RANDOM McDONALD'S, Conn. -- I'm standing at the condiment bar. Javier is on his second box of the chicken nugget things. Honey mustard sauce is everywhere. The 12-year-old is an eating machine.
I'm trying to get an interview in between bites.
And I'm losing.
Javier has short black hair, big dark eyes and chipmunk cheeks with spots of sauce on them. In his left hand, a French fry. His right hand becomes a blur from mouth to chicken-thing box.
Three times I've had to move the tape recorder closer to him, his answers coming from a mouthful of Mickey D's. There's ketchup on the pause button.
If I could play the tape recorder for you, this is what the interview would sound like:
Me: "So, what's your favorite kind of music?"
Javier: Chew, chomp, chew, chomp, lips licking, swallow … "Rap."
Me: "Any favorite rap guy? Uh, here's a napkin."
Javier: Chew, chomp, chew, chomp -- suck on soda straw -- swallow, wipe one cheek, "Chris Brown."
It's been either six minutes or 16 minutes of this; I would know better if I could see the digital counter through the mustard.
And then I get my opening when the chicken nugget box is empty. Javi is eyeing my cheeseburger. I look at it, back up to Javi, then back down to the cheeseburger. I have American cheese leverage, so I seize it.
Me: "So, Javier, what would you like for Christmas?" [thinking it probably will come with sauce]
Javier looks up from eyeing the pickle I took out and put on the yellow cheeseburger paper … I'm eye-to-eye with a 12-year-old with honey mustard smeared on his cheek.
He's in total control of this table.
Javier: "A tackle box, and some tackle …"
Then his eyes break from mine and he looks down at the table and mumbles something.
Javier: [Mumble, mumble … ]
Then he says it louder, and his tiny voice bounces off the white speckle laminate and slams through my head.
Javier: "I'd really love to have a mom and dad, maybe a big brother or sister, too."
His head lifts up, and through a slow blink he looks at me, dead-on serious. It's his interview now, I don't know what to say as I look to stuff chicken things in my mouth.
Javier: "I just want a family for Christmas."
If you had my tape recorder, this is what you would hear next:
Me: "I need some more ketchup," followed by the rustling of my getting up from the table.
Out of Javier's sight at the condiment bar, I never touched the ketchup or honey-mustard pump, passing right over those little paper sauce cups, going right by the straw dispenser. It was the napkins I needed.
That day, I took a young child fishing. And his social worker.
Javier, a 12-year-old in snow pants, a borrowed coat and someone else's fleece hat, sat alone at a speckled McDonald's table eating an ice cream dessert paid for from a state of Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) expense account.
Back at the condiment bar, I watched as he sorted through hand-me-down Pokemon cards.
I watched as his eyes took sneak peeks at the tables around him, tables he could touch but never join. Tables of moms and dads, older brothers and sisters. Families.
And by the time I walked back to the table to finish the interview with Javier, the McDonald's condiment bar was out of napkins.
I threw Javier away. As did his mother and father. And others.
Adopted once, then given back.
Discarded by parents -- twice. Love, disposable.
Javier has been in the care of the state of Connecticut since he was about 6 … half his young life.
Javier lives in a safe house with as many as a dozen other kids. Normally, kids stay there up to 90 days. Javi's been there four months.
He has nowhere else to go.
Karen Weiss, a DCF social worker who has worked with Javier for the past three years, told me he is in the "Permanency Unit."
Me: "Permanency Unit, what's that?"
Karen Weiss: "It means it's for kids who are not going home; their parents have given them up."
If you're listening to my tape recorder, all you hear is silence after that answer.
I threw Javier away, too.
Here's the honest-to-God truth: Hook me up to those secret government truth machines, and you'll see this is how I came to Javier's story.
And the fact my wife makes me recycle.
And a buzzer-beating, 3-point jump shot.
Back around the beginning of November, I had had pretty much enough of the election stuff in the newspaper, so when the Hartford Courant got tossed onto my driveway, I just picked it up, all whole like, and, still folded, tossed it into the blue recycling bin as I walked into the house through the garage.
Don't do that -- toss it all rolled up. It just gets unrolled. Midair.
And what floated out was what the newspaper folks refer to as an insert. Normally, it's about cars, furniture, fairs, food, colleges or sales in honor of George Washington's birthday.
But not this time. Lying there, all upright on my garage floor, was the face of a child looking at me. Because anything on the floor in my house is my fault, I went over, picked it up and placed it inside the blue recycling thing.
A few days later, I went over, grabbed the bin and brought it out to the curb.
The next morning, after some mysterious town process of coming to get my three soup cans to save the planet, I picked up the bin and brought it back into the garage and, while walking into the house, saw a child looking up at me from the garage floor.
The same child I had just tossed. What was this, an insert with legs?
As I pick it up, I see the insert is for something called National Adoption Month, which I take to be November, the current month.
This time, I take the insert with the sweet young child on it, crumple it all up into a three-quarter-size basketball paper insert, spot the blue recycling bin on the other side of my wife's car, step back onto the imaginary 3-point line all guys have in their brains, lift one hand up with the National Adoption Month insert all balled up in it, back straight, feet and shoulders square, pump once, pump twice, left hand comes up to guide the shot, wait for the hush of the crowd, pump, arch back and with the sweetest touch start the arc of the final shot of Game 7, and for just a split second take my eyes off the blue recycling "hoop" and look at the Hartford Courant b-ball and see this …
"…has a strong passion for fishing."
And I stop, mid-game-winning shot.
"Passion for fishing …" What?
I uncrumpled the insert and read the phrase "Has a strong passion for fishing," then looked up a couple of sentences to find a picture of a child.
Javier. True story.
I threw Javier away.
But he came back.
In a dim garage on a cold November day, inside a crumpled newspaper insert, five words jumped out at me: a strong passion for fishing.
But here's the weird part: I forgot about the whole thing.
Somewhere between the spookily religious recycling bin and my office, probably right next to the refrigerator, I put the insert/basketball down, and someone threw it out!
I threw Javier away. Again.
(Ignoring the universe just makes it cranky. Especially when the universe gets ahold of your TV remote.)
It was during "The Biggest Loser" … I'm in bed with the pillow over my head … my wife is watching the program … the dog is at the bottom of the bed, biting my feet, and I'm drifting off to sleep …
Then I hear this, exactly: "Do the @#!*&! story."
I'm wide awake now; the Sony is talking to me. Lifting the pillow, I look at the TV and someone who weighs 350 pounds is just standing there. I turn to my wife and ask, "What did that lady just say?"
"Something about chocolate."
I sit up in bed. "You sure? I thought she told me, 'Do the @#!*&! story.'"
My wife just stares at me. Even the dog is looking at me. I don't normally interact with network TV like this.
So I lie down again, but I watch this 350-pound lady's every move and word for the next 50 minutes. This is the last thought I have before drifting off to sleep: "Great, now the universe is swearing at me. What next? A universe towel snapping?"
The next morning, after watching the whole episode over again on YouTube, just to be sure, I go out to get the Hartford Courant, pick it up and start reading the front page as I'm walking through the garage. Once again -- recycle -- a sweet dunk from inside the paint, and watch as an insert floats out, swings back and forth in the air and lands, open, on the garbage can we have filled with soda cans to recycle.
And there, sitting on top of the sticky Coke, Squirt and Dr Pepper cans, again … is Javier.
I've got to tell you, when the universe reaches out like that, twice, you can get religion. Right there in the garage at the blue recycling bin.
The Universe and the BASS Federation Nation
Try explaining any of that to a state of Connecticut PR guy.
Instead, I say "I want to take Javier fishing."
"Javier, the 'I have a strong passion for fishing' kid."
Call back, get another state of Connecticut PR guy.
I tell him some stuff that I have by now completely forgotten and could never testify to in court.
"Send me an e-mail."
Next day the state of Connecticut calls me back and says, "You really want to take Javier fishing?"
"OK, he'd love it."
"Tell us when and where and we'll have him there."
But I have no idea where and when or how. I don't tell the state of Connecticut that, though. I say instead, "Great! No problem."
It's December … and it's New England. It's 25 degrees outside … I have a big problem.
So I do what I always do when I have a problem … Google.
Type in "BASS Federation Nation," and up comes its Web site. I get the e-mail addresses of its president and the youth director and e-mail them my situation: I've just agreed with the state of Connecticut to take one of the Department of Children and Families services kids, who loves fishing, fishing. A little help here, please.
A couple of hours later, the youth director, Terry Baksay, calls me. Halfway through the story about Javier, he stops me and says "My 17-year-old son, Christopher, is adopted. We have had dozens of foster children through our house over the years, do whatever it takes to get Javier out fishing, whatever -- consider it done. Done."
And so it was.
At the receiving end of my e-mail to the BASS Federation Nation was Baksay, who turns out to be not only a pro bass angler but a guy with a master's degree in psychology who once worked as a marriage and family counselor. Oh yeah, and his wife is a social worker in the Bridgeport school system, and he fishes with his adoptive son in junior bass tournaments.
I was getting how the universe worked by now, but I still went out in the garage to check to make sure the recycling bin was still there.
"Call me Javi, Pops."
No disrespect given, none taken.
I will, and do.
Javi is in the sixth grade, and he has been in the care of DCF since 2002, when his parents "severed" their ties to him, as I was told by Karen Miskunas, the program supervisor for the DCF Adoptive Resource Exchange.
"Severed" is her word, not mine. But she told me it is the word the children themselves use when talking about it. With 29 years at DCF, she should know.
There's no doubt Javi has a strong passion for fishing. He even told me, "Whenever I find a magazine about fishing, I read it from cover to cover."
When I told his social worker it would be no problem for me to get him his own subscription to Bassmaster Magazine, she said that would be nice, "but where would you send it? As he bounces around from place to place all the time, there's no one place he calls home."
I asked Javi when he first started fishing. "I was 5, I think, and one of my foster mothers [he has had 'five or six'] had a friend named Bob, and he used to take me fishing. I just loved it. It makes me calm."
Javi likes math in school. "Not reading so much, but I'll read your story." Not a big video game guy; prefers to be outside. Loves baseball -- the Yankees are his favorite team and Derek Jeter his favorite player.
This past summer, he played right field for Paul & Eddy's Pizza youth baseball team in Hamden. Javi could hit the long ball. The team went 16-1.
Favorite TV shows: ESPN (and I in no way paid him to say that), "Drake and Josh" and "Family Guy," which elicited a raised eyebrow from his social worker.
When he reads, it's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and "every Harry Potter book there is."
Favorite foods: buffalo wings (and I in no way paid him to say that, either, with my being from Buffalo), pork chops, Japanese food and fried ice cream.
And, of course, chicken nuggets.
Taking Javi fishing
It's Dec. 15 -- a Monday -- just 10 days before Christmas, and we're at Candlewood Lake near Danbury, Conn.
And it's 60 degrees.
The universe again.
Terry: "Do you believe this weather today?"
Me: "Yeah, I kinda do."
Terry gives me the "Huh?" look, to which I say, "Don't ask."
I've just met the guy, so I'm not real sure how he would take to hearing he's just a puppet of my recycling bin.
Javi is sitting in Terry's bass boat, on the step leading up to the flat area in the front of the boat where the pros stand all day, casting every 15 seconds or so.
I know it has a name, but I can never remember it; the universe is not helping me much on this front.
As bass boats go, we are not going very fast (strictly DCF speed), but Javi has Karen Weiss' son's winged fleece hat pulled completely over his head, it's his first time ever in a boat, any boat … I warned the dude, but he's pretty much a turtle on the step.
Sitting next to me is his social worker, Karen, full face to Candlewood Lake. And even if the air temp is about 60, the water temp is 39 degrees and there's a wind chill that makes even a DCF desk job look good.
I don't know what this lady gets paid as a DCF social worker, but if it isn't A-Rod money, she's underpaid. Karen has on polka-dot boots, three or four coats and cheap fleece gloves and has Terry's camo jacket wrapped around her legs.
She has a 6,000 rpm shiver going on … tears are flying out of her eyes, down her cheeks, around her hood and off to the back of the boat, then smashing into the 250-hp Merc powering the rocket ship.
The lady is shivering vertically and horizontally at the same time, a spinning top in the freezer, and she leans over to me and says amid a spray of tears, exactly this, "You think Javi is OK?"
A-Rod money, I'm telling you.
The only thing I can see of Javi is a huge smile under the brim of the borrowed hat. He later told me, "It was fun and scary at the same time."
We banged fists, and I told him, "Just like life, dude, just like life."
A second later, Terry powers the ship down and a cool wave thing happens: A wave lowers the front of the boat gently down, and we are sitting on a just-above-freezing mirror lake.
Terry is up in a flash, as is Javi, and four fishing poles appear magically from somewhere. Terry fishes left, Javi right, and before I can get my camera out of the bag … Javi hooks a fish.
Reel, reel, reel, bang -- it's in the boat.
Javi has a huge grin on his face. Karen is rummaging around in her several layers of almost-warm clothing looking for her camera, and Terry and I look at each other and simultaneously say exactly this: "Oh, crap."
Karen is moving all around taking pictures of Javi and his fish, a trout.
A BASS writer, a bass pro, a bass boat … and a trout. Spontaneous combustion is clearly a possibility.
As I'm wondering whether there is such a thing as Troutmaster -- and whether they'd be hiring -- Terry comes up to me and whispers this in my ear, "I fish this lake all the time, and I have never, never caught a trout here on live bait."
I reply, "Let's move."
A couple of stops later, Javi is standing there with a fish I can actually take a picture of and send back to the bosses. Javi told me it was his first ever smallmouth bass catch: "A lot more hard to catch; they fight more, which surprised me."
Throughout the day, under variably sunny skies and dark clouds, Javi barely left Terry's side. "A lot more cooler fishing with a guy like Terry than it is fishing with just regular fishing guys."
Terry: "Javi knows what he is doing. He just needs a little coaching and needs to be on the water more … but he is a very coachable kid. He had never seen a fish finder before, and I just showed him what a fish would look like on it and he immediately picked it up, understood where the transponder was under the boat and quickly calculated our relationship to the fish. I know a lot of guys who never seem to figure it out, but within five minutes, Javi was all over it."
When I told Terry about Javi's wish to join a fishing club and to fish with kids in a tournament someday, Terry's response was, "Done."
"Rest assured Javi will be in my boat, and will, will be in a Junior Bassmaster tournament this year. Count on it."
In a scene I will never forgot, Terry and Javi were up on the front deck, the sun showing them in silhouette, Terry taking Javi's hands in his and showing the child how to cast.
"Showed him how to keep his right hand on the reel, so that when he casts, it directs the lure right to the spot you want it to go to. It took a few casts, but after a while, whenever I looked back, he never took his hand off the rod and his casts had some good distance to them," Terry said.
Terry doesn't know this, and I never told him what Javi told Karen in the car as they were driving back from the lake after a day of fishing.
Me: "So, Karen, do you think Javi liked it?"
Karen: "Oh yeah, very much so. In the car on the way back here, Javi told me he wished Terry were his father. He needs someone like that in his life: a strong father figure, to reach Javi, connect with him through fishing."
On a cold lake on a warm day, a connection was made.
Terry: "Did you notice whenever Javi got his line tangled or snagged on a rock, he would immediately start apologizing to me, and I kept telling him 'It's no big deal, don't worry about it.' But every time something didn't go like it was supposed to, he would apologize to me -- that's a sign that Javi has grown up always being told he's bad, he's at fault. I finally had to look him in the eye and tell him, 'Javi, it's OK. It's not your fault, son, it's not your fault.'"
Helping hands, helping words.
Javi's Christmas wish
"I'd like a family who likes fishing, pretty much any kind of fishing -- I don't know about a fly-fishing family, though. Never done that."
I can only nod because I can't look Javi in the eyes.
A lady and a child walk behind me and up to the counter. Javi is talking to me but watching them over my shoulder.
"If possible, can you put down I would like a family with an Australian shepherd named Rick?"
Karen is sitting next to Javi, huddled over her warm coffee, and she reaches out and touches my arm. She leans in and whispers to me, "One family that Javi stayed with a while had an Australian shepherd named Rick, and Javi loved that dog, slept with it every night in his bed."
Later, I tried to tell my wife that wish but couldn't quite manage to get it out. I can transcribe the quote, but I can't say it.
Doodling in ketchup with the last French fry, Karen starts talking to the tray.
"Somewhere out there," she picks up the paintbrush French fry, her head looks up as it moves to her mouth. "Somewhere out there …"
The French fry stops midway and now points at me, as a drop of red swings in the air.
"… there's a perfect family for Javi."
She then puts the lone French fry back on the tray, untouched.
"Somewhere, there has to be a family for Javi."
As I write this, it's snowing outside, but inside, cookies are being baked, flames are dancing in the fireplace, my son is playing with the dog, my daughter is winging her way home and the lights of the Christmas tree are reflected on my laptop screen.
My safe house.
Several miles away, Javi sits in a safe house, as well. One filled with three shifts of social workers, decorations provided by the state, as many as 13 other kids age 3 to 14, strangers just passing through. Sometimes he has a bedroom to himself, other times he shares it with two or more kids.
It's Christmas time for Javi, too.
A child given up.
A child who won't give up.
As I was leaving Javi in the McD's parking lot, I gave him some gifts, some provided anonymously by Alex at ESPN and others sent to him from BASS.
I gave him a hug and rubbed his head, and this was the last thing he said to me as I bent down to say goodbye, "Thanks, Pops … and please, help me find a family."
My Christmas, and all those to follow, will never be the same.
"There's nothing you can make that can't be made.No one you can save that can't be saved … "—John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "All You Need Is Love"
If you'd like more information on children like Javier please visit the State of Connecticut Heart Gallery, or contact a DCF worker at 1-888-543-4376