It was there on Monday, Sept. 1, 1986, that Mazyck, then a skinny 11-year-old in grimy sweats and sneakers, stuck out his hand as Schroff walked by. Thirty-five at the time and a successful newspaper executive, Schroff lived just two blocks away from Mazyck in New York City, but their homes might as well have been on different planets—he lived in a welfare hotel, she in a luxury high-rise.
“Excuse me, lady, do you have any spare change?” he asked, hoping to buy some food. Schroff didn’t answer and kept going.
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But then, just a few steps later, she stopped, turned, and came back. Instead of giving the boy money, she took him to lunch at McDonald’s. He got a Big Mac, fries, and a chocolate shake that day—and the two of them wound up with an extraordinary friendship that has changed both their lives. “Of all the achievements in my life,” says Schroff, who spent three decades in advertising sales before retiring in 2009, “there is nothing that makes me prouder than to call Maurice my friend.”
In 1986, the hungry child Schroff encountered was already trapped in a cycle of poverty, drugs, and violence. His father, a gang member, left when Maurice was 6; his mother was a heroin and crack addict. He had never known an adult who held a full-time job, and he’d received only two presents in his young life: a toy truck and a joint. Still, Mazyck, who today owns a small construction firm, says, “I know my mother did the best she could.”
And then he met Schroff. At the end of their lunch, she gave him her card and told him to call if he was hungry. After three days with no word, Schroff went looking for him. “I felt like he’d entered my life for a reason,” she says. Mazyck was on the corner where they’d met. They agreed to meet the following Monday, and the Monday after that, and a ritual evolved.
At first she took him out to dinner, but soon she began cooking for him at her place. The simple things they did on their nights together—setting the table, doing laundry, or just sitting and talking—were the kinds of comforting activities on which most childhoods are built, but they were foreign to Mazyck. Tellingly, no one in his family ever wondered where he was. When Schroff offered to make him lunch for school, he asked that she put it in a brown paper bag. “When kids see you walk in with a paper bag,” he explained, “they know someone cares about you.”
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But the impact Schroff had on Mazyck is only half the story. “When people tell me how lucky Maurice was,” she says, “I tell them, ‘I was the lucky one.’” She, too, had a turbulent childhood. Her father had a drinking problem and often hit her mother and brother. Schroff vowed that when she had kids, they would always feel safe.
With Mazyck, Schroff could try to repair some of the damage in his life that she couldn’t go back and fix in her own. And in the process he helped her see what truly matters. Watching him experience things for the first time—she took him to his first baseball game, bought him his first bicycle, let him decorate his first-ever Christmas tree—opened her eyes to the joy and beauty around her. “Sometimes those blessings are right there in front of you, just as Maurice was in front of me on the street,” says Schroff. “Sometimes you just have to open your eyes and open your heart.”
Then, in 1997, Mazyck, 22, vanished from Schroff’s life. She tried to track him down, but he had moved to North Carolina to try to set up a business. “I had to go away and become a man on my own,” he says now. There, Mazyck faced the temptation to make easy money selling drugs, as so many men in his family had done, but he resisted. “Because of Laura, I made the right decisions.”
He finally called Schroff in 2000 after his mother died. “I told her, ‘You are my mother now.’” She bore him no grudge for his absence. “I’d never given up on Maurice,” she says.
When Schroff helped the boy she met on the street get a shot at a better future, she was extending that same opportunity to his kids. Today Mazyck is a proud husband and father, and he and his wife have seven children, ages 4 to 19. He and Schroff see each other at least once a month. When she visits his New York City apartment, his kids swarm over their “Aunt Laurie.” “I have my own family,” says Schroff, who has three siblings and five nieces and nephews, “but they are my family, too.”
Back in 1986, Schroff took Mazyck to her sister’s house in the suburbs. For the first time, he sat down for a meal with her family at a large dining-room table. “To me, it was magical. I told them when I grew up, I’d have a big table in my home,” he says. True to his word, he now owns a huge dinner table, where he and his big, noisy family—and his friend Laura—eat and talk and count their blessings.
Alex Tresniowski is the coauthor of An Invisible Thread, on sale Nov. 1. The book tells the story of Schroff’s and Mazyck’s unlikely 25-year-long friendship.
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