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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK • From an award-winning journalist, a poignant and gripping immersion in the life of a young, homeless single mother amid her quest to find stability and shelter in the richest city in America
LONGLISTED FOR THE PEN/JEAN STEIN BOOK AWARD • “Riveting . . . a remarkable feat of reporting.”—The New York Times
Camila is twenty-two years old and a new mother. She has no family to rely on, no partner, and no home. Despite her intelligence and determination, the odds are firmly stacked against her. In this extraordinary work of literary reportage, Lauren Sandler chronicles a year in Camila’s life—from the birth of her son to his first birthday—as she navigates the labyrinth of poverty and homelessness in New York City. In her attempts to secure a safe place to raise her son and find a measure of freedom in her life, Camila copes with dashed dreams, failed relationships, the desolation of abandonment, and miles of red tape with grit, humor, and uncanny resilience.
Every day, more than forty-five million Americans attempt to survive below the poverty line. Every night, nearly sixty thousand people sleep in New York City-run shelters, 40 percent of them children. In This Is All I Got, Sandler brings this deeply personal issue to life, vividly depicting one woman's hope and despair and her steadfast determination to change her life despite the myriad setbacks she encounters.
This Is All I Got is a rare feat of reporting and a dramatic story of survival. Sandler’s candid and revealing account also exposes the murky boundaries between a journalist and her subject when it becomes impossible to remain a dispassionate observer. She has written a powerful and unforgettable indictment of a system that is often indifferent to the needs of those it serves, and that sometimes seems designed to fail.
Praise for This Is All I Got
“A rich, sociologically valuable work that’s more gripping, and more devastating, than fiction.”—Booklist
“Vivid, heartbreaking. . . . Readers will be moved by this harrowing and impassioned call for change.”—Publishers Weekly
“A closely observed chronicle . . . Sandler displays her journalistic talent by unerringly presenting this dire situation. . . . An impressive blend of dispassionate reporting, pungent condemnation of public welfare, and gritty humanity.” —Kirkus Reviews
Under the Cover
An excerpt from This Is All I Got
At six o’clock in the morning, alone in her twin bed, Camila began active labor. Breathing the way she’d learned on YouTube, she made a path to the bathroom. At least she had a private one here. Camila pushed aside the polyester shower curtain, a riot of ruffles and butterflies mismatched with the industrial green tiles. She turned on the tap. As the water rushed into the low tub, she found a playlist of spa music to soothe her through her contractions and pulled up the app she’d downloaded to time them.
She tapped out a text message to Kevin. Good morning. I think today is the day.
It was June 5.
Camila called the doula who had volunteered to coach her through labor. She didn’t answer. Another contraction came, quicker than the last. She climbed into the tub, her long body lean but for the protrusion of her midsection. She closed her eyes and brushed her tight curls from her forehead. She lay there, listening to the new-age plucking of a harp, focusing on her breathing, tracking her contractions, calling the doula again and again.
Then the phone rang. She was jubilant to see Kevin’s name on her screen. It was unusual for him to call; he usually texted. He said he needed to get some money and then he’d fly down from Buffalo tomorrow. The bus was much cheaper, but it was a ten-hour trip. Maybe he had some more money coming his way—he was getting signed to the Canadian Football League, or at least that’s what he’d told her. He was graduating the following week. Camila was supposed to graduate the following week, too, but that’s not how it had worked out.
She hung up and sank deeper into the bath, breathing as she’d practiced. The next contraction rocked her with its intensity. She splashed water on her neck and over her chest to try to calm herself down. Her breasts, usually so small, were engorged, ready. She tried to meditate the pain away. Camila had become interested in organic foods, homeopathy, natural childbirth—all hallmarks of Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood she’d moved to a month before, when she was admitted to the shelter. She’d studied up on the data supporting breastfeeding, watched spiritual midwifery videos online, and toured a birthing center—alone—only to learn her pregnancy was too far advanced by then for her to deliver there.
It was eight o’clock already. She realized she’d been in the tub for two hours, the water long cooled. The other women would be up now—maybe not the pregnant ones, but the ones with babies. Rose, who ran the shelter, would soon be unlocking her office downstairs. On the sidewalk outside, the bums—as Camila called them—were lined up for breakfast at the soup kitchen. She thought about how no one in the building knew she was in labor.
Camila wasn’t bothered that nobody would be accompanying her to the hospital, aside from her doula. Kevin would be there to meet the baby the next day; that was enough. Her mother, Geraldine, never had one of her four babies’ fathers beside her. Camila’s father certainly wasn’t there when she was born. Motherhood was something that most women got into alone, at least most of the mothers she knew.
Suddenly she was ravenous. She pulled on her ratty terry-cloth bathrobe, wrapped her hair in a towel, and waddled to the kitchenette. Even at full term, her posture was rigidly erect, as though she was braced for oncoming conflict. While she waited for water to boil for oatmeal, she double-checked to make sure everything was ready. Her bag was packed for the hospital. The donated car seat stood beside it. Between her next two contractions, she sent Kevin airport information and the address of the hospital. Another contraction. The pain was escalating quickly.
She called her doctor, who told her to go straight to the hospital. It was in Forest Hills, a good forty-five minutes away, considering the usual morning gridlock. Her doula was supposed to drive her out there, to Queens, when the time came. She’d have to wait.
Camila reached for the box of rolled oats in the otherwise-empty cabinet, measured out a cup, and shook it into the boiling water. After stirring for a couple of minutes, she sat at the desk in the room and ate, sipping water from her Audrey Hepburn mug. The crib opposite her twin bed was lined with baby blankets and stuffed animals. One white teddy bear had his paws stitched together in prayer. When she pressed his belly, a scratchy recording of the Lord’s Prayer buzzed from a speaker box inside his stuffing. Most everything for the baby had been donated by a mission of nuns in a brownstone uptown, where a shelf of anti-abortion pamphlets greeted you at the door. She had to remember to bring the blue-and-white shawl one of the sisters had knit.
The open shelving beside the crib was stacked with what she’d carried back to her room from the mission: a humidifier, diapers, a little plastic toy truck. Behind the shelves, the wall was painted a spring green, perhaps intended to calm, but there was a sharpness to the color. The opposite wall was painted a powder blue that she preferred. The twin bed was pushed against that wall. A wooden dorm dresser stood by the foot of the bed. On top of it lay a dozen nail polishes, a lint brush, and a Bible open to the page blessing the house of the servant of God. The dresser was filled with secondhand onesies and tiny pairs of pants. There would soon be a person to dress in all that neatly folded cotton. Her son. She wouldn’t be alone in this room anymore.
The phone rang; her doula, finally. They were excited to hear each other’s voices, to know that the moment had arrived. Over the weekend, they had walked for hours in Prospect Park, laughing about men, talking about new motherhood. They had the kind of intimate connection Camila made easily. Holding fast to those connections was another thing, partly because her life was so itinerant, untethered to family, moving along to the next temporary place to stay, but also because she could coax a grudge from something minor, even imagined, into something that pushed her from fight straight to flight. Her dark eyes would lose their luminescence, suddenly murky and shadowed, like a heavy curtain had tumbled over a bright window.
From earliest childhood, Camila had been an emotional pugilist. She’d been hurt too many times not to be. Few things agonized her more than feeling like the fool, thinking she should have known better. She had little control over her housing, her finances, her days spent in the infinite waiting rooms of aid bureaucracy, and even less control over the family she was born into. But she could control relationships, if she stayed on high alert for signs of disrespect, for the smallest implication of mistreatment. Getting played was the most unbearable of her life’s myriad humiliations, the one that she avoided at all costs.
And yet, despite her own guardedness, she was a romantic. She couldn’t help herself. That spirit led to how she imagined having a son: She’d have the most everlasting relationship there was. Not that her mother had approached parenthood that way. But it was yet another way Camila could demonstrate that she was nothing like her mother.
As Camila dressed, she heard Irina’s baby crying across the hall. She dressed in shorts and a maternity blouse and banged on her door.
Irina opened it. She’d given birth to her son just a few weeks earlier.
“This is it!” Camila announced, grinning cheerfully through the pain.
“I knew it! I saw it on your face last night! Don’t be scared,” Irina said, her Ukrainian accent still thick despite her decade in New York. “I’m going to pray for you.”
Through the doorway, Camila could see Irina’s room. It looked like a warehouse from a baby-goods catalog: a crib filled with stuffed animals and blankets, a floor crowded with play mats and infant swings, her son’s name in individual plush letters hanging on a wall. Irina’s churchgoing may not have yielded her a home or a job, but it did offer a bounty of baby presents. In the framed photos covering the dresser, Irina’s family was as present as Camila’s was absent. The iPad Irina used to FaceTime her husband and her mother sat propped on the table, yet she was here alone. Purple smudges under Irina’s eyes made them appear bruised by exhaustion; the long mousy-brown roots of her dyed-blond hair suggested it had been many months since she cared much about her appearance. The picture on the dresser of a woman in a wedding dress, flaxen hair in curling-iron twists, barely resembled her. Yet under Irina’s haggard mask, her cheekbones remained broad, her pale-green eyes remained wide, her chin remained proud.
As they hugged, Camila’s doula called to say she was searching for parking. Camila went back into her room to look out the window for the car. Across Fourth Avenue, the fancy kids’ play space was opening for the day. The grates were already up next door at the pharmacy selling organic beauty products.
Then she felt a release. Her water had broken. She called her doula to tell her not to worry about parking. Camila suddenly realized that without Wi-Fi she wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone; her calling plan had been cut off weeks ago. Hopefully the hospital would have Internet.
Camila texted her sisters, hoping they would come. She knew better than to expect her mother to show up.
Lauren Sandler is an award-winning journalist. She is the bestselling author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being Oneand Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Her essays and features have appeared in dozens of publications including Time, The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, The Guardian, and New York. Sandler has led the OpEd Project's Public Voices Fellowships at Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth, and has taught in the graduate journalism program at NYU, where she has also been a visiting scholar. She was Poynter Fellow at Yale and a fellow at MacDowell.