Reading Between the Lines

Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss, and Redemption

John Prendergast has worked most of his life fighting for the betterment of others, but found himself in trying situations early on. Luckily, he found meaning and purpose through mentoring a child from the tough streets of Washington, D.C. In his new book, Unlikely Brothers, Prendergast and his “little brother,” Michael Mattocks, recall their winding journey through poverty, violence, and loneliness. Prendergast visits Zócalo on July 19th to discuss how mentor-mentee relationships can change lives for the better.

Michael Mattocks

Those Hefty bags, man, I’ll never forget that. We must have stayed in every shelter in the District of Columbia twice over.

There was one shelter at Fourteenth and N, right across the street from a big- ass church. It was a townhouse, red brick, and there was a big room on the top floor with lots of cots in it. This white dude named John Kaiser kind of ran the place. He wore shorts and flip-flops and had a room off to the side that wasn’t much better than ours. He slept in a sleeping bag on a ratty old couch with his cool Russian girlfriend named Kashi. I remember he used to let me and James look for coins in the sofa cushions.

One day me and James go tearing in there-I was about seven, James six-and there’s this other white dude in there. He was tall and wiry, with kind of rough skin on his face and a short beard that ran around the bottom of his chin. Right away I could tell this white man was different. I was used to grownups towering over me and kind of talking down at me, but this guy got down on the floor by me and James so his eyes were at our own level. And he used a different voice than other grownups used, not like he was telling us to do something- or stop doing something- but like he was interested in what we had to say. Man, he was full of questions! “What’s your name?” “How many brothers and sisters you got?” “Where do you go to school?” “What’s your favorite subject?” “You like basketball?” I’d answer one, and he’d be off to the next. I’d never had a grownup so interested in me before; it was kind of funny. Then I remember he asked me a really weird question. He said, “Do you know how to read?”

Read? I was only seven years old! So this white dude, a guy I never saw before, asks if me and James want to go to the library, that minute, and learn how to read.

That was how I met J.P. I guess he asked my mom if he could take us out, and when I think about it, it’s strange she said yes. I mean, she didn’t know this white dude either. He was just some stranger, and he could have taken us anywhere. She liked John Kaiser, though, and trusted him. If this white dude was a friend of his, then he must be okay. Next thing I knew, him and me and James were out there onto Fourteenth Street together.

It was all whores up there back then, and man, some of them were fine! Little as I was, I used to love sitting out there on the stoop and watching them. J.P. asked us if we’d eaten that day, and I’m sure we probably had, but it probably hadn’t been anything but cereal, or peanut butter on bread, or some chips. We was always ready to eat, and J.P. took and got us a McDonald’s. Then we walked up to this little library they had up there. Not the big Martin Luther King library; I guess it was a branch. In a townhouse. Beautiful inside there, and quiet in a way I wasn’t used to. Like, thick quiet. J.P. sat there with us going through books, trying to teach us how to read. We hunched over the books, J.P.’s finger sliding along under the words, and I’d steal little glances sideways. His face was down close to mine, with that rough skin all over it. He’d be all focused on the book, and on me, like nothing else existed in the world. I remember thinking: Who is this white dude? Why is he doing this? Why does he care?

John Prendergast

John’s shelter was a tall townhouse. The street outside was raucous. Back then on Fourteenth Street, right there on the corner of that homeless shelter, the prostitutes openly paraded their wares while other people offered all kinds of illicit paraphernalia for sale. The top floor was almost entirely one big room full of beds; John had a small room of his own in the corner. He and his Russian girlfriend, Kashi, shared that same ratty sleeping bag from his days at Georgetown on a couch that was covered with cat hair and cigarette burns; he hadn’t changed a bit. It was great seeing him still involved in the struggle, trying to bring some peace and dignity to people who were temporarily without a home. The Reagan Revolution was in full budget- cutting flower at this point, and John and I immediately launched into an intense discussion about the infuriating indignities we felt it was inflicting on poorer households- both the withdrawal of funding for services and also the chronic demonization of poor people as lazy and immoral. We were thick into our discussion when suddenly two tiny boys came tearing into John’s room like a pair of little tornadoes. The older one was seven; he had a big round caramel- colored face and the brightest and widest eyes I’d ever seen. The younger one, six, was skinny and darker, and he didn’t move more than three inches from the side of his big brother. My friend John made them slow down a second and introduce themselves. “Michael,” the big one said, pointing to his own chest with a pudgy finger. “This is James, my brother.”

He ain’t heavy, father.

They asked John if they could look through his sofa cushions for dropped change, to which he said yes, and they went at it like a couple of gold miners.

I’d been around a lot of kids by then. I’d met children from all sorts of backgrounds at the shelters in Philadelphia and New York, in the projects during my freshman year at Georgetown, and coaching youth basketball teams. Up until then, the kids were never fully three-dimensional individuals to me, but instead they were symbols of something bigger- of poverty, of the inadequate way city governments delivered services, of rotten school systems, of absent fathers. This day, though, I found myself staring at these two little boys as though encountering something entirely new. A light came off them-particularly off the older one, Michael-that just about blinded me. He seemed to glow with a cheerfulness and optimism that was totally counterintuitive given his circumstances. I mean, these boys had nothing and yet radiated with life and sunshine.

As they rooted around in the couch, John took me out into the main room to meet their mother, Denise. She was pretty, and she had a certain dignified air about her, but she also seemed as overwhelmed and exhausted as anyone I had ever met. Their things were strewn around their cots, spilling out of big black Hefty bags that they’d obviously been living out of and lugging through the streets.

By the time we got back to John’s room, the boys had started shooting hoops with balls of paper into the trash can, interspersed with vigorous wrestling. It was like watching a couple of lion cubs rolling around on each other. Here I’d been studying the effects of poverty on children and these two seemed utterly unaffected by it. The word that comes to mind is undefeated; they were completely joyful in the moment. I sat down on the floor to bring my face down to their level, and when Michael turned that big moon face of his at me, it was like a burst of unexpected sunshine.

I began doing the thing my dad used to do-firing questions. “Do you go to school? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite TV show? What’s your favorite basketball team? What’s your favorite football team? What’s your favorite baseball team? Why? Why do you like them? Who’s your favorite player?” Questions, questions, questions- it didn’t even matter what they were, just a constant stream of stimuli in the hopes of getting something back. Michael, the older one, was very sparkly and eager to please. It was clear he loved having all this adult attention turned on him. He was a little bewildered, but he did his best to keep up. James, on the other hand, hung back. He was more wary, and a little sneakier too. He tried to get his little hand into my pocket. Then he took a pair of scissors from John’s desk. Not bad things, really. Just sneaky.

“Hey,” I heard myself say. “You guys know how to read?”

They lit up and laughed as though I was Bill Cosby, their faces a riot of pink tongues and white teeth. I may as well have asked them if they could fly. “I’m serious,” I said. “If you want, I’ll take you to the library and teach you to read.”

“Right now?” Michael piped, his eyes wide, and I thought, well, sure. Why not? Why not right now? I walked out into the main room and found Denise.

“Is it okay with you if I take the boys out for a little while?” I asked. “I thought I’d take them over to the library and teach them a little bit about reading.”

She looked up at me with eyes so exhausted they seemed varnished, and I could see her making all the calculations: Who is this white man? What’s he want with my boys? She’d have seen a wiry guy with a rough, pock-marked face hidden by a sharply trimmed dark beard. She also, apparently, saw something she trusted.

She knew my buddy John; he’d been kind to her. And maybe my suggestion that I, a perfect stranger, immediately take her kids to read at the library was so strange that no self- respecting kidnapper or child molester would think of such a thing. She agreed to let me take the boys for a few hours. Michael and James scampered down the stairs two at a time. Something different! Something new! We didn’t so much walk to the library as play our way there. Who can jump up and touch that sign? Who can leap frog over the fire hydrant? Who can find a leaf with the most red in it? Who can walk backward the farthest without falling down? I was being my dad-every kid’s clown. They were so hungry for play that we’d finish up one little game and they’d be, “What’s next? What’s next?”

The nearest library was a pretty little branch office in a brownstone, and I got down on one knee to explain that we couldn’t play in there, that it’s a library where people go to read quietly. I was a little nervous taking them in there; they were so busy and noisy and full of energy. I figured it would take about two minutes for us to get thrown out. But the two of them-tiny little guys, holding hands-walked in there like explorers happening on some elaborate underground golden temple. Their eyes rolled around as we tip- toed through, utterly rapt at all the books, the shiny polished wood, the immaculate, learned silence that enveloped the room. I sat them at a table and retrieved a picture book, and they fixated on it as though it was a magical artifact from another dimension. The boys had to have seen books in school, but I got the impression that nobody had ever sat with them and thoroughly directed their attention into one. They turned the pages with their mouths hanging open, visibly dumbstruck by some of the stories I was reading them.

I started teaching them how to sound out the letters, and it was a whole new game for them. If I expected them to resist, I couldn’t have been more wrong, because making sounds out of the squiggles on the page was as fresh and fun as crab walking on the grass or playing “I Spy.” Watching them puzzling over how a t and an h together make that hissing sound, or the way one makes an o with one’s lips when making the sound of the letter, I felt as though I was watching a fast- motion film of seeds landing on fertile earth, germinating and sprouting into green shoots. Michael and James had such fresh, ready, unspoiled minds- despite what must have been such a disorienting and sometimes harrowing experience as living from shelter to shelter-that my heart began banging around inside my chest. Until this moment, I’d been focused on the problems of poverty, and I hadn’t allowed myself to think about actual solutions for real people. But watching Michael and James, I found myself thinking: Anything is possible.

I was taking them page by page through a children’s book. I felt lucky that I could introduce them to a world of pictures and words that had fired my imagination when I was their age. On one page was a picture of a family standing outside their house, and before I could turn to the next, Michael slapped his plump little hand down on it. “I’m going to get my mom a house,” he said in a low tone I hadn’t heard before. I look over at him, and his face had utterly changed. His eyebrows, which had ridden excitedly around his hairline all day, were scrunched down around his nose. He looked, suddenly, like a tiny grownup. “Someday soon, I’m going to buy my mom a house and take care of our family.”

“Michael,” I said. “You’re just a kid.”

“That don’t matter,” he said. He looked at the picture a long time, and then slowly turned the page. His face relaxed, the eyebrows floated up. After another couple of pages, he was back to his smiley self, and that dark little interlude might never have happened.

From there I took them to McDonald’s to fill up their bellies for a couple bucks, which is probably all I had in my pocket at the time, and then back to the shelter. They thundered up the stairs yelling to their mother about all the things they’d done, and I went in to John’s room to say goodbye. Before I could leave, Michael came bouncing over and grabbed my hand. “When you coming back?” he asked, his shiny face tilted up toward mine. “When we doing this again?”

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

Excerpted from Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss, and Redemption, by John Prendergast and Michael Mattocks. Available from Crown Publishing, a member of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 2011.

Photo courtesy of Chris Havard-Berge.