"I been turnstyled, junkpiled, railroaded too / I been laid low, but honey don't you know, I'm still in love with you." -- Townes Van Zandt
It was August 1998, early in the school year, and 17-year-old Mickey Dunlap stepped out of the back door of his house and started walking to Pasadena High School, about half a mile away. It would have been a warm day, and if he was paying attention he might have smelled the sickly sweet of the paper mill a quarter-mile from his house, or the cabbagey effluvium of the nearby sewage treatment plant, or the muddy rank of Vince Bayou, which elbowed its course southward a stone's throw from his backyard. He might have smelled all three smells together.
More likely he wouldn't have noticed any of it, familiar as he was with the routine.
He would have walked his way out of the egg-shaped backstreet in the rundown Magnolia Oaks neighborhood -- isolated by railroad tracks on the north, State Highway 225 to the south and the bayou's curve -- in Pasadena's older, poorer northwest quadrant. He would have passed through the oak shade of a Friendship Garden, dedicated by Pasadenans to "our friends in Hadano Japan" before heading south among the boarded-up remnants of a largely abandoned commercial district. He would have cut across the feeders and beneath the 225 overpass, heavy with freight trucks, to the school, home of "Eagle Pride," planted in a humming landscape of motels and gas stations and storage tanks and towers and exhaust and smoke. Mickey was beginning his junior year.
Sometimes if it was raining Miss Lilly drove him to school, if she had the time, but most days he walked.
This day his homeroom teacher handed out start-of-school paperwork for the students' parents to sign. Mickey took his papers to his special ed counselor, Tracey Balusek. He told her, "I can't do this."
Mickey speaks oddly. His voice is incongruently high-pitched for a boy his size, which is large, and he substitutes w's for his r's and l's. Not an impediment quite, just odd at first impression. He is almost compulsively polite with his yes ma'ams and no suhs. He is easily moved to an effusiveness that manifests itself as a smile of what sure looks like unadulterated joy. This gesture also can seem incongruent, considering some of what Mickey says while he's smiling.
He told the counselor his parents were "kind of unavailable right now." She wanted to know if they were on vacation. Mickey told her that he guessed you could say that, "except their vacation is gonna be a little long." He was being willfully vague. He was scared he'd get kicked out of school.
The counselor wanted to know what Mickey meant by that. He told her he didn't think his parents were coming back.
"She looked at me," he says, grinning, "like, well we got a problem here. We got a major problem here."
The counselor says she didn't believe Mickey at first. So she and school diagnostician Ellen Cronin-Moreland "did a home visit." They looked at the house with its faded baby-blue siding and scabbing roof, and they saw that it was falling down, sinking in toward the middle. They saw the bicycle chain Mickey used to lock the front door. They saw that windows were busted out and that the yard was filled with abandoned boats and abandoned cars and trash car parts and trash boxes for car parts and just nasty shit everywhere, carpet inside that a duck hunter wouldn't walk on.
"It didn't look like a house that anyone lived in," Balusek says. "It looked like a junkyard. It was definitely the most deplorable house that I have ever seen, as far as where our students have lived. I could not believe he was living in those conditions."
The counselor and the diagnostician talked to Mickey's neighbors and they found out that yes, it had been a "volatile" homestead. Mickey and his father had been heard fighting. One time the police had arrived, a bunch of them, and had taken the dad to jail. And yes, they were gone. Been gone near all summer. No, didn't expect they'd be coming back.
And yeah, the boy lived there all by himself.
Balusek went back to school and apologized to Mickey for not believing his story. She was just a little shocked, that's all. She had worked with Mickey, whose mild learning disability necessitates special classes and lots of parent-counselor meetings to hash out educational plans, for several years, and had met his mother, Glenda, on multiple occasions.
"The mom had come to the meetings, and was pleasant. I was very, very surprised that his parents had up and left."
Lillian Lucas, known Pasadena-wide as Miss Lilly, possesses the emotional wherewithal, the church-fortified do-gooder ethic and, on good days, the patience necessary for the collection of human strays.
"People that need help," she says, "find me. It seems I'm real easy. One friend of mine tells me on my forehead it says sucker."
At one time, Miss Lilly says, she ran a mission for the down-and-out in Pasadena, but "Pasadena don't like missions. They say we have no poor people out here."
Even so, almost ten years ago, Mickey's dad, Wayne Dunlap, arrived in Pasadena. He was poor, and he found Miss Lilly.
"His dad come down here and had no place to stay. I got him a room. And then one day we looked up and his wife with all the kids had put what she could on a truck and come down here. I found another place a little bit bigger for them and they moved in there. And then we found a house for them, and they moved in there."
The wife was Glenda Dunlap, and the kids were Mickey and his older sister, Ann. They had moved to Pasadena, which Miss Lilly christens "the end of the line," from the small ranch-and-oil community of Graham, Texas, near Wichita Falls.
Mickey remembers the move in more detail.
"My dad came down here on his own at first to get set up down here. He come back to Graham to pick my mother up, left me and my sister in the old house they lived in about three months. And neither one of us was over ten years old when they left us there. After the three months was up, they finally decided to come back to pick us up, along with a bunch of other stuff, a deep freeze and stuff like that.
"We wasn't about to tell the school about that. We was going to school just as if they was there."
There were other facts to which neither Miss Lilly nor anyone outside of the Dunlap family was privy. Mickey says his dad had indulged the triple-threat recreations of drug dealing, drug use and beating his kids "ever since I can remember."
"When I was three," Mickey says, "I told my mom I was scared of him, and she told him, or something. Anyway, he quit hitting me for a little while. And then he started back and kept on beating at me for like seven years."
According to Mickey, Wayne Dunlap beat on his sister as well, and Mickey remembers him once throwing a car battery at Mickey's mom.
"He weighed about 300 pounds, and my mom liked to shot him then."
Mickey, then age nine, also thought long and hard about shooting his dad.
"We went deer hunting a lot. I had a 30.06, a 30-30 and a .287. Nice guns. Had good scopes on 'em and everything. I was ready to shoot my dad, but I was here, and the guns were somewhere else. I'm sure glad I didn't have access to my guns then, because I'm liable to have been in jail now. I had found out that my dad had actually been molesting my sister, and that was enough. That was when I was ready to put him out of my misery."
Mickey grins at his wordplay.
Around the same time, Mickey says, his mother began using drugs, too.
"One night I went to bed, she looked like she was 20. The next day I woke up, she looked like she was 40. I mean, I don't know what she was doing, but it had been heavy, and she's been going downhill ever since."
Mickey was enrolled at Jackson Elementary School at the time, and he convinced his sister to talk to a counselor there. When she admitted to the abuse, the school called in Child Protective Services.
"CPS had been involved numerous times before," Mickey says, "and every time we had lied and said that he hadn't been beating us and stuff like that, and we got beat just because they was investigating. So this time we didn't give them the chance to beat us. We told the truth, and we got removed from the house immediately."
Mickey and Ann, two years his senior, were shuttled back to Graham, where they lived with their maternal grandfather and his girlfriend, who Mickey says was also a chronic drug abuser, while Wayne and Glenda maneuvered unsuccessfully to get them back.
"They always wanted us to be living with them so they could use us. Because they're always telling others that they didn't have anything for the kids, and people'd give them money for us, and they'd spend it on dope or whatever. They were always using us like that."
Mickey moved back to Pasadena at age 17 and tried to wait life out until he was old enough to move out on his own. Ann had returned two years before but had dropped out of school and stayed in Pasadena less than a year before moving back to Graham. Mickey hasn't seen or heard from her since. He called once but says his grandfather's girlfriend, now Mickey's step-grandmother, cussed him out over the phone.
"I said okay. I said, 'I guess y'all don't want to talk to me.' "
Mickey himself was encouraged to quit school, but he was intent on graduating.
"My parents had decided that I wasn't going to go to school, period. They told me that I was gonna go quit school and work all the time. But I had some good teachers in elementary school. They had actually showed a graph on the chalkboard at school that showed how much you made on average if you didn't graduate high school, how much you'd make if you went to a two-year college and how much you'd make in four years of college, and that's where I got it in my head, got the drive from."
Mickey had taken "lots of counseling" in Graham about his anger toward his parents, and he'd backed away from his readiness to shoot his dad. But still.
"I did not trust them, and I was like watching every move they made. Every time we was in the same room, I was watching him, making sure he wasn't throwing something at me."
What peace there was wasn't built to last. Three months after Mickey's return to the Pasadena household, he says, his dad got himself fired for throwing his boss at a hydro-blasting company up against a wall. Afterward, apparently, Wayne Dunlap found it hard to get work in Pasadena.
One day, Mickey says, "I come in from going to the store, and he was mad already. He'd been mad for a long time because he couldn't find a job, and he just decided to grab my hair and pull it. I told him don't do it, so he started hitting me. And I called the cops finally. I said, 'I've had it. You're getting arrested this time.' "
Wayne Dunlap went to jail for little over a week. After his release, he lit out for Port Lavaca, looking for work.
Mickey says he doesn't know whether his father ever found a job or not, but Mickey hasn't seen him since. His mother, he says, made three trips back and forth to Port Lavaca, and then stayed there.
"She didn't say that much. I thought she was gonna come back. And she didn't. So I guess she's not coming back. Probably scared of him."
Miss Lilly drove Glenda Dunlap to the bus station the last time Mickey's mother left for Port Lavaca, almost two years ago now.
"The only thing she said to me was, 'We've had kids all of our life, and we're gonna have a good time,' or 'fun together,' or something like that," Miss Lilly remembers. "She didn't give me a telephone number or an address. The thing that really astonished me, she had one Bible that she kept with her all the time. She left it when she left Pasadena."
Miss Lilly did eventually find a way to contact the Dunlaps by tracing her phone bills to a Port Lavaca number that Glenda had called from Miss Lilly's house after Glenda's own phone had been turned off for overdue bills. When asked to give the phone number to a reporter (if Wayne and Glenda Dunlap are still in Port Lavaca and have a phone, their number is apparently unlisted), she declined.
"They won't say anything to you. Or if they do, they'll probably be real derogatory, which would hurt him more. She doesn't even want me calling her. They prefer being left alone.
"One time she told me that they were going to come back and get a transmission out of a truck. And I said, 'Well good, I'll have Mickey over there where you can see him.' And she said, 'Well, I'm not coming back. Wayne's coming by himself.' But later I went by there, and she was with him.
"I don't know whether she doesn't want to see him, or if she's afraid that if she sees him that she won't be able to keep on going. You know what I mean?"
Once he realized his parents were gone, Mickey had some thinking to do.
"I said well, looks like I'm on my own on this 'un. I've got this old house I've got to fix up, I gotta try and keep this yard looking decent, otherwise the city'll be on me, and I gotta make a living, too. And I had actually been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and going to school and going to church."
Mickey was not without skills. As a child in Graham, he had accompanied his grandfather to the oil fields. "I used to hang out around the mechanic shop on the oil field. I learned a lot about engines and stuff like that."
And from his grandfather, Mickey learned another skill.
"I learned to weld at the age of five, which is awful young. My granddad, he couldn't see. He told me how to do it, so I got out there and started doing it. We didn't have much else to do out there on the farm. We either had to fix it ourself, or else we didn't get it done."
As a teenager in Graham, Mickey had worked three years feeding cows and rounding them up to save enough money to buy his own welding machine and cutting torch, which he had brought back to Pasadena with him and set up in the decaying garage apartment behind his house. He blacked out the windows with plastic sheeting so that drivers on the street wouldn't see the arc.
"I didn't want anybody's eyes to get burned."
There in the garage apartment, he says, he stayed up most every night with the help of over-the-counter caffeine pills and did heavy-duty odd jobs for friends and neighbors. He says he once welded a cracked engine block for an acquaintance.
"It's real hard to weld a block together. That's like the hardest. It can be done, but it's very difficult."
Another time he hard-surfaced a gear for a blown transmission.
"It's heat-treating a piece of metal so it will withstand high temperatures and so it will keep from breaking as easy. That," he says, "is not fun."
Miss Lilly owned several houses in town, and Mickey helped do repairs on the properties. In exchange, Miss Lilly paid Mickey's utility bills. For other friends he did lawn work in exchange for groceries. And at night, he welded.
"Most everybody I was working for, I had made agreements with that they'd help me, do something for me, while I took care of the welding."
In retrospect, Mickey thinks his barter system was a fair trade. "Because I didn't have to worry about much of anything, and I didn't have time to go to the grocery store or anything like that. And they take care of me pretty well."
"One of the things that impressed me so much," says Miss Lilly, "was I asked him, 'Mickey? What are we gonna do about the water bill?' He said, 'Well, I'm just gonna pray, and God will give it to me.' And I had never seen faith quite like that. He said, 'I just pray.' "
Miss Lilly cackles when she tells what she said next.
"I said, 'You just pray, and I write the check!' "
Meanwhile, the house decayed around Mickey. Part of the roof began to fall in, leaving open sky. He kept a kerosene heater in the center of the house for warmth. Miss Lilly gave Mickey a dog for protection, and there developed a flea infestation so bad that the exterminator hired by Miss Lilly's church to fumigate ended up donating his services out of pity. The dog died.
Miss Lilly had begun taking Mickey with her to Second Baptist Church, where she introduced him to Jerry Bennett, a part-time associate pastor and minister of evangelism with Second Baptist's youth program and a full-time schoolteacher. Bennett helped arrange for transportation to and from the church on its Sunday-morning van route. The church also began helping Miss Lilly cover some of Mickey's bills. One of the Baptist men fixed an old lawn mower and gave it to Mickey, and Mickey began helping out with Bennett's lawn service for spending money.
Various members of the congregation would buy Mickey lunch, or give him a new pair of shoes, or steer him toward more odd-job work.
Mickey was becoming a magnet for good deeds. At Pasadena High School he had been named a trainer for the Eagle soccer team and was taken under the wings of several coaches, who sometimes lent him athletic jerseys when he arrived at school out of whack with the dress code.
Bennett describes Mickey as a personable guy. "He'd talk to anybody. He doesn't come across as demanding. In other words, I had to pry it out of him. I'd say, 'Now, Mickey, have you got groceries?' Some people are always asking for things. He wasn't that way. Some people you help and they kind of want more. And you think, well, I'm not sure I want to do that. But he is really a humble-type person that didn't expect you to help him. He's a survivor. That's pretty obvious."
What was just as obvious was that survival wasn't going to be enough.
For all the various freebies and kind intentions of Miss Lilly, Second Baptist Church and Pasadena High School, Mickey was treading water in a crumbling house on which his parents had failed to pay any taxes, ever. But before the constable could come knocking, Mickey had a different sort of run-in with the authorities. Busy cutting other people's lawns, he'd let his own, scattered with the city-ordinance-flaunting remnants of his absent parents' automotive detritus, get out of control. And just as he'd worried when they'd first left, the city got after him.
The city, in this case, took the form of a fresh-faced, red-haired, churchgoing, former volunteer fire-fighting Pasadena Police Department patrolman by the name of Jason Shirley. In late summer of last year the Pasadena Police Department had begun implementing a community policing program. That meant that officer Shirley, instead of being assigned disparate patrol routes throughout the city, would henceforth patrol the same neighborhoods, five days a week, on the theory that officers would be better able to serve their communities if they developed some consistent firsthand knowledge of same. Officer Shirley was assigned a chunk of northwest Pasadena where, he says, "a lot of improvements are needed."
Shirley spotted a potential improvement right off.
"His house was dilapidated, falling down, high grass, trash in the yard. They had two trucks and three boats, just spread out all throughout the yard. So basically that's what we're looking at, looking to clean all that up."
Shirley drove to the Dunlap house on three different occasions, trying to make contact with its owners, before he finally spotted Mickey walking into the house.
"He was coming from a friend's house down the street. He was using the phone. I introduced myself, and when I first contacted him he was super-respectful. 'Yes sir, no sir.' Never was 'yeah,' anything like that. He said that some people at the Second Baptist Church were helping him out, so I contacted the church member" -- Miss Lilly -- "and through her I found out his whole story, which was, he was assaulted back in 1997 by his father, his father got out of Harris County Jail, he came back home and told the wife that she could stay with the son and he was leaving, or they could both leave."
"No," says Shirley, "never seen anything like that."
Officer Shirley got in touch with Leslie Venable, who works the Mayor's Action Line in Pasadena's Community Services Department. Venable did some research and discovered that the Dunlaps owed more than $10,000 in back taxes on the house, putting it at risk of city repo. She and Shirley began exploring government-assisted housing options for Mickey. Shirley got in touch with counselor Balusek to let her know the situation.
"I'm a counselor," Balusek says, "but I felt like a social worker this year. I helped Mickey with the HUD housing forms. We worked through those forms, and then he needed a ride up to the court building where he had to go to submit all of this paperwork, so I drove him up there." Miss Lilly bought Mickey a new pair of pants so he'd look nice at the government office.
Meanwhile, the school got Mickey into a work-study program for his senior year doing half-days of janitorial work for the school district.
"We decided," Balusek says, "that this year we could hopefully do more for him. We knew he was going to be graduating in May. We wanted to help him develop some skills so that he could make it out there on his own."
Mickey, for his part, was thinking, "Well, if I leave this house, how am I gonna know I got a roof over my head? At least I got a roof over my head. Ain't nothing to brag about, but man... at least if I stay here I do know I have a roof over my head."
And then the floodgates opened. Mickey qualified for emergency government housing in a sprawling 1970s-era apartment complex on Richey Road, just across 225 from his old home. Officer Shirley, now promoted to detective, recruited his wife and parents to help Mickey move in on December 1, 1999. The police department started a food drive for Mickey, and when an officer's wife who taught school heard the story, she got her school's Thanksgiving food drive booty donated to Mickey as well. Teachers at Pasadena High School raised $600 toward a college fund. Officers donated a couch, chairs, tables, a microwave, silverware, clothes, a brand-new bicycle. A friend of Shirley's who works as a cameraman at Channel 13 news got the go-ahead to air a story about Mickey, and learned in the filming that Mickey had become fascinated with computers. The cameraman, Chris Swanson, made some calls to friendly businessmen and got a donated computer for Mickey with a year's free Internet service tossed in for good measure.
"He just lit up when we brought it to him. He was so excited that he was in there looking at the computer, and he almost didn't notice that we were leaving."
Now, Mickey Dunlap answers the door of his small one-bedroom apartment with a huge grin. The walls are clean, white and bare. The kitchen and bathroom are clean and white and look like display models for their respectively appropriate household goods, donated by friends and arranged so neatly they hardly look used. In the darkened bedroom, religious music plays from a radio. In the living room, a TV sits in one corner, beside a rough-textured couch and the new bicycle balanced upside down on its seat and handlebars. A small dinette table with one chair is positioned near the kitchen. Mickey sits in an orange reclining lounge chair fronted by a matching ottoman.
"Yes sir, it's nice to be able to celebrate the new year. Especially when it's year 2000. They was making such a big deal out of it. I'm glad that nothing happened."
He allows as how his new digs are a lot better living quarters. "A lot better paint job."
He is, of course, grateful.
"The police department helped me out a lot. And some of my friends from church, they've helped me. And people I don't even know have helped me. I got a brand-new bed from Mattress Planet, and I don't know anybody over there! The police department donated this chair I'm sitting in!"
The couch and the TV he brought over from the old house. Everything else is new. "Pretty much," he says. "I'm starting over fresh."
He left his welding tools in storage with a friend on his old street. "Because I don't figure I'll be needing them."
Asked if he'd be just as happy if he never needed them again, the grin explodes. "Yes suh!"
He's dead set on graduating and going to San Jacinto Junior College, where he wants to get an associate's degree in computer electronics and go to work for the school district as a computer technician.
"You make plenty of money. It's a pretty neat environment. It's not dirty. It's a pretty nice life, from what I understand."
It is noted that he seems to like fixing stuff.
"Yes suh, I've studied a lot of stuff. I'm pretty intelligent when it comes to fixing stuff. Only thing I haven't figured out much about is fixing software on the computer. That's what I'm gonna start studying pretty soon. I'm used to the actual hardware, that uses your hands to fix instead of using your mind."
He has heard that computer techs make up to $40 an hour, and when he starts pulling in that kind of money, he says, he'll probably sock most of it away for retirement.
"I figure the more I have for retirement the better off I'll be."
Until then, he seems proud to be working for the school district for pocket money and happy to have settled into his new white apartment. So far, government programs have covered his bills-paid rent, but that's just temporary. He's going to have to start carrying part of the load, but he says he doesn't know when, or how much. He says HUD is supposed to send him mail soon to let him know.
And if, in the meantime, he should happen to see his dad on the street, he says, he'd just walk by and not say a word to him.
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"I probably wouldn't like to see them again, because of the fact that I don't trust them, and everybody knows him around here, and they don't trust them. And he's never been a very good father to me."
He has used "he" and "they" interchangeably, but no "she."
What his reaction might be if it were his mother he spotted walking down the street, he doesn't say. And one can't bring oneself to ask.
E-mail Brad Tyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.