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Karlene’s rise to glory

Gercine Carter

Karlene’s rise to glory

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From eating scraps out of dustbins, Dr Karlene Richardson now walks the corridors of academia.
When the professor at a Manhattan community college shares her compelling story with young people, it is with an empathy that reflects her own experience.
Richardson was born in Franklyn Town, Kingston, Jamaica, to an 18-year-old mother. She lived with grandparents from eight months old, a sheltered upbringing by a “very strict” grandfather who never allowed his grandchildren to have friends at home,nor did he allow them to fraternise with the young men he loosely called “street boys”.
At age 13, Richardson went to the US Embassy alone to try to get a visa. To her surprise, it was given to her for one month and she went to her uncle and his wifein Long Island for a taste of the American life.
A month after she returned to Jamaica from that trip, her mother migrated to the United States. Two years after this Richardson went back to the US Embassy and got a ten-year visa.
She arrived in New York on a Sunday and went to work the following Wednesday, a job secured by her mother at a Manhattan fast food chain outlet.
“I did not have a green card but I would leave the house in Brooklyn at 6 o’clock in the morning and take the trip to Manhattan.”
 Richardson’s mother immediately asked for financial help to take care of two sisters left behind in Jamaica and the 16-year-old willingly obliged. Meanwhile
in the small three-room apartment comprising bathroom, living room and kitchen, the teenager slept on a sofa and also became babysitter for her six-month-old brother from her mother’s second marriage.
But in that cramped space with privacy lackingw hen her mother wanted to spend time alone withher husband, she encouraged her teenage daughter to “hang out on the streets”.
“At 16 she allowed me to go out to hang out with my aunt. I would goto the clubs with my aunt;I would go on bus rides with my aunt.”
She was also allowed to hang out with the daughters of her mother’s friends.It was one of those friends who turned out to be behind the dastardly act thatcaused her to be fast-tracked into the world of adulthood.
Invited to a party by that friend, Richardson arrived at the venue to find her alone with “a Jamaican guy” to whom she had been introduced earlier.
“I started getting scared. I was sweating. He asked me if I was scared and I said ‘no’, because I wanted to be this grown person.”
 She wanted to go outside and wait but he assured her “I am not going to do you anything.” So feeling thirsty, she trustingly accepted the drink he offered her.
“That is the last thing I remembered of having control of my thoughts.”
With her in that state, the man sat beside her,kissing and fondling her and eventually lifted her to his bed. She said, “Somehow I was aware these moves were being made. In my mind I was saying no, but my hands felt too weak to push him away.”
What followed make up an experience that Richardson said “will live with me for the rest of my life?”
She remembered how he pulled off her shirt, bruising her lip in the process. The next morning she awoke in the same room disoriented, to be asked by her attacker: “Why didn’t you tell me that you were a virgin?” Then she realised she had been raped.
 Thoughts of her mother’s reaction to her sleeping out fuelled her three-mile trek on foot back to her mother’s home.
“When I reached home my mum asked me where I was . . . . I did not answer. A part of me wanted to tell her what happened but we did not have that bond.”
One month later when the nausea and continuous sleeping set in, her mother’s suspicions were aroused. “Are you pregnant” she asked? Richardson got a positive answer to that question at Manhattan clinic which gave free pregnancy tests.
“That’s when my life stopped.” 
Without trying to find out who, why, where or when, her mother threw her out. 
She went to stay with another relative, but her mother soon called her back home conceding she could no longer do without her babysitter. For a brief while the relationship was great. She had given birth to her daughter Taisha. With only one stroller she used to push her little brother from school, she carried her daughter on the hip while pushing her brother home.
But conflict between mother and daughter returned and Richardson was put out on the streets for the second time, this time with a baby.
“We did not have anywhere to go.” Still she left, her belongings packed in garbage bags which she left on the sidewalk to dash back inside to fetch her daughter’s bottle. She got back outside to find everything gone. Mother and daughter were left with only the clothes on their backs.
A daughter, no money, food or clothing, Richardson hit New York’s streets to begin an existence of roaming by day and bedding down on a train at night. Showers were taken at friends’ houses and then it was back to “hitting the train because she said “I did not want anybody to know that we were homeless.”
In a still strong Jamaican accent Richardson said: “We ate wherever we hung out, so I would go to friends’ house and wait till dem cook and then eat and that’s how we survived.” The nomadic style of life went on for three months before Taisha’s godmother, realising the two were homeless, invited them to stay at her home.
Three months later, unable to contribute to her keep, Richardson had to leave. She was offered shelter in a section of an abandoned building without a bathroom, but after a search took up residence in another apartment upstairs, on a floor that had a bathroom.
Jobless, Richardson, her daughter perched on her hip, resorted to begging for money and food on street corners. 
 “One day I was so hungry.  I was so hungry that  after I put her to bed I went down to the basement after some men who were working fixing up the building had left, to see if they had left crackers or a cookie or something.” She found nothing.
Exiting the basement, she noticed food containers dumped in the garbage.
“I was so hungry, I took out the foil containers . . . and I was so glad to see that they had not eaten all their lunch.” Everything scraped from the four containers made up that night’s dinner. Night after night this is where she went to find dinner until that day when, after she had eaten scraps of curried goat left behind, she attempted to quench her thirst from the bottle of “pineapple soda” she found sitting on a window sill.
“Nothing that I was going through at the time broke me, but that one sip(of Pine Sol disinfectant) broke me. I knew I had to go upstairs and get my daughter. I knew I had to get out.”
She walked to a pay phone and called her mother and was crestfallen when her mother said “Michelle, you know I only have space for one. I have to go.”
 “..And I heard her telling her husband to hang up the phone. As I was walking away, that’s the first time my daughter saw me cry. I knew something had to give. That was as low down as I could possibly go.”
It was back to the run-down accommodation.
A call to a friend the next day led her to a job. She saved her salary, lived off tips “and told myself I am going to college.” She also met and married a man who offered her the chance of a good life. His subsequent abusive treatment got him arrested, but it also enabled Richardson to get her divorce and green card status.
Now armed with bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees,Richardson goes around “spreading my story of hope to let women and men know that rape is nothing to be ashamed of”.
She has put it all in her recently published book Gutter To Glory.