Last in a series of occasional articles on the people, and the world, of Bus 19.
In the cacophony of late-afternoon traffic, Debra James heaves herself aboard the No. 19 Bus, limping as she moves down the aisle. She lets out a breath of relief as she falls into a seat. The ride will give her half an hour off her feet between the cashier job she just left and the one she is heading to.
Every day for the last two years, she has ridden this route - boarding in the morning for her grocery store job in Roxbury, then again in the afternoon en route to another at Walgreens in Coolidge Corner. It’s nearly 18 hours in all. When she rides home after midnight, her rheumatoid arthritis throbs. She gets only a few hours of sleep each night.
But she won’t quit or cut back hours. She doesn’t want to go back to her old life on public assistance. And she doesn’t want to lose her house. Most of the $600 a week she makes goes toward it. There is little left over for expenses, and she has fallen behind.
The bank is foreclosing. An auction is three weeks away.
It would be so easy to give up.
But she won’t allow herself to think that way. She’s 52 now, she reminds herself. So many dreams have gone by, so much time spent on the endless circuit of the bus. She knows she is hardly alone in this. For many of her fellow riders, life is patched together one stop at a time, hope and the future a blur outside the window, determination held inside and close, like a keepsake.
Arriving at her second job that day, she took off the red smock from her grocery store job and slipped on the Walgreens blue and told herself her life had to count for more than getting by. And she would find a way to hang on to the house.
Everything somehow seems bound up in that.
Hope in a little row house
The auction date is now two weeks away, and Debra takes the bus to Dudley Square and walks to the second-floor office of Nuestra Comunidad, a community agency helping her fight the foreclosure.
She sits at a wooden table, clutching her purse at her side. “Don’t worry,’’ the young staff member working on her case, Amelia Hill, is saying. Foreclosure auctions are delayed all the time.
But Debra did worry. The house, she believes, has helped make her a new and stronger person. She bought it at the lowest point in her life, when her swollen joints imprisoned her and she was profoundly overweight.
She had miscarried after years of infertility treatments, and her husband of 10 years had left. The family she had always imagined would be hers suddenly seemed no longer possible.
The little row house in Fields Corner had seemed an antidote. It needed paint, and the roof leaked. But it was across the street from her mother’s house. And there was something about it that Debra thought magical: The roar of Red Line trains coming into Fields Corner station reminded her of being a young girl at her beloved grandmother’s house in Dudley Square many years before. She had spent countless hours there, hearing the old elevated Orange Line while her grandmother braided her hair and taught her to bake and sew. Debra still calls her several times a week.
A future surrounded by people she loved seemed possible at the house. And for the first time in years, Debra wanted to work more. She asked her doctors for medication to cope with her arthritis and requested extra hours at the grocery store, delighting in the people she met on the bus and at work. Just from the extra activity, she lost 40 pounds.
The money she made eventually disqualified her for the disability payments she received for her arthritis. Debra did not want to go back, and instead found the second job. But it was always a struggle to keep up with the $2,000 mortgage.
In the Nuestra office, Hill tells Debra that walking away from the house - worth a third less than the $233,000 Debra had paid five years ago - is an option.
But Debra says no. She takes from her pocketbook pay stubs from her two jobs, and hands them to Hill. More proof for the bank that she was worthy of a second chance, and a modified loan with lower payments. “I just have to keep going,’’ she says. “Keep going.’’
Despite gloom, spirits high
It’s a summer morning, and Debra, on a rare day off, is puttering around her house, where she’s put up framed photos of family members and inspirational sayings. “May all your dreams and plans turn into fulfillment and success,’’ says one. At a small desk is a framed certificate from Walgreens for excellent customer service.
A man is in the kitchen fixing tea. It is Hayden, her former husband.
He has slowly come back into her life after being gone for five years. He first reappeared about the time she started working two jobs. He showed up at her cashier station at the grocery store and chatted awhile. He soon came again, and then again. One day while talking about repairs the house needed, she joked that the roof was going to fall on her head.
“No, I’m going to help you,’’ he replied.
Hayden came and began to work on the house. He patched her roof, brushed on fresh yellow and brown paint, installed a new wood floor in the living room. He eventually moved in, working around the house and helping cover expenses when he gets work as a day laborer. On occasional evenings off, they cook dinner and watch a favorite Tyler Perry movie or football.
Debra’s 71-year-old mother, Pearl Lewis, visits often. Others - a sister, cousins, a favorite 4-year-old niece - stop by to sit around the kitchen table. Friends from work come, too. One of them has rented a room.
Debra has come to think of them as a new kind of family, drawn together by her house. She schemes to build a wheelchair ramp so that her grandmother can come. Maybe one day she could live there.
These visions keep her going each day as the bus takes her to work, and past reminders of what she has lost, and what she is trying to save: The Longwood hospitals where she tried for so long to conceive a child, where the miraculous pregnancy ended. The Dudley Square offices of Nuestra, where she repeatedly goes bringing pay stubs, bank statements, and questions.
She keeps her spirits high; positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes, she tells herself. But foreclosure still looms. The auction date was postponed, as Hill said it would be. But it isn’t gone. And Debra’s arthritis is getting worse. She worries to herself that, even if the bank eventually offers a loan with new terms, she will not be able to keep working long enough to get it.
A new deal saves the day
By fall, Debra could barely walk. She hobbled to the bus, and just getting through each day seemed a question. She made an appointment to see her rheumatologist. Her mind wandered to a dreaded possibility: Maybe I can’t work at all anymore.
One day at Walgreens, Debra suddenly felt her knees might give out.
“Can someone help me?’’ she said to nobody in particular. “Because I’m going down.’’
In early September, a phone call came. It was Hill on the line. The bank had taken her house off the auction block, Hill said, and approved a loan modification.
Debra listened dizzily as Hill listed the terms: Her missed payments would be added to the principal of her new loan. The interest rate would drop from 11 percent to 2 percent. Her monthly payments would fall from $2,000 to $1,400 - a reduction that Debra realized could pave the way for reduced work hours.
She could barely find her breath.
“God bless you!’’ she told Hill over the phone.
A grandmother’s love
Just before Thanksgiving, Debra strolled into a Dorchester nursing home, where her grandmother sat in her wheelchair watching television. Debra walked with relative ease, her legs feeling far lighter after her doctor’s cortisone shots and a medical order that she take three weeks off in October.
“I want to see you more often!’’ Cearlie Lewis said, as Debra bent down and kissed her cheek.
The two reminisced about the past, including Debra’s first sewing machine for Christmas at age 11. Then her grandma, a former live-in maid for a North Shore family, inquired about different family members, Hayden - and the house. Debra told her about the lower mortgage payments, and her new resolve to work no more than 40 hours a week between the two jobs. Debra said her life was better now, though money would still be very tight.
“Come here,’’ said Cearlie Lewis, pointing to the top drawer of her nightstand.
Inside, Debra saw an envelope stuffed with $1 and $5 bills, in total no more than $50.
“It’s yours,’’ her grandmother said. “If I die today or tomorrow, I want you to have it.’’