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Struggling In A Wealthy Town

For Low Wage Earners Like Temika Black, Finding Success Is One Step Up and Two Steps Back

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"Hey, who did you vote for?" one of the school employees yelled across the parking lot.

"I'm not telling you who I voted for," Black answered.

"Tell me and I'll make sure your kid gets into East Meck," the man teased.

"My kid is going to East Meck whether you say she can or not," she replied, not angry, just patient and certain of how it would be.

Every now and then, Black gets together with her girlfriends to "play pool and act like fools." She loves dancing and all kinds of music, from jazz to hip-hop to classical. Unlike her friends from her days in the streets, Black's new friends are women claiming their places in the professional world.

"I'm a professional, too," Black is quick to point out.

Even though it's been 10 years since he died, Black still talks to her father. On his birthday, she goes to Oaklawn Cemetery with her grandparents. They celebrate his life, and before they get in the car to go home, they put a piece of birthday cake on the grave.

"I did exactly what he asked me to do," Black says. "He sees me now."

Her mother is proud of her. "We grew up together, and I made some mistakes," Williams says, then her voice gets thick with emotion. "My daughter has made a serious difference in my life."

Black has just reached three years' sobriety, a recovery "birthday," but the man she had planned to marry is in Pennsylvania, still powerless over his own addiction. "He's not sober, and I don't want that in my life," she says. "And I don't want a relationship until I get back on my feet."

Catching a ride to work one day, Black sees a For Rent sign on a little brick house on a hill. She asks to pull over. Some men are working on the place. "How much is the rent?" she leans across the driver and asks through the open window.

"Eight hundred a month."

"Eight hundred? Whose house is this?"

The man walks closer to the car, tells her the owner's name. "But he'll take Section 8," he says, then gets a look at Black. "I'll pay half," he offers.

Her expression is hard to read. Is she flattered? Not likely; she's heard this kind of talk plenty of times before.

"What's your name?" he asks.

"Temika."

"Hey, Temika. . ."

Just then a car comes over the hill too fast and startles everyone. The conversation ends.

While she dreams of having her own place, for now she and her kids will stay in the apartment complex where they've lived since Black completed treatment three years ago. There's no washer, dryer or dishwasher, but the apartment has air-conditioning and Black has hung lace curtains on the windows and family portraits on the walls.

At her job with the Building Bridges Initiative, she's earning about $380 twice a month before taxes. Her rent is subsidized, but if her income continues to go up, so will her rent. Already the food stamp money has decreased from $436 a month to $318. Regardless, Black states firmly, "Everything is starting to balance out." She has a savings account, and a plastic Bank of America card to prove it. Just having the card in her wallet gives her a good feeling.

On her days off, she catches up on her sleep, cleans house, and cooks big, family-style Southern meals. Sometimes it's canned salmon fried into patties and served with grits; sometimes it's chicken, greens and potato salad. Last week's trip to the Family Dollar store for paper goods, toiletries and cleaning supplies ­ items you can't buy with food stamps ­ cost $74.80.

The total amount she spends on this grocery shopping trip is $262.96, which includes store discounts of $34.03. Without being told, the kids help unpack and put away the groceries. In the months when she has enough money left over, Black will ride with a friend to the Westside Meat Center, which sells a pre-priced, $126-package of assorted meats that the family can stretch to last for several weeks.

On this shopping day, it's 3 o'clock before Black can stop long enough to eat some lunch, and the headache she's had since morning finally starts to loosen its grip.

Blessings

Over a meal of sausage, eggs, potatoes and biscuits, she asks the blessing. "Father God, we thank You for this food. . ."

She's supposed to go to court over child support with one daughter's father. She doesn't sound bitter or angry when she says, "I get tired of going down there." And even when she does get angry, she doesn't cry. "I'm tired of wasting my tears. I want to cry tears of joy," like she did when a niece learned the sign language to R. Kelly's inspirational song, "I Believe I Can Fly."


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