I'm worried about Tyra Johnson's family in a way I've never worried about a source before.
I met Johnson, a single mom of three kids, two years ago. The pandemic had turned their lives upside down, like it did for millions of others: Johnson lost her job, and the kids missed more than a year of in-person schooling. Making her situation worse, her job had paid little more than minimum wage to begin with, and she and her kids live in a poor, high-crime area of St. Louis.
I was drawn to Johnson's optimistic, cheerful personality and her devotion to her kids. I've written stories about her experiences during the pandemic, and am working on a documentary about them. Since I've known her, she's worked relentlessly, trying to provide a better life for her family.
Her current situation is the most precarious one I've seen her in yet.
When I spoke to her a few weeks ago, Johnson had been ecstatic about getting a job at the Walmart in Granite City, Illinois. The wage ($19 per hour) was more than she'd ever made, and the benefits included a program to help her get her GED. This could be the opportunity that would change her and her children's lives, she said.
But now, she's struggling to get to and from that opportunity.
About a month ago, her car -- a 14-year-old Pontiac G6 with more than 270,000 miles on it -- broke down. She managed to get it repaired, but then it was stolen.
Johnson doesn't have extra money for a car down payment, or the credit to apply for a loan. She texted me, asking if I knew anyone selling a cheap used car she could make payments on.
For now, she takes the bus to Walmart -- two hours each way -- for her overnight shift. But what is she supposed to do with her kids, ages 2, 6 and 8? She found a 24-hour daycare in St. Louis that offers subsidized care, but getting the kids there using public transportation would take multiple bus stops and another two hours. Then after working all night, it would take another several hours to pick up her children and get back home.
There aren't enough hours in a day for this -- even without accounting for a human's need to sleep and eat. As it is, Johnson is barely sleeping a couple of hours at a stretch because she has to take care of her kids after her overnight shift.
For the time being, she's relying on her mom, who works at a gas station during the day, to watch her children overnight while she navigates the buses. It's not tenable for either of them.
This bleak situation got even worse a couple of weeks ago: Johnson's older brother was murdered in St. Louis.
She texted me to ask for a ride to the funeral, but there was no way I could make it in time.
She hasn't really had a chance to grieve the loss because she's been dealing with a traffic ticket she got for driving without a license. The judge told her to get her license and have the ticket dismissed, but she hasn't been able to do so without a car.
Earlier this week, she asked if I could give her a ride to court so she could ask the judge for an extension. She feared that if she missed the court date, they could put out a warrant for her arrest.
I knew that if Johnson ended up in jail for a traffic violation, it would ruin more than just her life. I don't know what would become of her sweet children.
I was able to drive her to court, but she had no one to watch her children while we went. Her mom was at work. We couldn't bring the kids with us because the baby's car seat was in the stolen car.
Finally, a cousin offered to stay with the kids for an hour. Johnson got into my car more upset than I've ever seen her.
"I need transportation. I need daycare. I can't do this anymore," she said.
Even in the worst days of the pandemic, when she was selling lemonade in a park to pay her bills, I've never seen her so discouraged.
She's put her name on a list for a charity that helps single mothers find used cars. It's a long list. She's asked parishioners at her church if anyone has a spare vehicle. She's asked a friend if he will cosign a car loan with her.
While we drove to the courthouse, Johnson called her father, who had been in town for his son's funeral.
He told her to keep her head up.
She cried softly and told him she would.