Excerpts from Extreme Change
Peter was still jittery when he waved goodbye to Beth and the kids at the departure gate for the flight to New York City and got on the plane. It wasn’t that he was afraid of flying. He only pretended to be and Beth went along with the charade. He could never admit to himself, let alone to her, that it was separation anxiety. The last glimpse of her caring smile was comforting and that’s the way she had been since the night they first met in his junior year at Michigan State University. As the plane waited its turn in the takeoff pattern, he sat back, remembering the memorable evening in 1995 that brought them together. A friend of his had dragged him to a party on the M.S.U. campus. He had been reluctant to go, but Bill kept goading him, threatening public disclosure of his shyness, so he attended, albeit apprehensively. From the moment Beth approached and offered him a drink, he felt an unaccustomed ease in her presence. She was one of the hostesses for her sorority, but somehow she always seemed to have a few minutes to spend with him. Her attention brought out a sense of humor and charm in him that he never displayed before.
It took several weeks until he was able to arrange another meeting with her, but after that Beth took charge of their relationship, a role that came naturally to her. Beth had grown up on a farm near Sault Ste. Marie, a small Michigan town near the Canadian border that was isolated by climate and geography. She was the youngest of five children and her four brothers fled the farm as soon as they were old enough for military service, or college. This left Beth a solitary farmhand from the age of fourteen on, until she graduated from Gerald. R. Ford high school when she was seventeen. M.S.U. meant freedom after the loneliness of the farm and she joined the social whirl and was swept away. Beth was barely five feet tall, but her body was firm from hauling sacks of feed for recalcitrant dairy cows that sometimes had to be shoved into stalls. Her light brown pageboy haircut framed an honest, open face that would light up from her inner glow. Her best feature, her eyes, were deep cups of cocoa that radiated empathy. She wasn’t a traditional beauty, but she attracted enough horny males and quickly learned that she didn’t want casual sex.
Peter was a refreshing change from the urgent demands that most of Beth’s dates presented. When she discovered that Peter only had two hands, rather than the normal four appendages of the heavy breathers, she decided that he was the right man for her. Peter had grown up in a tiny, backwater town near East Lansing, with the non-glittering prospects of working in the local diner or 7-11. The traditional way out was sports or brains and Peter just managed enough smarts to escape a dreary existence. He detested contact sports, but kept reasonably fit by jogging. He was tall and thin, with dark hair and pale skin. His features were neat and well formed, but he eluded handsomeness because of his lack of confidence. His innate shyness made him seem drab and he was virtually invisible to women seeking candidates for the mating ritual. Beth was the first woman to take an interest in him since the days of clumsy high school fumblings that had always ended awkwardly.
When Beth’s friends noticed that they had become an item they denigrated her choice, insisting she could do better. They didn’t understand that she felt comfortable with him. When they babbled about passion and wild sex, she smiled serenely; content with the warm satisfaction she felt with him and ignored their teasing. No matter how much they pressured her, they couldn’t change her mind. After a while, they took Beth’s relationship for granted and let her go her own way. Peter’s few friends demanded intimate sexual confessions that embarrassed him and he refused to answer. They pressed him for sizzling sexual details about Beth, but his constant refusal to speak made them forget about him.
Several confrontations with ‘Big M’ and his crew convinced Beth and Peter that it was time to move. Their downstairs neighbor, Millie Schwenka, who had become Beth’s good friend, packed her family and moved after a gang member attempted to molest her eleven-year-old daughter. Other good neighbors, including most of Beth’s piano pupils, felt threatened and moved. Beth and Peter searched frantically for an apartment in an acceptable neighborhood, but they couldn’t find anything affordable. Finally, in desperation, when they no longer felt safe going in or out of their building, they moved back to Mrs. Barzuska’s rooming house. She was delighted to welcome them back and rapidly became a doting, grandmother-like figure to the children. Beth, of course, was immediately re-recruited for the entertainment committee and Mrs. Barzuska generously had the piano tuned. The only benefit for Beth after losing her pupils was that she now had time to practice.
They took over a connecting room for the children, but it was still cramped, even though most of their things were in storage. Mrs. Barzuska went out of her way to make them feel at home and they were comfortable enough, despite living on top of each other. They had no luck in finding another apartment, but Beth was able to convince Peter to make the most of their circumstances. The neighborhood was secure, they could get to work easily and they didn’t worry about going for a walk with the children. More than a year went by without their having a definite plan for the future. They were never able to save money, but they were happy. Jennifer celebrated her fourth birthday and soon after Andrew was two years old. The rapid growth of the children astonished Peter and he brooded about how to improve his family’s way of life. He discussed his concerns with Beth and they decided to implement a weekly savings plan to amass enough money for an apartment. They started with the best intentions, but the children always needed something and unexpected expenses occurred. Then they received devastating news. At the end of the school year, Beth was informed that due to budget constraints, the music program would be cut back and she would be out of a job.
Jaime Perez crept up the fire escape as quietly as he could and stopped at the third floor. He leaned over the guard rail to the kitchen window that he had been told didn’t have a gate. He waited patiently to be sure that no one on the street had noticed him, while vapor from the cold steamed out of his mouth. He pressed his short, skinny, drug–ravaged body against the wall until he felt ready, then he took a metal tool from his pocket and stealthily pried the window open. He couldn’t hear any sounds from the dark apartment, so he carefully slipped over the rail and climbed inside. The landlord had assured him that they didn’t own a dog, so although still alert, he began to relax. The landlord had also carefully instructed him how to place paper next to the pilot light of the stove, run a paper strip to the nearest inflammable material and ignite it so it would appear to be an accident. There was a cardboard cake box on a table next to the stove and he ran the strip of paper to the box. He paused and listened intently, his body a menacing hulk in the darkness, then greedily opened the box. It was some kind of pound cake, not his favorite, like chocolate or pineapple, but better than nothing. He broke off a chunk with a gloved hand and stuffed it in his mouth, crumbs dribbling on the floor.
The landlord had insisted that he not take anything, but a piece of cake didn’t count. Besides, the greedy pig would never know. Jaime needed a hit on the crack pipe and the sugar from the cake would settle his jangling nerves. He silently cursed the landlord for a moment. He knew why the landlord wanted this family out. Then he could renovate the apartment cheaply and triple the rent. When the tenants rejected what must have been a low offer and other pressures failed, the landlord sent for him. Jaime was known as ‘the torch’ to a few pitiless landlords on the lower east side, whose lust for profit at the expense of decency was aroused by gentrification. He could smell the paper by the pilot light smoldering, so he lit a match, put it to the middle of the paper strip and made sure it was burning both ways. Then he slid out the window to the fire escape and closed it behind him.
Peter and Beth saw the cop get out of the patrol car and beckon to them. They were already getting used to bad news and they could tell from his expression that more was coming.
They herded the children in front of them and as they approached, Peter asked the cop
apprehensively, “Did you find out how to help us?”
Coro was a little embarrassed, “Officer Warren and I’ll take you to an Emergency Assistance Unit.”
Peter was confused. “What’s that?”
“It’s a temporary shelter and they’ll take care of you until you make other arrangements.”
“Where is it?” Beth asked.
“The Bronx? I don’t want to go there,” Peter blurted. “I’ve heard that it’s full of drug dealers and gangs. That’s why we left Detroit, to get away from that element.”
“There are a lot of nice places in the Bronx. You’ll be all right,” Coro said.
“Reading this book can make you uncomfortable, sick, or even angry, but it delivers its message in a sweetly melancholic style reminiscent of Dreiser.”
“A well-told and fascinating story with a serious message… Towards the end, the story really gripped me and became a real page-turner…”
“This is a finely crafted tale of how easy it is for a young family, in a seemingly secure situation, to quickly see their world fall apart around them…Extreme Change is a story with real depth, and an eye-opening view on what it is to be poor in the wealthiest country in the world.”