dasani scans the room, frowning at a sign on the wall: Liqueur. “They got liquor spelled wrong,” she yelps victoriously.
Actually, the sommelier interjects, that is the French word for the delicate, liquid spirits derived from fruits such as pomegranates and raspberries. “But you’re very right,” she offers sweetly. “That is not how you spell liquor.”
“Not the hood liquor,” Chanel says.
God, this series hurts.