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Wearing dark sunglasses and a black tank top with her sports bra visible underneath, Darlene brushes in around noon and waves to her friends as she gets in line. Then she heads to her usual back-corner table, carrying a partitioned tray piled with chips, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, green beans and canned fruit. Many weekdays, this tray of food is all she eats.
"Don't you leave," she shouts to someone across the room. "C'mere, what's wrong with you?"
A little kid walks up. He's maybe 8 years old. He gives her a hug. "I have to go home," he says.
"I don't want you to go home," Darlene answers. "I thought you was supposed to be my man. How you gonna be my man if you go home?"
The kid cracks a smile and puts his arm around her neck.
"Baby, you know what?" Darlene says to a friend who always sits with her. "I've had this little guy since he was this big," she says, placing her hand a couple of feet from the floor. "I've had you since you was what, 4? 5?"
Darlene signed over parental rights for her own girl and three boys to their adoptive mother years ago. She only gets to see her kids once a year now. Like most of the Northeast's other downtrodden souls, she finds replacement family here.
Sitting at her corner table, amid the lunchtime chatter and familiar neighborhood faces, Darlene has a notoriety that's different from the one on the street.
In here, she fetches a food tray for an older friend and listens to the other woman's problems, trades stories with other working girls, and calls out bad parenting when she sees it.
Her temper sometimes flares, too, such as when she and another woman almost get into it over a skirt that Darlene thinks is too short. She says it's about respect and money. Girls who are too obvious make it harder for everyone, she says.
As she eats, people show their respect by bringing over trays of unfinished food and placing them in front of her. "See?" she says through her gapped smile, as she sandwiches taco meat, cheese and lettuce between tortilla chips. "Everyone loves Darlene."
When lunch is done, she tops off her cup with ice, walks up the stairs past the chapel and the waiting room for services, and heads back onto the street.
She takes off her tank top.
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