In late January 1954, Dick Tracy found an infant abandoned in a tree. For more than a week the comic-strip detective searched for the mother. Suddenly, “as if dropped out of nowhere,” a Mrs. Catchem appeared. She claimed the baby was hers: “Check the hospital. You’ll see I’m the authentic mother!”
On page A-14 of the San Diego Union, on February 2, 1954, the day Stephen Esmedina was born, Dick Tracy was still grilling Mrs. Catchem. “You express fanatic love for your baby. Yet you left him in a tree! Why? Why?” “I…I…can’t tell you!”
Stephen, or as his birth certificate called him, Esteban, weighed eight pounds and three ounces, measured 21 inches long, and was brought into the world at Mercy Hospital by Dr. J. Wanless at 6:15 p.m. While Stephen was taking his first breath, the evening TV lineup was just starting — Nutsy the Clown on Channel 4, Laurel and Hardy on Channel 2, something called Your San Diego on Channel 10. Over on Eighth Avenue at the Broadway Theatre, folks were buying tickets to see Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Over at the Cabrillo, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were starring in Sailor Beware.
The temperature was in the low 50s. A weak high-pressure system was moving in from the southeast. Earlier in the day, because farm work was scarce, 3000 Mexican peasants stormed the U.S. border at Calexico. In North Park, 39-year-old William J. Riley, a former city fireman, bilked an “ailing 53-year-old widow” out of $8700, her life savings. In Ocean Beach the police captured an injured pet falcon owned by Daniel C. Peterson, who lived on Niagara Avenue. The mayor’s wife, Mrs. John D. Butler, explained to the Union that before her marriage she’d never voted because she “traveled with an ice show.”
It was a day without particular omen or portent, but Stephen’s mother, Guadalupe Esmedina, was worried nonetheless. According to one of Stephen’s four sisters, he was born with kidney problems. According to another, something was wrong with his lungs. Perhaps there was a problem with both. Guadalupe at any rate was anxious because 13 years earlier she’d lost a child, Isabel, age three, to diphtheria.
“Robert, our oldest brother, brought the diphtheria home from school,” remembers Helen McSpadden, Stephen’s oldest sister. “There’d been a diphtheria outbreak at Robbie’s school. So we all had to go to the hospital for observation. Little Isabel came down with it and died. She was only three. We were all so little, none of us remember her.”
Rosemary, the sister closest in age to Stephen, says, “Our mother never forgot Isabel. I don’t think you can ever forget something like that. Losing a child. She never talked about it. It was something that she’d never bring up. But she never forgot. I think in some ways Steve suffered most from Isabel’s death. He was born 13 years later, but her death had the greatest impact on him.”
A few days after Stephen’s death, after his sisters had been in and out of the Esmedina home down on 37th Street, the house where Steve lived almost all his life, someone left a box of photo albums on the front porch. The albums looked almost new: someone had taken good care of them. Not far from the albums stood a statuette of the Virgin Mary, her blue robe covered with thick dust. In the back yard, weeds grew five, six feet high, obscuring the plum, orange, and lemon trees. A crack ran along the house’s foundation. Wooden steps to the back door were rotted through. A half-dozen windows were broken.
“To me this place was like a mansion.”
Marco Curiel stood, not long after Stephen’s death, in front of the house on 37th Street. Curiel knew Stephen since the two met in fourth grade at St. Jude’s Academy, a few blocks from the Esmedina home.
“A two-story house. It was and still is the biggest house on the block. One of the biggest in the neighborhood. I lived in a one-bedroom place with my mom and my four brothers. We were poor. Coming to Steve’s house was like my renaissance.”
Curiel is a broad-shouldered, thickset man who played defensive back at St. Augustine High School. He’s now principal at Memorial Academy on 28th Street. Gangbangers loitering in front of Memorial tend to scatter when they see Curiel approach.
“We used to call them pachucos back when Steve and I were coming up. There have been gangs in this part of the city forever. Over here in Shelltown where Steve lived, the big gang was Los Hermanos, and I guess you could say Steve was involved with them. He at least had friends who ran with them. In this neighborhood you got a hard education real fast. You got your ass kicked. You learned how to take a beating. On one corner there might be a brother who had a thing about Mexicans. On another corner there’d be some crazy pachuco who decided he just didn’t like the way you looked.
“Steve and I were always good Catholic boys. We went to St. Jude’s. I think we met through a Christmas gift exchange or something, and we became friends. And it was odd because we were two very different people. He was this nerdy kid who hated, absolutely hated, any kind of physical activity whatsoever. And I was athletic, good at sports. I had girlfriends. I guess you could say I was popular. There were guys, you know, who’d say, ‘What are you hangin’ out with him for?’ I didn’t care. Steve was my buddy.
“You have to understand. Here in the neighborhood. One of the guys we knew used to huff gasoline. By the time he was in high school he practically didn’t have a tooth left in his head. Other guys joined gangs. They just lived for the moment. And here was Steve, you know, who had a reel-to-reel tape recorder in his bedroom and he used it to do make-believe interviews with the Beatles. That bedroom. The upstairs bedroom with the big window facing the street. That room was Steve’s kingdom. That room was Steve’s lens on the world. Not only did he have a reel-to-reel tape recorder, but he also had his own record player, which was extremely rare back then. No other kid had all that. Steve’s family had resources. No other little Mexican kid was making make-believe interviews with the Beatles.”