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TISHA'S STORY

  Tisha is watching Oprah on television while I'm asking her about her family, and her attention is volleying back and forth between the show and my questions. "oh Oprah, Pleeeeease... Yeah, somebody told me my father go AIDS ... Loot at that dress! ... His sister and her husband also had AIDS-Come on, Oprah- both dropped dead, two weeks apart. We knew they were sick, but they never said a work. Go ooooon, Oprah!" After the deaths of her aunt and uncle, she continues, one of her four orphaned cousins died in foster care. I can't quite place which is more upsetting, Tisha's story or the casual way in which she is telling it. Just as she is comfortably ensconced in the drama on the screen, Tisha has ceased to think of her own life as anything out of the ordinary.

  Tisha remembers the height of her mother's heroin addiction; the electricity was turned off in her family's apartment, and she made meals of Cup-O-Noodles with cold tap water. Tisha says that's when she and her brother and sister were placed in foster care. Eventually all three children were permanently placed with Tisha's maternal grandmother. Her grandmother drank, and Tisha remembers telling her, " 'Nanny, you're an alcoholic; my mother's a crack head-there ain't no difference.' Now I'm doing the same thing, but it's reefer." And yet as Tisha picks up a hollowed-cigar from the counter and fills it with marijuana, her simple elegance makes it seem more as if she's rehearsing a scene from a play than enacting a daily ritual.

  Tisha hadn't wanted to grow up like her mother. She's proud of the fact that she graduated high school and that she didn't have a baby until she was nineteen, unlike a lot of her friends. People told her she was beautiful, but she wanted to be more than just beautiful. As a teenager, she had a talent for drawing and poetry, and in 1999 she was accepted at Pratt Institute on the strength of her work and an essay she had written about her life experiences.

  Self-knowing and funny, Tisha has a keen understanding of her contemporaries and the world she shares with the. Self-knowledge alone, however, wasn't enough to change the course of her life: no one in Tisha's family had ever been to a school like Pratt, and in the end, Tisha couldn't imagine herself there either. Unable to juggle three children, a part-time job, the demands of college, and a series of destructive romances, she dropped out. After bouncing between temporary apartments and homeless shelters, she and her kids eventually ended up back with the mother from whom she was taken by the state so many years before.

  Tisha has two boxes stored under the bed at her mother's house. One of them contains the toys she played with as a child before being put in foster care. The other contains glassware packed in brown paper that she dug out of the donation box while she and the kids were living at the shelter. She unwraps one of the stemmed water goblets, which has THE HELMSLEY PALACE etched on it. The glasses, Tisha says, are too beautiful for anywhere that she has ever lived.