It's a hot Saturday after noon in a little park off Broadway. The sun beats down on a slowly ambling crowd as reggae-rap blasts from man-sized speakers and people queue at makeshift stalls on the foldaway tables that ring the blistering tarmac of the carpark in front of City Hall. It has the atmosphere of a funfair, but there are no toys or toffee-apples on show; no teddy bears to be won on the lucky dip. The prizes here are children.
On each table is a copy of the New York City Family Album, a bulging loose-leaf file of colour photos of anxious smiles and young lives summed up in a few short paragraphs. Big noticeboards full of children's mugshots sit on the tables, set out like houses in an estate agents shop window. This is New York's annual Adoption Fair.
In a nation where the illegitimate birthrate is soaring, especially among teenage mothers, and where single-parent families are becoming the norm, the childcare system is close to meltdown. Nearly half a million children are in homes or foster care. Most have one overriding ambition - to be adopted and live the Cosby family life as seen on TV. Few have any chance of fulfilling that dream.
In America as in Britain, there is little problem in getting cute newborn babies adopted. They are in such demand that there are slick organisations which charge large fees to import babies from Romania, China and Bangladesh. They have big-business written all over them, with 0800 phone numbers and affluent customers.
The adoption fair is at the other end of the scale. Most of the children on show today do not fall into that convenient, cuddly category. They are problem kids: crack-babies, psychological screw-ups, older children who have bounced around the pinball machine of the care system, hyperactive kids, kids with learning disabilities, and quite often a mixture of all of these. And then there are the most difficult to find a home for, those with mental and physical disabilities.
New York City has 45,000 of these children - that's a town the size of Newbury - and they are a huge burden on its social services departments. They come from the ghettos of the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens.
Two years ago, Mayor Rudy Giuliani set up the city's first office solely looking after the interests of these children - the Children's Services Department - with a full-time commissioner, Nick Scoppetta, himself a foster child, to run it.
Since then Scoppetta has cut through acres of red tape, and the pedantic pace of the Family Court, to try to speed up the adoption process. He has also come down hard on agencies which are slow getting children out of care and into families. In August, instead of receiving the usual rubber-stamp renewal of their two-year licences, 28 of the city's 73 adoption agencies - most of them non-profit-making charitable trusts - were put on probation and told they had one year to improve or they would be closed.
The carnival atmosphere of this year's adoption fair, rejigged, jazzed-up, and promoted as much more than the annual social workers' soiree it had been for the previous 19 years, is part of Scoppetta's drive. "We want to raise the profile and let people out there know there are children - lots of them - in here looking for mums and dads", he says.
And it seems to be working. Police reckon about 5,000 people attended the fair during the afternoon. More than 1,300 of them signed registration forms, the first step on the road to adoption.
"We are absolutely delighted. This is the most successful fair we have ever had", says Maggie Lear, Children's Services spokeswoman. Even before the day ends, a small group from the department are planning next year's. It will be bigger with more stalls, more children's photos. The fair's visitors are from all walks of life and all social classes. This is equal-opportunity childcare - too lax in the rush to move children through the system, say some critics. Adoptive parents are of all colours and races. They may already have children of their own; they may be divorced or single; they may be poor, perhaps even unemployed; they may share parenting with a relative; they may be older or even retired.
One couple, Doug O'Brien and his wife June, work in Wall Street. Immaculately dressed in lightweight linen suits, they have parked their Mercedes round the corner. They pace anxiously between the stalls. "We haven't been able to have children", says 35-year-old June. "Now we are exploring our options for adoption. We want to talk to as many agencies as possible. As we understand it, the speed with which you are able to adopt children frequently depends upon the agency you go to. We could go to an agency specialising in babies, but we would like to help a New York kid if we can."
Another striking couple are Heather Guerino and her husband Sirio, dressed in matching orange and black. Sirio, in cowboy boots and with shoulder-length hair, is a video-tape editor and community activist. Heather runs a toddler day-care creche for working mothers in Brooklyn. The Guerinos, in their forties, have two grown Up children. 'Now we want to adopt because we love kids, says Heather. We're having a good life and we want to give something back.
Many in the crowd have already adopted, or are in the process of adopting foster-children. "I adopted my son Matthew last year,' says Audrey Lowery, a single mother who works in a Brooklyn supermarket. "Now I am looking for another child. I'd like a little girl and this is a really useful way to find her. You get to pick the sort of children you want. You find out about them and the more you discover, the more the new relationship is likely to succeed when you bring your child home. Maybe it sounds a bit like buying a kid in a store - but it works, so don't knock it."
Scoppetta endorses that. "This is a crisis", he says. "Childhood does not last for ever. I want kids to find loving homes while they are still young enough to benefit from the experience".
Through Hip Hop Radio's loudspeakers, Mayor Giuliani agrees with his commissioner. "There are a lot of children and there are a lot of people in New York City who need children", he tells the crowd.
"Our task is to bring them together."
For one young boy, that togetherness is to be a crowded apartment block in Spanish Harlem. Three-year-old Moses came to his new home wearing his most treasured possession on a red, white and blue ribbon round his neck. It was a medal he won for running at one of the ten or so homes he has known in his short life. A simple brown disc and a ribbon. In a world of changing faces, this is Moses's security blanket. Nothing and no one can separate him from it.
He stands with his sister, brothers and two social workers in a rough concrete hall six floors up in a city council block as Nancy Martinez peers down through the spyhole in her door. She throws back the four locks - the level of security you need in these flats - and Moses shuffles in.
Martinez, 33, loves children. If the Pope ever gives out sainthoods to the living, Nancy should get one. She and her husband Diomede, 47, were immigrants from the Dominican Republic 15 years ago. They have three children of their own. Jackie, 13, Vanessa, 11. and Danny, 10 During the day Nancy looks after the children of Aids sufferers. Then she goes home to care for her own extended brood.
With their children growing up, Nancy and Diomede wanted more youngsters around them. At the adoption fair last year they spotted a photo and fell in love. Moses, then two, was a crack-cocaine baby with an illegal immigrant junkie for a mother and an absentee father. Today Moses is not found in the bullrushes, he is picked from a brochure.
"The man was showing us different pictures, and there was Moses in the magazine. It's a beautiful picture. You can't help falling in love with him. He looks so cute", says Nancy. "I like children. I love them. I don't want any more of my own, but I love to have children around me. My husband loves kids as well. We both wanted more around us. They make you feel wanted, they enrich your life".
Perhaps four was more than she was bargaining for, but in America, as in Britain, they don't like to break up siblings. Moses moved in with his two sisters, Anais, four, and Andrea, six, and brother Christopher, eight.
"They came with, like, 50 boxes of clothes and half of them didn't fit", says Nancy. "We had to go through the whole lot separating what and what doesn't fit. They only had one pair of shoes, so we had to go buy all that."
For this, foster parents get a weekly allowance of $83 (£50) from social services. Once adopted, the court papers are sealed and families are on their own.It is a struggle, says Nancy. But they neither need nor spend much. Two grown-ups and seven children share a living room, kitchen, three bedrooms and one bathroom. But as all the adoption brochures point out, things are so desperate that "ideal parents" come in all shapes, sizes and social classes.
All they have to do is love children, attend three months of weekly foster parenting classes, which Nancy and Jacki attended together, and pass social services' checks to make sure they have no criminal records and that their accommodation is adequate.
Nancy has lived in this flat for five years. It has bare linoleum floors, no floor-space at all in the bedrooms, and the living room is furnished with a television, a bird in a cage, and a baroque three-piece suite in dark wood and white brocade protected by thick, clear plastic. As far as the social workers who came to inspect the place were concerned, it was ideal: it already had child safety bars on the windows.
You live on the streets in the hot, humid summers in this area, and gunfire echoes through the night. By any standards, this is a rough neighborhood, but it's a huge step up for little Moses. "The kids were jumping from house to house; homes, temporary foster parents. We were their last hope", says Nancy in her broken English. "The mother has never had custody of them."
Moses looked so adorable. But we were going on vacation. Everything was booked. As soon as we returned the agency was on the phone asking if we would have him. I said of course, and the same day they came round with him and his brother and sisters.
"We want to adopt these kids - at least the younger two - if we can. The older ones have severe psychological problems. We are not sure what will happen there.
"But it takes a long time. The application is in. Now we must wait. It has to go into the Family Court where they decide who should have the children - the natural parents or those wanting to adopt them. It can take years, sometimes three, four, five. It is a battle, really, between us and the parents. We obviously think the kids would be better off with us, but we have to accept whatever the judge decides. It's going to be hard, though, if they are taken away."
Her followers believe that this young woman is as holy as Christ. They wait for hours to gaze into her eyes for five silent seconds. Why? Alan Franks joins the queue
FOUR DAYS a week, just before seven in the evening, a long mute line of people forms outside the home of Mother Meera. They wait with the patience of a Buddha and queue with the commitment of the English. Every day brings another 200 of them from all over the world. They are of every age and background, with a predominance of middleclass professionals.
They have no hope of speaking to her. All they crave is a matter of seconds in her silent presence. Most here believe her to be the human incarnation of The Divine Light, and no less an avatar than Christ. Even those who doubt such lofty claims think there is something pretty peculiar going on.
Much against her wishes, Mother Meera has started to figure as an icon for the spiritually hip of the post-religious Nineties. These days everyone knows someone who has a friend who has been to Meera, or is just about to go. Nevertheless, because of her avoidance of publicity, an audience with The Mother is said to be about as chic as you can get.
It was in 1991 that her fame soared, with the publication of Hidden Journey by the brilliant Oxford academic and poet Andrew Harvey. This was a graphic account of his 12-year friendship with Meera in India and Germany, and of the dramatic influence it had on his life. Iris ' Murdoch praised it for "shining with the mystery of truth", and the generally more I prosaic Economist found in it the story of modern man searching for enlightenment and "just occasionally glimpsing what he hardly dares look for.
When Harvey said that the Meera story had "not a single detail that flatters the rational mind", he was not exaggerating; his account was full of visions and divine manifestations, of the late Hindu mystic Sri Aurobindo appearing before him, and of Meera presenting herself to him and two others in a blinding white light. In attempting to pre-empt his hostile critics, Harvey was touching on a difficulty that dogs most attempts to make her biography palatable to the sceptical. We are told that she was an exceptional child who had her first experience of Samadhi, or deep trance, at the extraordinarily early age of six; that on at least one occasion, while in a village 50 miles from her uncle, she turned up at the foot of his bed and declared that there was "another way of travelling". We hear that in 1976 a number of Hindu Gods blessed her and merged into her being, and that two years later she was imbued with the peerless force of the Paramatman (Absolute) Light. In the same year she was taken to the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, apparently impressing its elders with her answers to their searching questions. She was hailed in the Indian government press and she began to attract devotees from Great Britain, Germany, America, Russia and Japan. While she is not considered the only living Indian avatar (the 70-year-old Sathya Sai Baba, for example, is equally renowned) Meera's followers maintain that the sheer size and power of her enlightenment distinguish her from the rest.
The essence of it all is this: Meera is credited with having "brought down" a major universal light for the benefit and transformation of the world. Her work is seen as being in direct line of descent from that of Sri Aurobindo, who died in 1950, and of his shakti, or partner, who outlived him by 23 years. Whether her followers see this enlightenment in literal or figurative terms, there are enough here of an apparently rational cast to make a total dismissal of her look simplistic.
Mother Meera's home. Oberdorf 4a, is a plain suburban house in a secluded street. One neighbour has a lawn full of gnomes, and another has a shrine to Jesus, Mary and Joseph set into the front wall. The only talking comes from the man stationed at the front door with a clipboard, ticking off the names of the visitors. The modish magazines which say she is as hard to get to as the Dalai Lama have got it wrong. Anyone can go to Thalheim for darshan, provided they have made an appointment first. The waiting list usually stands at several weeks.
Inside, there are bodies everywhere - seated ones, folded ones, protruding ones, creaking ones.
Everyone stands, and still nothing happens. Then she materialises, a small, selfpossessed figure in a dazzling sari. She sits in her chair at the side of the room and gets on with what she is here to do. One by one, the devotees, all 200 of them, shuffle themselves forward towards the single seat known as Der Wartestuhl (the waiting chair). From the adjoining rooms comes a slow train of people inching forwards on their knees. Some older ones are in discomfort, but never less than stoical. Many are moved to tears by the occasion, or else by the reflections that it provokes in them. Mother Meera herself is clearly in a state of heightened concentration. Her head moves backwards and forwards between one Pranam (touching) and the next. Her followers regularly say that at the moment of Pranam and just afterwards they can feel a tingling in their heads. They describe her as being surrounded by bright light. Others believe they have been healed by her touch.
I am being drawn forwards by the tide towards the Wartestuhl and I manage to sneak one last look at the manual. "Kneel in front of the Mother and bow down so that she can hold your head. When the Mother takes her hands away, sit back on your heels, open your eyes and the Mother will look into your eyes and you look into the Mother's eyes.
1 obey to the letter. It is a kind, open face, with not very good skin. The eyes are dark and limpid, and the expression is all the more interesting for being less beatific than in the posed photographs.They fail to convey a quality that I can only describle as something between canny and wry. She holds my gaze in hers for about five seconds, then dips her face and I go back to my place.
Did I feel anything? No not a sausage. This probably says more about me than her. What can you expect from an agnostic, lapsed Anglican with a detached, if real, interest in the phenomenon that she represents?
There is one last group remaining in the car-park, waiting to be collected. One of the young men says that he definitely saw Meera's head surrounded in bright light.
There is a pause and then his friend says that he saw it too. They talk and talk, and the awful thing is, I don't believe either of them. I even start to feel sorry for Mother Meera for having yet another burden of expectation placed upon her.
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