In ''Maid in Manhattan,'' Jennifer Lopez trots out her polished routine of a Bronx girl done good. Her character is a hardworking single mother who rises up from the streets with the help of a full figure, a chiffon dress, and a rich, white boyfriend. It's a sweetly benign Cinderella story with limp roots in the hood. And I hope the girls in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's new book Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx never get their hands on a bootleg copy. The last thing these kids need is another hollow fairy tale.
Jenny must be from a different block than Tremont Avenue, ''one of the poorer blocks in a very poor section of the Bronx,'' where LeBlanc, a freelance journalist, immersed herself for over a decade. From the abandoned building where kids hang out and have sex to the roaming heroin mills to a sweet-16 block party, she presents a deeply intimate portrait of the urban poor. It's a life where ''better-than was the true marker'' of success: ''Thick and fed was better than thin and hungry. Family fights indoors -- even if everyone could hear them -- were better than taking private business to the street. Heroin was bad, but crack was worse. A girl who had four kids by two boys was better than a girl who had four by three.'' Humanizing these mean streets are two young teenagers, Jessica and Coco, and their frustrated searches for love and stability.
When the reader is first introduced to Jessica, she's a charismatic 16-year-old Puerto Rican who clings ''fiercely to her fantasy of being rescued.'' In the course of ''Random Family,'' she'll drop out of high school, have a baby girl, hook up with the neighborhood's heroin king, have twin girls, get sent to jail for 10 years on a narcotics conspiracy charge, have an affair with a prison guard, and become pregnant with twin boys.
Jessica's friend Coco is a sweet-natured 14-year-old who tucks lollipops into her ponytail and smears Vaseline on her face to prevent battle scars from fights. Coco falls for Jessica's brother Cesar, and the two kids have a baby. Coco has a baby with another boy. Cesar is sent to prison for accidentally shooting his friend in a gang fight. Then Coco has another baby. And another. And another.
Almost every woman in these pages has been sexually molested, including Jessica's 2-year-old daughter. Coco makes $5.14 an hour at Price Chopper, while Jessica's boyfriend brings in $500,000 a week running a drug empire. And as soon as someone gets their hands on some cash, it's ripped through, wasted on disposable symbols of status. Coco receives $1,734 for her youngest daughter's disability and she spends it all on furniture and a large-screen TV. Coco's mother's boyfriend wins a $70,000 lawsuit for a fall from a fire escape and within months blows it on, among other things, take-out, cabs, a funeral, a gun, and leather coats for the whole family. ''Coco told him, 'You're all getting outrageous.' He's like 'You never know if you die tomorrow.''' So folks buffer themselves with drink and weed as boyfriends, fathers, and sons march off to prison one by one.
LeBlanc's reporting illuminates the ugly, static reality of the street. She's an unflappable narrator, one who doesn't get voyeuristic kicks out of showing just how screwed up life can get. A dash of melodrama creeps into her story now and then -- ''her brown eyes weren't squinting to see the horizon. Coco lived in the present; she was looking down, over the street'' -- but LeBlanc does an impressive job of keeping her sense of horror in check. A drug bust or an abused child may be a nightmare, but ''the greater challenge was surviving the daily grind.''
There are some good times. Coco dances to salsa music with her daughters; Jessica gets out of jail three years early; Cesar takes college courses in prison. But they are bracketed by dozens of debilitating ones that beat back any groping for a better life. ''When you were poor,'' writes LeBlanc, ''you had to have luck and do nearly everything absolutely right.... The $10 loan to a neighbor might mean no bus fare, which might mean a missed appointment, which might lead to a two-week loss of WIC [a needs-based program for women and children]....''
This isn't the movies. So try not to hold it against Coco and Jessica when, after 10 years, they still haven't gone straight. The girls are still waiting for their princes to come. And they've transferred their futile fantasies of a storybook ending onto their daughters. Coco's oldest, Mercedes, is already wise to her own misery. At 7 years old, she'll announce, ''I have suffered enough.'' She's right, but nobody pays her any mind.