By Tom Ehrich

AUSTIN, TX — I am deep into a disturbing and yet riveting read: “Random Family,” by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

Disturbing, because it describes a New York neighborhood not far from my own in miles but light-years distant in the human condition.

Now I know first-hand the cost of unrelenting poverty: the serial pregnancies of teenagers like Jessica and Coco, the drug wealth of Boy George and Cesar and then their imprisonment, three-generation households unable to provide consistent care for any generation, lost children, frightened teenagers, weary and drugged out grandmothers, men who prove their manhood by impregnating girls but don’t know what to do next.

I also know about dreams that won’t die, strong devotions, moments of grace, and systems that try.

LeBlanc’s 2003 non-fiction narrative is riveting because it doesn’t patronize or idolize its people. It just describes their world and tells their stories, gathered over 10 years of research.

I think my Manhattan apartment small, but compared to the projects on Tremont Avenue in The Bronx, I live grandly. I think myself strong and capable, but if I had been born into Boy George’s brutish world, instead of a middle-class family-friendly neighborhood in Indianapolis, would I have had the strength of character to survive intact?

I read “Random Family” on my flight to Austin, and then stepped into a seemingly prosperous world where all the cars are huge, money flows, and politicians inhabiting bubbles sneer at the Jessicas and Cocos across the tracks.

The gaps dividing us are vast, and yet they were formed largely by chance, not personal merit. I am grateful for good fortune. Now I wonder what should come next.