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People Buy You Booze

D. is dressed as if he is off to the ComicCon or a Clockwork Orange theme party: boots laced up to his knees, raggedy black and red clothes, an old leather jacket with metal studs, a bowler hat with bright burgundy-dyed hair sticking out, eyeliner, and some other makeup. When I mention A Clockwork Orange, he says, “Huh?” I don’t know if he is feigning ignorance or has never seen or heard of the movie that his “look” comes from.

I know that D., as I talk to him, is sizing me up, trying to figure out if I am telling him the truth or playing him, trying to decide if he can physically overcome me and rob me, or beat me up for the hell of it. More than once he tells me how much he loves utilizing his “shitkicker boots” to break ribs and smash faces in. I have a feeling it’s all boast — he wants me to think he’s a badass, that he’s tough and knows how to survive on the streets.

He is scared.

D. says he’s 16 and he’s been on the street for two years, finding his way to San Diego from Tempe, Arizona. “I tried L.A. and Orange County for a while,” he says, but he did not care for the “scene” there. “Cardiff, P.B., O.B., they’re cool,” he says. “I like to be by the water.”

“What do you mean by ‘scene’?” I ask.

He juggles three rocks as he speaks, hoping to catch some attention, maybe some money from the people who walk by us on the boardwalk. “Too many peeps,” he says, “too much competition. Too much violence. Hate.”

“What violence?”

He gives me this look: he’s not going to talk about that; he doesn’t want to, doesn’t care to — what does it have to do with him?

D. has plenty to say about all the “domestic tranquility,” as he calls it, in Tempe, Arizona. “Since I was eight or nine, I used to share a drink with my mom,” he says. “Maybe before, I don’t know. But the first time I got really drunk, it was on Bailey’s. I threw up. I must have had half the bottle. It was sweet shit; I liked it. I never liked beer or red wine; that’s what I tried before, and even tequila. I like tequila now but not then. I ralphed on the Bailey’s and my mom’s boyfriend, what’s-his-name, he just laughed about it. My mom wiped my mouth with a towel — we were in the bathroom, I’d just lost my junk in the toilet — and she said something like, ‘Hey, sleep on your belly, okay, so you won’t choke if it happens again.’ So she sent me to my room and made sure I was on my stomach. I didn’t ralph again, but I woke up with this shitty bad hangover. I can’t smell Bailey’s or anything like it without getting this sick feeling. Beer, tequila, that’s my drink if I drink.”

“How do you get booze?”

“Easy. Dudes always have it. People buy it for you. That’s why I like hanging at the beaches. People aren’t so uptight, not even the cops. It’s not like in the city, or even up in L.A. Things are more mellow here.”

“Does your mother know where you are?”

“I write to her…sometimes.”

“Does she ask you to come back?”

“Not really, I don’t know.” D. seems uncomfortable. “Sometimes she sends a couple $20 bills in the mail. I think I missed some of her letters because of my moving around. Like, last letter she wrote, ‘Why haven’t you answered me about…’ such-and-such, this, whatever, she must have asked me something and she’s mad I didn’t answer, but I didn’t get any letter. Either she didn’t send it and thinks she did, because she’s a drunk, you know, or the letter didn’t reach me.”

“Do you ever call her?”

“It’s long distance. Why waste the money? I called once. Some guy answered. Don’t know who. Didn’t recognize the voice. So I hung up. Some new boyfriend. She switches boyfriends every four months. Every ten minutes!” He finishes his juggling. “Every ten, a new gentleman.”

“How long was she with your father?”

“Couple years. She was 20 when I was born. And a drunk.”

“Do you speak with your father?”

“Not really.” He looks at some people down the block. “Used to. I told him about getting wasted on Bailey’s, and he wasn’t happy about that, but he was, like, ‘That’s your mother for you.’ ”

“You couldn’t go stay with your father?”

“Do I wanna? He’s been in jail a lot. He’s better. No more crazy-making trouble. But he got married and then he moved to Seattle because the chick he married, her family is loaded, I guess. As a wedding present her mom and dad bought them a house, any house they wanted in any city, so they decided to live in Seattle and that’s what they did. Some luck. I wish I can marry a chick like that; like, her mom and dad will buy us a house, but I wouldn’t pick Seattle. I’d pick San Diego, Solana Beach, or Oceanside. Or Montana, out in the wilderness and stuff. I’ve heard about Montana. I’d like to check it out.

“I was going to check out Seattle once,” he says, “maybe even drop in on the bio-dad. But I never made it up that far. Only got as far as L.A., and then I went back down this way.”

I ask him about street families, made of homeless and runaway kids; these “families” have become a part of many urban myths and extend from city to city across the country. I want to know if there are such families in San Diego.

D. acts as though he doesn’t know what I mean. I can tell he doesn’t want to bother with the question. “I’ve heard about families,” he says. “Plenty in L.A. There were some in Arizona, and I know of some in, like, Nevada and such, but I don’t know of any families. I’ve never been in one.”

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Comments

vanderwolff April 11, 2008 @ 6:48 a.m.

Crushingly sad, but strangely familiar, the plight of today's street children mirrors those of decades past: a general distant interest from the uninvolved, a plague catalog of familial horrors and a question mark for the expiration date on their existence. Difficult story well-handled.

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Boomerang April 12, 2008 @ 10:20 a.m.

This is a beautiful and powerful representation of the reality of these teens and a reminder that (1) growing up is not always easy even for the prom king and queen and (2) one's petty life challenges pale compared to that of others.

Many kudos to The Reader for daring to take on something with social and political relevance rather than an article about taco stands (I did enjoy the missile test sites in Scripps one).

Mr. Hemmingson's article particularly hit home with a ring of truth and memory so that I found myself in tears. I "know" these kids! I have heard their life stories and have worked with them. I spent more than 10 years working as an adolescent and family treatment crisis counselor in the mid-1970s to late 1980s with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents, developmentally disabled youth,runaways, abused and neglected youth, Hispanic street gangs, and others at a variety of public and private agencies and for County Children's Services. I experienced all the highs and lows and challenges of serving these diverse populations.

At one place, I ran a pre-vocational program for 6 adolescents (at a time). We taught these extremely troubled and challenged teenagers living skills and work-related skills so they could survive after they turned 18 and became ineligible for state or county funding. It was incredible to see the transformations in some, who developed job skills and self-esteem, and to watch them as they left the "nest" and struggled to survive on their own and with their small groups of allies.

Many of my associates still hear from these "kids," who are now adults,some with their own families. And, in turn, I am occasionally updated on the progress of a few of our scholars.

We all just need the right tool box.

While this background may be different from the particulars of your population and story, I commend you for taking it on and for illuminating the lives and struggles of so many who are often pushed aside or forgotten.

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