Most of us have no idea how far a person will go in order to survive. Few of those who saw me competing last season on Top Chef, the Bravo channel's reality cooking show, had a clue that at age 12, I was selling drugs to help feed my family and heating up canned goods with a cigarette lighter.
As I saw it, we were drawn into the drug hustle by necessity. It all started when my mom, who worked as a legal secretary, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Right after her surgery, while she was still fighting to recover, she was fired from her job at a San Francisco law firm. She had taken care of my two older brothers and me ever since our father left when I was 3. My brothers and I weren't about to watch our mother go without the medicine she needed. And we refused to let our family starve.
As a little girl in the drug trade, I remember the danger but I don't recall ever feeling fear. My oldest brother had bought a gun from somewhere, and there were times when he would be in the upstairs window of the three-story house we'd rented with our drug money, shooting down at somebody who threatened our business. Somehow, even as the bullets flew, I never flinched. My mom eventually called a halt to the dealing two years later when she started to get back on her feet. Even in her illness, she could see we were headed nowhere fast. She said, "Enough is enough. I don't want my children dead in Oakland. I don't want your blood on my hands."
At different points during those chaotic years, we were also homeless. Once we were evicted because our landlady had gotten strung out on crack. We came home one day and the sheriff met us, saying, "This house has been foreclosed on. We've got an order to lock it up." We lived in several motels after that. One of them, on MacArthur Boulevard, was truly broken down. Getting off the school bus in front of that hellhole, with other kids watching me, I was so humiliated. My mom cried with me; she felt my shame. But even when I begged her, she refused to let me skip school. As I've grown older, I've become a deeply spiritual person. I now believe that God was covering me during that dangerous time. I never got addicted. I was never arrested. I never spent a single night in jail. Even though I didn't know it at the time, God had people modeling for me what it means to live by faith. My mother was my first and best example of how to keep striving, how to keep showing up with your chin held high, your best dress on your back, and your prayers hollered up to God's ear.
And God kept hearing us. When the bank foreclosed on our crack-addicted landlady, one of our mother's friends stored our appliances, and another let us stay with her for a couple of weeks. After that, we ended up in another motel briefly, until once again, God came out of nowhere. My mom was standing at the bus stop one day, on her way to a job interview, dressed in stilettos and a three-piece suit, when a little old lady drove up and said, "Honey, you look like there's something wrong." As long as I live, I will never forget this lady's name: Jeffie Hooper. She said, "I am going to take you and your daughter with me to church on Sunday morning." And then Jeffie Hooper, this perfect stranger, let us stay with her for three months until my mom found work.
Being on that roller coaster growing up, with blessings poured on us when we least expected it, taught me some valuable lessons about responsibility. In the shelters I made it my duty to keep our room spick-and-span. That way my mom would have less to worry about when she got in from spending the day looking for a job. I kept house. I cooked. I stood in line for government surplus cheese and milk and canned goods and helped make sure it sustained us for however long we needed.
Looking back, I can see why my mother never gave up and how I'm obligated to do no less. My mom believed if you get out of God's way long enough, you will get just what you need, for God sees way down the road. God saw my mother retiring early to become a church pastor. He saw me studying for my culinary arts certificate, marrying my husband, Jason, and raising our daughters, now 8 and 5, and my niece, now 12. And in October 2005, God saw us opening Feed the People, one of the few Black-owned businesses in tiny Oakdale, California. In my restaurant, I cook barbecue and down-home meals that customers travel from miles around to eat. My mother buses tables and runs security, and my husband also works next to me full-time. With God's help we are keeping our little business afloat.
A year ago, God sent me to audition for Top Chef and then had them pick me as a contestant, knowing the exposure would only make things better. Since then, business has picked up enough that we're breaking even. I live a happy life, a rather fearless life, which is what happens when you lean on the Lord. I should have ended up a statistic, but I refused to be only that. I've learned that prayer changes things, and that no matter how desperate your circumstances may seem, a victory is on the way. Most of all, I know that the past is only the past, and people can be restored. When I look back now, it is only to assess where I came from and to give thanks.
Mia Gaines-Alt told her story to Katti Gray, a writer who lives in New York.
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