By Elif Ince and Mamta Badkar
Travis Antonio Luciano sits at a café table near the entrance to the Bronx Zoo. He is about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, skinny and has a wispy mustache on his otherwise baby face. On his back rests a drawstring knapsack and in his lap sits a two-year-old toddler, TJ, who has a head full of curly brown hair, dark black eyes, a button nose and small pearly teeth that sparkle when he smiles.
“I often get asked if he’s my baby brother,” Luciano says. “And I tell them he’s my son.”
Luciano lives with his mother and younger sister in a cramped two-bedroom apartment and loves to play football with his friends in the small patch of green across from his house in Morrisania. He works five days a week at a café in the Bronx Zoo. He recently got his GED which he wants to turn into a job as an electrical technician.
Yet Luciano also has to take care of his two-year old son, for whom he is the sole custodian. At 19, Luciano is a single dad.
Two years ago, his ex girlfriend, a 15-year-old high school student at the time, became pregnant. “Travis grew up in a church and a lot of spiritual things took place,” said his mother Elizabeth Porter, “Abortion wasn’t an option for him.”
TJ’s now 17-year-old mother, who moved to Philadelphia, visits him twice a month in New York City, said Porter. Luciano thinks the time apart affects TJ badly.
At the zoo TJ squirms in Luciano’s lap, whimpers and frequently cries for “mommy.” It is a stubborn cry that Luciano is used to.
“When she’s leaving, he has this face where he knows that she’s not gonna come back for a while, and that hurts a lot,” he said.
“A lot of times, he calls people ‘mom,’ that bothers me a lot,” Luciano said. “I don’t like women getting too close to him, because then he’s calling this girl mom, and this girl disappears and then where did mom go? Another mom has disappeared.”
Luciano and TJ’s mother stayed together for about two months after TJ was born. “I went to school, then I went to work at McDonald’s and I used to get home around 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “It was really hard and stressful.” When Luciano’s hectic schedule exacerbated the problems in their relationship, he said, the couple threw in the towel.
“It kinda hurt cause I wanted my son to have a family,” Luciano said.
Becoming a single dad has changed his life drastically. “Having my son forced me to grow up really fast,” he said. He couldn’t afford to spend the time he needed to finish his high school degree and had to transfer into a GED program. To pay the bills, he took a $7.25-an-hour job at the Bronx Zoo.
Luciano shakes his head at the thought of his friends complaining about school and their hurry to grow up. “When you get older you have children you have to worry about, you have work you have to worry about, you have bills you have to worry about, and that is nothing compared to high school drama at all,” he said.
“I miss high school,” he said. “I miss being a kid again.”
Teenage pregnancies are not a rarity in the Bronx. The South Bronx has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in New York City, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the borough’s rate is double the national average. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 445,045 live births among mothers aged 15 to 19 years in 2007, citing a birth rate of 42.5 per 1000 teenage girls in 2007 . Yet, most of these pregnancies end with the mother taking care of the child, and the father paying child support.
Among single parents living with their children, only 18 percent are men. Though there are no official numbers on teenage single dads, Luciano knows his situation is rare.
“At the moment I don’t know any single fathers,” he said. “You just hate being the only one sometimes.”
His god brother, he explained, recently had a child, but is still with his girlfriend.
“I feel like I don’t really want to talk to him about certain things, like ‘Oh god, I had to stay up all night,’ and this and that because he doesn’t do the same things,’’ Luciano said. “He works, she watches the babies.”
“When you see stuff like that, you wish it was you, you wish that I was still with my son’s mother,” he said. “but then you know things wouldn’t work out the same.”
Being a single dad means Luciano can no longer go to movies because he knows the $10 he would spend on the ticket might come in handy when TJ needs another box of diapers in the middle of the week. In between work and caring for TJ, he can rarely make time for a game of football with his friends. Going out at night has all but disappeared from his life, he said.
“Sometimes I get home from work and I’m extra tired because there were a million guests at the zoo one day, and I just wanna go to sleep and I get home and he’s still up, and he still wants to play, and he hasn’t seen daddy since this morning and he’s running to me and I can’t.” he said. “I’m sorta used to it by now but there’s just those days when you just need an Excedrin for your headache cause you’re doing this by yourself.”
The job at the zoo helps Luciano pay for part of TJ’s expenses, though it gets nowhere close to making ends meet. Luciano’s mother, Elizabeth Porter, 43, who works as an administrator for a union representing teaching and research assistants at Columbia University, is the backbone of the family, emotionally and financially. Porter is divorced from Luciano’s father.
Porter explained that she often helps her son out with the baby’s expenses. “Financially I still take home all the bills, buy all the Pampers, wipes and bottles and clothes,” she said. And her support doesn’t stop there.
She had to miss work last week because TJ was rushed to Montefiore Medical Center after a bad asthma attack. She stayed with him overnight.
Porter knows the travails of teenage parenthood . She was in her last term in high school when she got pregnant with her first son. As the first in her family to finish high school, she had dreams for her future. “I wanted to be a gymnast and do all the exciting things out there, and unfortunately I got pregnant,” she said.
“I was going to be a single parent; there was no father figure in the picture,” Porter said adding that her mother was a believer in “if you’re going to have a child, you’re going to do everything yourself.”
“So most of the responsibilities were mine outside of mom babysitting when I went to school. I didn’t go out, didn’t go to parties … didn’t go to the movies.”
Having her own childhood cut short, she works hard to give Luciano the opportunity to still be a child. She babysits TJ, helps out financially so her son, “can go out and do teenage things.”
It is apparent that TJ is close to his grandmother or “mima” as he calls her. While Luciano is at work, Porter gets ready for work and then sits TJ down for his dose of asthma medication. When she puts the face mask on his mouth TJ flails his arms shouting for air. Then she sits and watches cartoons with him while waiting for her sister, TJ’s grand aunt, to arrive and babysit so she can leave for work.
The sister, hard-pressed for a smile, arrives late and with a plastic takeout container in her hand positions herself on the couch to watch television. Luciano’s friend helps Porter carry out four immense bags of laundry. TJ who had been watching cartoons, chases her out the door in his onesie crying for her to stay, until she carries him back into the apartment and the arms of her sister.
“I am now a mom raising a child all over again,” she said. “The freedom I used to have, I no longer have because I have a little one to take care of.”
Besides work and taking care of her two children Luciano and his sister Victoria, and her grandson TJ, Porter is studying for an associates degree in business administration.
“I go to school now to show him — ‘if I can do this at this age you can do more,’ ” she said of Luciano. “He can’t have a GED and that’s where life ends. He does have a job at the Bronx Zoo but that’s the beginning, not the end.”
Porter explained that her oldest son had his first child when he was 19, and that she forced him to finish school.
Luciano agrees with his mother’s focus on education. He plans to take classes so he can be an electrician like his brother, but his longterm goal is to get an apartment for him and TJ, enroll in an online college and one day become an elementary or middle school teacher. “I just wanted to be one of those cool teachers that make you wanna come to school,” he said. “I love children, so that was my dream job kinda thing.”
Victoria, Luciano’s 11-year-old sister was surprised when she found out her older brother was going to be a father. “Travis was the smarty,’’ she said. “He loved school, and he claimed he wasn’t gonna have kids. He ended up having TJ.”
Now, Victoria is helping to take care of TJ as well. She feeds him, changes his diapers, reads him stories and puts him to sleep when everyone else is busy. “I’m like his auntie,” she said.
Though she has a strong bond with TJ, Victoria said she doesn’t want to have a child before she is done with school.
“My mom said for me to live my childhood, take it slowly, for me not to rush my childhood because I’ll regret it,” she said. Then, she added gingerly, “I won’t regret it. But I will feel a little bit mad if I had a child at a young age.”
It isn’t so easy for Luciano to admit that he would do things differently. “He’s already here, so I already know him, I already love him, I can’t just say I’d go back,” he said, and added, “I would have made it so I’d have him later… Mostly because I wanted to be ready, and I’m definitely not ready right now.”