It was a paint-ball gun, Reuben Maduro insists when I ask him to explain the weapons charge on his record. Dumb, he admits, but he and his friends were just playing around.
And no, he didn't endanger the life of any child; he was just walking too far ahead of his girlfriend's daughter when police at the mall approached him and he got mouthy.
There were also the drug-related charges, I told him when I went by his house this week with a copy of his criminal record. He swears he's not selling.
I want to believe him; I have no reason to think he's lied to me. He seems sincere.
As bad as his record looks on paper, the way 22-year-old Reuben explains it it's the kind of knuckleheaded stuff a lot of kids in Hartford find themselves slipping in and out of.
But for Reuben, the stakes couldn't be higher.
With his mother gone, he's the only hope the family has of staying together. After Eleanore Davila's funeral, which I wrote about a week ago, Reuben said he was ready to step up.
But his past may get him and his brothers kicked out of their home, destroying any shot they have of not becoming just three more statistics.
When he asked if he could stay in the home his mother was renting, the answer from the Hartford Housing Authority was swift and clear — no. The brothers have about 30 days to find a new place to live.
Between complaints from neighbors and his criminal record, Reuben had already been removed from his mother's lease. He's also barred from living in any of the city's public housing.
Those are the rules when someone breaks them, and, more than that, a big reason behind the transformation of the city's housing developments. I get it, makes sense.
But I thought I'd call anyway; if ever there was a moment when maybe someone needed a second chance, wasn't this it?
He's had plenty of chances, Bill Ortiz, at the housing authority, told me. If Reuben was serious about changing, wouldn't he have done so when his mother was sick? One of Reuben's drug arrests was as recent as October.
Ortiz is right; if ever there was a time for Reuben to stay out of trouble, it was while his mother battled a chronic lung condition. But as unfortunate as it is, it often takes a loss to finally make someone change for good.
And while I understand that the housing authority has to balance the good of all of the families against the good of this one, the situation for these three brothers has changed dramatically.
The only real alternative to taking a chance on Reuben is breaking up the family and sending them off into a broken system. There's a grandmother, but she's leaving for the Virgin Islands soon. An aunt in Maryland; another in New York. But the boys want to live here, together. Keenan wants to stay at the magnet school he loves in Bloomfield.
The other night, Keenan came downstairs looking agitated. When Reuben asked what was wrong, the 11-year-old mumbled something about trying to find his phone. But Reuben knew there was more.
Finally, Keenan broke. "I miss my mother," he cried.
They all do, and as imperfect a situation as this may be, they're trying. I really believe that. The other night, the three brothers put up the Christmas tree they once decorated with their mother. Reuben's trying to stay on top of the bills, making sure Keenan does his homework and keeping a close eye on 17-year-old Grayan. He's trying to do his mother proud.
Ortiz, who graciously heard me out, said he'd think about it and call me back.
I'm waiting on the call. So are the boys.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at