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As Jeannette glimpses New York City’s skyline, she worries what people will think of her. She meets Lori’s friend Evan at the bus station, and they walk to Zum Zum, a German restaurant where Lori works as a waitress. Lori seems exuberant, and Jeannette finds that New Yorkers are friendlier and more helpful than they appear. That night, Jeannette moves into the women’s hostel with Lori.
Jeannette gets a job at a busy fast food restaurant and enjoys its lively, hectic pace. She and Lori move into an apartment in South Bronx, and Jeannette is thrilled to have such amenities as indoor plumbing and a gas stove. Jeannette sometimes gets jumped in the neighborhood, but she fights back in order to avoid becoming a regular target. She lands an internship at a local Brooklyn newspaper,
The Phoenix, and her high school accepts the hours as credit. The newspaper struggles to meet payroll, but Jeannette loves the work. When she graduates from high school, they hire her on as a full-time reporter.
When Jeannette and Lori write to Brian, they find that conditions in Welch are getting worse. The house has fallen into further disrepair and Maureen moved in with the neighbors. When Jeannette describes their life in New York City, Brian follows in Jeannette’s footsteps and leaves before his senior year in high school.
At first, Jeannette doesn’t want to go to college because she likes her job as a reporter for
The Phoenix. She believes that her ability to learn on the fly and research concepts she doesn’t know serves her better than formal education. Mike Armstrong, the editor in chief, assures her she can find a better job with a degree, and so she decides to go to Barnard College. Barnard is an expensive private school, but Jeannette puts herself through with the help of grants, loans, savings, and part-time jobs.
Jeannette enjoys creating her own life and grows to dread phone calls from her parents. On one phone call, she learns that Maureen fell through the porch steps and gashed her head open. When Maureen turns twelve, Lori buys her a bus ticket to New York City and becomes her primary caretaker. Dad accuses Lori of stealing his children.
Three years after Maureen’s arrival, Mom and Dad move to New York City. They quickly fall behind on rent and are kicked out of a series of apartments. Brian and Lori try to take them in on different occasions, but Dad’s drinking and Mom’s messiness quickly make the situation untenable. They live out of their van for a little while, but when it is towed, they find themselves homeless.
Mom and Dad call from payphones and update their children on their new homeless lifestyle. Mom says that being homeless is like an adventure. Jeannette considers dropping out of Barnard to support Mom and Dad, but Brian and Lori remind her they have other options. She starts seeing her parents in every homeless person and is generous with her money. In a social sciences class, Jeannette suggests that some homeless people choose to be homeless, eliciting anger from her professor.
As Jeannette works hard to establish hew new life, we see the ways in which her unconventional upbringing actually prepared her for the challenges of New York City. Because of the many things Jeannette lacked in childhood, she starts her new life feeling grateful for amenities that most people take for granted, such as a working stove and indoor plumbing. Her experience with fighting in Welch helps her fend off neighborhood muggers, and her experience with hunger causes her to celebrate something as simple as a hectic fast food job. Jeannette spent most of her teen years strategizing and working multiple jobs to survive, which has given her the skills to find funding to attend Barnard, one of the most expensive schools in New York City. Furthermore, Jeannette’s ability to thrive at
The Phoenix comes from the self-reliance she has learned over the years. Instead of asking her superiors about concepts she doesn’t understand, she looks them up on her own, displaying the kind of self-starter attitude that makes a good journalist. Although Jeannette’s childhood hurt her in many ways, Jeannette’s suffering also gave her an exceptional amount of strength.
Now that the Walls children have grown up, we see in a new way that Mom and Dad cannot take care of themselves. They repeatedly fail to maintain shelter for themselves, and their inability to maintain the van leads to them losing it. Even when Brian and Lori offer them shelter, Mom and Dad do not create a stable lifestyle for themselves because they refuse to plan and work to create a future for themselves. In comparison to their hardworking children, Mom and Dad act like teenagers, living without regard for the future. Mom emphasizes this childishness when she calls homelessness an adventure, because she clearly has not considered the long-term consequences of life on the street, such as surviving the winter. The new dynamic between the Walls children and their parents makes it evident that Mom and Dad have depended upon their children’s self-reliance. Their negligence stemmed not from malice, but a profound inability to create any sort of structure in their lives.
As Jeannette finds stability, she must reconcile her new life of comfort and security with her parents’ continued poverty. Even though she left Welch in part to stop having to take responsibility for her parents, Jeannette considers dropping out of college to support them, demonstrating how difficult it is for her to absolve herself of their care. Significantly, it is Lori and Brian who convince Jeannette to stay in school, protecting her from falling back into a toxic dynamic just as they protected each other from abusive cycles in Welch. Jeannette’s simultaneous compassion toward and anger at homeless people reflects her emotional turmoil over her parents. While she gives generously to the homeless people she encounters, symbolically expressing concern for her parents, she insists in class that homeless people may choose to be homeless. This statement expresses her frustration and anger at her parent’s constant inaction throughout her childhood and their ambivalence to their current plight. She realizes that just as she cannot make them help her, she cannot force them to help themselves.
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