Here I’m going
Walkin’ with my baby in my arms
‘Cuz I am in the wrong end of the eight ball black
And the devil, see, he’s right behind us
And this worker said she’s gonna take my little baby
My little angel back
But they won’t getcha,
‘Cuz I’m right here witcha
On the Night Train
Swing low, Saint Cadillac
Tearin’ down the alley
And I’m reachin’ so high for ya
Don’t let ‘em take me back
Broken like valiums and chumps in the rain
That cry and quiver
When a blue horizon is sleeping in the station
With a ticket for a train
Surely mine will deliver me there
Here she comes …
I’m safe here with you
On the Night Train
Oh mamma, mamma,
Concrete is wheeling by
Down at the end of a lullaby
On the Night Train.
—Rickie Lee Jones. From the eponymous 1979 album. The song is “Night Train.” It is beautiful and haunting.
I first heard it when I was probably 16, maybe four years after the album was released. Even then it spoke to me. A desperate woman. A helpless baby she’s responsible for, completely now that ‘dad’ is long gone, assuming he was ever there for anything but the requisite chemical reaction in the first place. And if he stuck around for a while, it was probably just to do more damage.
“And this worker says she’s gonna take my baby, my angel.”
In many years of this work, I’ve yet to meet the mother or the child who welcomed the intervention of Child Protective Services (or ACS, Administration for Children’s Services, as we called it in NYC). Few jobs are more difficult than that of a CPS worker, pulling a screaming and terrified child from her mother, sometimes in the middle of the night, for reasons the child can’t possibly fathom. Anyone who believes that a hungry, dirty, abused or neglected kid will welcome the strangers who arrive to remove her from the only reality she’s ever known is sorely misled. It really doesn’t matter what the child is dealing with, and how miserable and inappropriate it seems to the well-intentioned interlopers. To the child, the barren cabinets, the rotten smell in the fridge, the rodent droppings and the paint chips in the hallway are just what she knows. And it’s all she’s ever known. Given a choice between what’s awful and what’s unknown, most adults- let alone children- will grasp the former.
So word gets around, and sometimes, the mothers run. They do whatever they can to stay a step ahead of those who purport to know better, whether it’s the right thing to do or not. Running is open-ended, like an impulsive visit to a casino. It’s a one-way ticket to something better, maybe. Or maybe not. In any event, it’s an uncertain path. On that path, they trust no one. And frankly, I don’t blame them.
“But they won’t getcha, ‘Cuz I’m right here witcha. On the Night Train.”
I’ve worked with women who had been victimized by life- and every male in it- up until the thing that put them on the other side of my desk. Sometimes it was the biological father of the child in a sex case; a lot of people are surprised at how often biological fathers sexually abuse their own children. Sometimes it was a boyfriend, or a second husband, or whomever else looked at the time like something stable and basically good. Until, of course, that illusion disintegrated in a principal’s office, or a hospital, or a police station. Until it fell through like wet paper with the details of what he’d done to her daughter or son behind her back. While she was at work. While she was with friends. While she was out clubbing, or at a 12 step meeting, or wherever else the daily routine took her. The details ring in her ears while she clutches her purse and fights back tears. And wonders what the hell she’ll do now.
So the gears of the system turn, and eventually she arrives in my office.
At that point it’s crucial to remember, if I’m going to be effective in any way, shape or form, that to her I’m simply the next man in the line. I’m further trouble, just not the kind that will leave a bruise. The tie I wear glows as malevolently as a nightstick. The desk I sit behind is the perfect barrier between everything that I am and everything that I’m entitled to, and everything that she is, and will never have. It’s that simple.
And so I come out from behind the desk, and sometimes I lose the tie. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“When a blue horizon is sleeping in the station, with a ticket for a train, surely mine will deliver me there. Here she comes. I’m safe here with you. On the Night Train.”
The train image might be a little antiquated. The urge to run isn’t.
“Concrete is wheeling by. Down at the end of a lullaby.”
The end of a lullaby. That’s where I work, which is say, live. I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else.