Of the three radio interviews I did for my story in The Boston Review “A World On Fire: Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat” this one is my favorite. First off because it features the beautiful voice and memories of Marty Goslee Jaramillo, the mother of Katie Simianer, one of the eight who died in the New Orleans warehouse fire that is at the center of my story.
The love for Katie in Marty’s voice is pure and strong, particularly when Neal Conan asks her if she thought Katie was happy living the life of a hobo, “Oh, I know she was,” Marty says. I knew this of my daughter too and, like Marty, I could hear it in Marissa’s voice every time we spoke on the phone.
In addition to Marty’s loving response, I enjoyed hearing the stories of the many people who called the show, some of whom had been or were traveling the country by rail, and the parents who were concerned about their children, or concerned that their children might choose to hop trains. One caller said he was relieved to hear this program because he had been so worried, so angry, when his daughter disappeared. This father, named Forest, was soothed by knowing that his daughter had joined a culture, not just fallen into degradation and danger. Forest said that at Christmas his family, furious with the girl, had decided none of them would send his daughter money as an expression of disapproval. I offered my unasked-for opinion that he should send her money anyway.
The immediacy of my feeling about this surprised me. When my daughter left town to hop trains, I had the same feeling as Forest. I said that I wouldn’t send her a dime, and I was furious when her father sent her some money. I had believed then that if I was stern and tough, communicating nothing but disapproval, my daughter would feel shame and return home to please me. If I sent her money, wasn’t I in some way endorsing this terrifying way of life? So she should get nothing, which would hasten her return because she’d see just how rough it was out there.
After my year in and out of New Orleans I see this completely differently, as I said in “World On Fire.” Parents have very little control over children when they are young adults. I could be stern, or I could be accepting, but the journey my daughter was on was her own, and it really had very little to do with my opinions. In the end what would bring her back, I realized, was that she knew she was loved and that home was a safer place than the road. If all I communicated was scorn, why would she ever want to come home? Home in many ways might feel as dangerous to her as a treacherous train yard.
The advice I gave Forest was to send his daughter, who rarely asked him for anything, a few dollars. If he sent her $50, she’d eat that night and so would her friends. Or maybe they’d use that money to rent a motel and get shelter from a storm. When she was ready to come home, she would find her way back.
It is humbling for a parent to understand how little influence he or she has, so my message was one that expressed not my sense of my power, but my sense of how deep my love for my daughter was, and how realizing that took me down a peg or three.
I’ve often wondered since this radio program aired if Forest sent his daughter money, and if he talked it over with his family members who said he should not. I hope for all of their sakes that he did. Fifty bucks is just fifty bucks, but it can mean the world to someone who is down on their luck enough to call home.
The interview is half an hour in length so I must post it here in two parts.