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He says he’s in a program, “a group home thing,” but he doesn’t elaborate and I don’t want to push it. He’s acting as if he wants to go; he doesn’t want to talk to me. His eyes go cold and hard.

“What’s your story?” he asks.

“I ran away from home when I was 15,” I say. “I hung around Hollywood and Venice Beach.”

He nods. Have I impressed him?

I don’t tell him that I didn’t run away because of a bad family; I ran away because I was a young neophyte writer who was reading Jack Kerouac and Jack London and listening to the Doors, so I thought running away and wandering the streets would give me material to write about.

“Did you hook?” D. asks.

“No,” I say. “Did some good Dumpster diving.”

He laughs. “Yeah.”

“Tell me about what you want to do, say, when you’re 20. Twenty-five.”

“Be in a band.” He says he can play the drums and the keyboards; he’s played on them but doesn’t own any. “I suck!” In punk rock terms, that means he’s good.

He looks at some people down the block again. A group of kids, dressed as colorfully as he, are coming this way.

“I gotta go,” he says.

“It’s okay,” I tell him.

“Not okay for you. They shouldn’t see you talking to me, and I wouldn’t try to talk to them if I were you. They might hurt you.”

“They” were the kids coming this way. Are they a gang, I wonder, gatekeepers of information? Will “they” find it strange that D. is talking to a regular, older person like me? I am amused, but also touched in a way, that he is concerned about my safety. I am also curious about just how dangerous “the dangerous streets” are.

The approaching kids disperse; I guess I will not find out.

Before I can ask D. about it, he walks away, juggling the three rocks.

No One Declares Himself Old School

Finding street kids and runaways in San Diego was easy; there are certain areas they converge on in Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, downtown, and in East County, such as El Cajon and Lemon Grove, or in North County, in Oceanside and Carlsbad. Getting them to speak to me proved trickier. Approaching them at their hangouts with the news that I was researching an article caused nervous and angry laughter, skepticism, and distrust. My press badge did not impress them and made them even more cautious since it had been issued by the San Diego Police Department. They thought I was a pervert looking for a young trick, or a cop, or maybe I was a parent trying to find his runaway child. If I bought them food (pizza, burritos, hot dogs), however, they would warm up and talk to me; or I had to “make a donation” for their time. Seventy-five percent of those I sought out for interviews flat-out refused me, politely or with contempt, spitting on the sidewalk or eyeing me as if they were ready to hit me with their fists or their skateboards, which does eventually happen.

One evening I was talking to four young males with skateboards, and two of them hit me with their skateboards, assaulting me from behind; when I went down, all four kicked me with their shoes or boots and searched through my pockets. This was my own fault; I did not report the incident to the police because I saw no point in creating another statistic for a crime that would never be solved. It was dark out, I was not paying attention, I would not be able to come up with a reliable description or to point them out in daylight as they all had a generic “look” — very short hair, baggy jeans, flannel shirts; all were holding skateboards. (In late February 2008, an Australian man was beaten by two males with skateboards in the Point Loma/Ocean Beach area, leaving him in a temporary coma; I wondered if these were the same assailants, but when the police issued photos of the suspects, I realized they were too old to be my muggers.)

When I crossed paths with these four, I was walking home from the store. I was recovering from a nine-day bout with the flu and was not thinking clearly. I have been mugged twice previously in my life — once while driving a taxi cab, and once at the 12th and Imperial trolley station on Christmas Eve — experiences that have taught me to be aware of who is standing behind me or getting too close into my personal space. Twice, I was not paying attention and was mugged from behind — now it’s three times. Exciting? No. Stupid is a better word. I should have known better than to let two of the young men stand behind me. And I should not have attempted an interview at night on a dark side of the street. I wasn’t even out looking for interview subjects, although sometimes interviewees show up; the term is “random samples.” They only got away with $21.50; I have deemed this the price of admission, the price (along with a few bruises and a cut lip) of a reminder always to be cautious…the price for being dumb enough not to remember my own rules of safety when “in the field.”

The Rules, the Names

There is a general code among them, four rules, I was to learn:

  1. Don’t narc or tattle. (That is, don’t be a rat.)
  2. Keep your mouth shut. (Don’t talk to the cops.)
  3. Old school rules. When a street kid becomes old school (over age 22, in most cases), you have to do what he or she says.
  4. No one declares himself or herself old school. You have to earn it.

Breaking the rules, I was told by several kids, could result in being ostracized or beaten up — “paying a tax,” it’s called. So, every kid that did talk to me was running the risk of breaking rules one and two, no matter how much I assured them I was not out to get anyone in trouble, only trying to understand their reality. Breaking rules one and two could incur the wrath of those listed in three and four or hinder someone from gaining the respect and status of “old school.”

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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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