Can't Get There From Here

by Todd Strasser
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

The focus of this gritty work is an "asphalt tribe" of homeless young people trying to survive the winter on the streets of New York City. Almost without exception, the "kids" have been driven to their situation by home lives so harrowing that anything seems better by comparison. Victims of lifelong abuse, their alienation is compounded by a fierce attitude of rebellion, and although it takes time for them to fully accept the hopelessness of their circumstances, the harsh reality is that their chances of survival are slim at best. The tribe members live hand-to-mouth, trying to make enough money to sustain themselves by washing windshields, providing improvised street entertainment, dealing drugs, and selling themselves as prostitutes. None of them have any sense of the future; for the most part, they cannot imagine living past the age of eighteen.

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The kids are known only by their street names. The story is told through the eyes of Maybe, a teenager rendered homeless by an alcoholic mother who had one too many mouths to feed. In addition to Maybe, the group includes Maggot, the only character who has run away from an apparently stable home out of sheer rebellion; two "older" boys, Country Club and OG, 2Moro, who is HIV positive and sexually precocious after long years of molestation and abuse; Rainbow, a junkie whose mother sold her for drugs; Jewel, who has been rejected by his family because of his ambiguous gender orientation; and Tears, at twelve the youngest member of the tribe. As the weather gets colder, the kids are one by one overcome by the obstacles stacked against them. Maybe and Tears are soon the only ones left, and as the realization that "you (can't) live on the can only die there" dawns on Maybe, she determines to find a way to save the still-innocent and childlike Tears from the demise that surely awaits her if she remains on the run.

Published in 2004, Can't Get There From Here is a Junior Library Guild selection and has been named to the list of "Young Adult Choices of 2006." The book offers a sensitive and realistic examination of an important social issue, the plight of homeless youth, the ones about whom no one cares. In keeping with its true-to-life approach, the story is grim throughout, and although there is a small element of hope provided at the end, it is an optimism that is qualified. Youth homelessness remains a tragic and difficult societal reality, a problem to which there are no easy answers.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1233

It is New Years' Eve on the streets of New York City. Maggot, Maybe, Rainbow, and 2Moro are hanging out by the Deli, when Maggot and 2Moro decide to roll a drunk. To their surprise, their intended victim gets the better of them in a short but nasty confrontation. Later, Maybe, Maggot, and the youngest of the group, Tears, discover Country Club lying in Piss Alley, dead of chronic alcohol poisoning. His best friend OG is devastated. Police officers come to retrieve the body; one of them, a woman named Ryan, is new and seems kind. The other officer is a regular, who roughly tells the kids to go home, observing, "As long as you're out don't have a chance." A man drives by, eyeing 2Moro, who goes with him. The tribe gathers in a derelict building, where Jewel, whose gender is ambiguous, fantasizes about a life of privilege and sophistication. Workers from the Youth Housing Project discover the group and encourage them to take advantage of the facilities they offer, but the kids are scornful of the rules they would have to follow and express their preference to remain "free (to) come and go as (they) please."

The weather is getting colder, and Maybe tries to make money juggling eggs, encouraging people to bet on which egg she will drop first and sharing in the winnings. Maggot sells aspirin as Ecstasy, then takes his earnings and buys real drugs which he will resell at a profit. Rainbow and 2Moro go to the clinic to get their medications; Rainbow has ADD and OCD, and 2Moro is HIV positive. Rainbow and Maybe go to the library and try to wash up in the restroom, making a mess. A security guard sadistically forces them to clean up the room before allowing them to put their clothes back on, then throws them bodily into the street.

OG finds a puppy that he names "Pest." Searching for Rainbow, who has disappeared, Maybe is greeted as she passes the library by a man with blotchy skin like hers. The man, Anthony, asks Maybe if she has always had the condition, and gives it a name, vitiligo. Anthony is there to set up for a holiday celebration. He invites Maybe inside to warm up, and although she does not really trust him, her need is too great, and she takes a chance, following him into the building. Treating Maybe with utmost dignity, Anthony gives her punch and donuts and some warm clothes; when she leaves he tells her she can come back anytime, and he will help her if he can.

At a club, Maybe spots Rainbow, obviously drugged, hanging onto an older man. The man hurts Maybe when she tries to speak to Rainbow. Later, Maybe spots Jewel, who has just learned that the government will no longer support him because he is too old; he does not know what to do. Back at the building, the two discover construction workers cleaning the place out. Maggot tells them they have resettled under the bridge, and the group is reunited in a makeshift shelter made of a tarp tied to a wall. OG tries to make money by washing windshields, but it is so cold the water in his bucket freezes. No one knows where 2Moro is. Maggot discovers an article in the paper about a teenage girl whose body has been found in the park, half nude and strangled. The body was clothed in a patchwork jacket, and the kids know it is 2Moro. Jewel, determined to get money somehow, has Rainbow make him up to look like a girl, and as he leaves, says he is "on (his) way to a better life." In reply, OG mutters, "Can't get there from here."

Starving, the kids go foraging in dumpsters. Rainbow takes off with a boy with an orange Mohawk, and returns completely stoned. Officer Ryan comes to bring her in, and because Maybe will not leave her friend, she is arrested too. After a harrowing night in a holding cell, Rainbow is taken to detox, and Maybe is sent to the Youth Housing Project. Chafing under the constant supervision, Maybe runs away to the streets again, returning to the bridge, where the group burrows like animals into a nest of trash to keep warm. Everyone is sick, and Tears wants to go home. Maybe takes her to Anthony, who arranges for her to call her mother, but nothing has changed, and the conversation ends poorly. Back under the bridge, OG and Maggot make a bonfire, and Jewel talks about going to Exeter, where "all the best children" attend. From his prattle about wealthy parents and exotic vacations, it is clear that he has completely lost touch with reality. Maybe runs into Officer Ryan, who tells her that Rainbow has escaped from the detox center and committed suicide. As Maybe walks back toward the bridge, a Lexus stops, and its occupants offer her money if she will look at a picture of someone for whom they are searching. The pictures are of a tanned young man from obviously comfortable circumstances—Maggot. Maybe takes the couple to the shelter, and although Maggot expresses disdain for his parents, he agrees to go to dinner with them, and does not return.

Acutely aware of the hopelessness of their situation, Maybe determines to save the innocent Tears, who has taken off, saying she "can't take this no more." Maybe turns to the only adult she feels she can trust, Anthony, who agrees to try to find Tears' grandparents. When Maybe returns to the bridge, Jewel is rocking, oblivious to his surroundings. The puppy has died of starvation, and OG, wracked with illness, is unconscious. Maybe begs a man with a cellphone to call 911. Officer Ryan arrives with the emergency vehicles, and offers to take Maybe to a shelter. Maybe considers the offer, but must find Tears first. She now clearly understands that "you (can't) live on the streets, you (can) only die there."

Maybe returns to the library, where Anthony tells her he has contacted Tears' grandparents, who want her to come live with them. Maybe, however, cannot find Tears, and runs through the city looking for her, first alone, then with Anthony. That night, Maybe sees Tears, dressed up and waiting to get into a club. Maybe tries to talk to Tears, but the man accompanying her becomes irate; Anthony, masquerading as Tears' father, confronts him, and the man flees. Anthony takes the girls to his apartment, and the next morning they drive to West Virginia, where Tears is reunited with her grandparents.

Maybe is now the only one left. Anthony asks what she will do, telling her she can make it even though she has no family to care about her. Maybe balks when he suggests a group home, thinking about all the rules she would have to follow, but Anthony points out that it would only be temporary, and that when she is old enough, she will be able to make her own decisions about how she wants to live. Maybe considers his advice, and asks Anthony to take her to the ocean before they get back to New York City. As she feels the icy water of the sea rise around her feet, Maybe has a sense that maybe, just maybe, she just might make it.

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