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.”
Little Mexican kid? Rosemary, the sister only eight years older than Steve, said the Esmedina family had no ethnic identity. (“Our dad was Filipino,” she said. “And our mom was Mexican. But her family had been here in the States forever. One of her grandmothers was from England. When we moved to 37th Street in the early 1950s, I’d say the neighborhood was pretty much Anglo. There was some Mexican. Some Filipino. But mostly Anglo. None of us kids grew up speaking Spanish.”)
But Curiel said, “I always thought of Steve as a Mexican kid. And he knew a lot of Spanish vocabulary. Sometimes he’d ask me questions, like, ‘Marco, what’s that thing Mexican moms say when something bad almost happens? Ave Maria purry-something?’ He meant, ‘Ave Maria purisima.’ Hail, Most Pure Mary. And his mom, I remember, was completely bilingual. My mother sure wasn’t. She worked as a waitress in Ocean Beach. Took the bus every day to work. A single mom, supporting us five boys. But Steve’s mom was very strong, very self-assertive.
“He always went home for lunch. He’d walk home from St. Jude’s. And once he didn’t do his homework. We had this teacher, a big stereotypical ‘evil nun.’ She was going to make Steve stay at school during lunch to finish his homework assignment. He said, ‘I gotta go home. My mom’s waiting for me to eat lunch.’ The Evil Nun didn’t care. Well, when Steve’s mom heard what happened she came to school and really let the Evil Nun have it. Unlike my mom, Steve’s mom wasn’t intimidated by English or by authority figures, not even nuns.
“The next day the Evil Nun stood up in front of our class and said, ‘Students, I’m not going to say his name, but there’s a boy in this room who runs home and tells his mommy when he has problems at school. And you know what? When he grows up he’s going to be a sissy. A sissy who wears dresses.’
“I could see Steve kinda shaking his head. This was a big deal for him. This religious authority figure standing up in front of the class, saying something like that. Humiliating him. I think that’s when he lost his faith, or started to lose it. These authority figures teach you these religious values. They teach you right from wrong. They teach you rules. When you see them break the rules, you start to wonder if a lot of what they teach you might not be true. Some of the guys asked Steve, ‘Hey, why didn’t you say something? You can’t let her get away with that!’ And he said, ‘If I’d have said anything, it would only have made it worse. My mom would yell at her again.’
“His mom, Guadalupe, was a real no-nonsense lady. His dad, on the other hand, was a real sweet, real quiet, never-say-boo kind of guy. A lot older than Steve’s mom. They were so different. Steve called his dad ‘Thut,’ which was some kind of Filipino word. So I and Steve’s other friends called his dad Mr. Thut. I often wondered how Mr. Thut and Steve’s mom got together.”
Thut might have been Stephen’s corruption of tatay (“tut-TIE”), Tagalog for “daddy.” (Tut, an abbreviated, less-polite form of tatay, would be the equivalent of “Pops.”) I also told Curiel that Stephen used to circulate a story that the man everyone thought was his father was often away and that his mother had had an affair.
“That sounds like Steve,” Curiel laughed. “Exactly like Steve. That’s the sort of thing he’d always make up.
“He liked to play with your mind. He called me once and said, ‘Hey, Marco, on the radio they had this call-in contest and the first caller got to interview the Beatles. I called in and I won.’ Maybe you remember, but back then they had these ‘interview albums,’ recordings of the Beatles, or whoever, being interviewed. And Steve had used one of these interview albums and his reel-to-reel tape recorder to make this recording that sounded like he was interviewing the Beatles. He just dubbed in his own questions. He played it to me over the phone, and I could tell he was really getting off on the fact that he had tricked me, that I had believed him.
“The Beatles. The very first time I went over to his house he made me listen to the Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ and ‘Needles and Pins’ by the Searchers. Trust me, Steve had to have been the only little Mexican kid in the neighborhood, maybe in the entire city, who was listening to the Beatles and the Searchers. He was like that. He introduced me to all sorts of music that no one else in the neighborhood was listening to. Great music. You couldn’t even hear it on the radio. Not yet. Frank Zappa. Jimi Hendrix. Cream. Chicago. Blood, Sweat and Tears. Blue Cheer. Paul Butterfield. All of it, before it was on the radio. He knew about it. He took me to the opening of A Hard Day’s Night at the California Theatre. There we were, two little Hispanic kids at the opening of A Hard Day’s Night.
“Like I said, Steve had resources. He loved movies. His sister Rosemary worked at a movie theater downtown, and she used to let him in for free. He went to see In Cold Blood, which wasn’t something your average little Hispanic kid would do. He loved that movie. He came home and he actually made a comic-book version of In Cold Blood. He drew it himself. He even wrote the dialog. He and I used to make our own comic books. We had our own emblem we’d draw on the corner — ‘EC Comics,’ meaning Esmedina Curiel Comics. It was our way of dealing with things that we couldn’t deal with in the real world. Steve created his own action hero called the Cougar. In Steve’s comic books, the Cougar would go up against the Evil Nun. And the Evil Nun didn’t stand a chance against the Cougar.
“This way of handling conflict through comic books, Steve probably took it further than I did. And I think he was like that his entire life — more an observer than a participant. Even when he was a little kid. He would sort of hang back and observe. He was like that into high school and for as long as I knew him.
“So, comic books were important. Steve was the only kid in the neighborhood who could afford a subscription to Spider-Man. I know it’s easy to dismiss comic books, but in fact they were very well written. The English was certainly a lot more sophisticated than what we heard being spoken around us in our neighborhood. I know comic books helped develop my English vocabulary — ‘And now we find our hero sequestered in his lair.’ Sequestered? Lair? What’s that mean? That’s how we learned a lot of words. Steve especially had a tremendous vocabulary. Even in elementary school he’d come out with things like ‘Call me by my proper moniker.’
“I know the Union-Tribune said his nickname, his moniker, so to speak, was ‘Blubbo.’ But here in the neighborhood, those of us who grew up with him never called him that. When he was in elementary school, he had a really big head, so that’s what we called him, Big Head. Or, in Spanish, Cabezón. Later on, in high school, Big Head was abbreviated to just Big. We’d say, ‘Hey, what’s up, Big?’
“It was in high school that I and my friends started buggin’ Steve to hook us up with his sister Rosemary. She was cute. I don’t know what happened to her.”
Rosemary, now 55 years old, is still lovely. She lives in the Bay Area, not far from her handsome twin sons, Britt and Bruce, whom Stephen had her name after characters in the Green Hornet. Rosemary was the last of the four Esmedina sisters to leave home.
“I’m pretty much the only sister who was around Steve a lot when he was little. Everyone else was gone. Married. They had their own families. They loved Steve, but they had their own lives.
“Steve was a happy little kid. Definitely spoiled. He was the baby of the family. Very close to our mom. We girls had a different relationship with her. We were, I guess, just girls. On Steve, Mom focused her attention. I think it was because he was sick as a baby. Because of Isabel, Mom was very protective of him. She treated him with kid gloves.
“I think my clearest memory of Steve is of him running around the house dressed as Zorro.”
(His sister Helen said, “I’ll always remember him as a little boy, running around the house dressed as Zorro.” His sister Yolanda said, “I remember he’d run around the house dressed as Zorro. He saw that movie and fell in love with Zorro. Our mom had someone — an aunt? a friend? — make a Zorro costume for Steve. He ran around in that little mask and cape, jumping on the furniture, brandishing a little sword, marking up everything with little Z’s. Mom didn’t seem to mind.”)
Rosemary also remembered that Stephen “loved that movie El Cid. I was working at a movie theater downtown, and I let him in free to see it. He went crazy. I don’t know how many times he saw it. El Cid starring Charlton Heston. Steve was only six or seven years old and he memorized all the dialog, word for word. He could recite the entire movie El Cid. He was definitely a smart kid.
“I don’t know why he didn’t go further. He had the potential. Mom rented a piano for him. He had a guitar too, and he’d sit in his room and strum it. He also had a trumpet that he used to mess around with, trying to play like Miles Davis. I think maybe my mother held him back. Her wish was his command. He did whatever she said.”
His sister Helen recalled that in “1964 or 1965, whenever it was that the Beatles first came to San Diego, our mother took him to see them. She came back filled with enthusiasm. She said, ‘You know, those Beatles are great!’ And we were all floored. Our mother? At a Beatles concert? But Steve wanted to go, so she took him. Their relationship was like that. Very close. And I think she held him back. She was very controlling. I think there were opportunities he didn’t take because of her. She was afraid for him. She knew that writing, that show business, were very tough, and she didn’t want him to get hurt.”
Standing in front of the Esmedina home, Mark Curiel considers the dusty porch.
“I used to be so excited when I came over here to play.”
Curiel makes his way to the back yard and sighs when he sees the tall weeds.
“Where’s the plum tree? I remember eating so many plums from it. They were so sweet.”
He pauses. He turns and studies the broken windows, the rotting stairs.
“I don’t know why Steve didn’t go further. We were close through high school, and even after high school we kept in touch. I know he didn’t like to smoke pot. He said it made him indolent, which was a pretty strong thing for him to say because he wasn’t the most physically active person in the world.
“And as for the drinking, I wasn’t really aware of it. Not in terms of it being a problem.”
(Rosemary says that in 1978 or 1979 she went in Stephen’s room and noticed “a lot of liquor bottles,” and it was only then that she began to wonder if he had a “problem.”)
“But coming up in the 1960s, there were a lot of drugs around,” Curiel remembers. “Everyone was experimenting. Everyone was overdoing it with everything. Steve was maybe experimenting with overdoing it with alcohol. I don’t know. I don’t know why. I don’t know if loneliness was the reason. You know, when you grow up a nice Catholic boy, there’s a whole bunch about sex that you don’t learn until later in life. When Steve was in his early 20s he had a girlfriend, Gail, a beautiful blonde. A dream come true. And it was with her, in his early 20s, that he said he finally came sexually alive.
“But maybe he didn’t want to leave home. Maybe he didn’t want to see a bigger world. Maybe he was content with what he knew, with living in this neighborhood, with his music and his room. The interesting thing is that Steve in a lot of ways introduced me to the big world, to the world outside this neighborhood. Growing up here, in my family, we were so poor. It was impossible to see any further, to imagine a life outside it. Through my contact with Steve, through the music he made me listen to, the movies we saw together, the conversations we had, I was able to start imagining something else. I started to have an idea of the world outside this neighborhood. The interesting thing is that Steve introduced me to a life he didn’t choose for himself.
“So, that’s how I’ll remember him. As a very generous guy.”
Curiel grows quiet. He stares some more at the weeds. He clears his throat.
“You know. You know. When I was a kid, there were a lot of times when I was so hungry. My mom provided the bare basics, but nothing more. For lunch I might have a baloney sandwich. Two slices of bread. One slice of baloney. That’s it. That was lunch. I was hungry a lot. And, you know, back when we were at St. Jude’s, Steve was just a little kid, and he was aware of that. Of my being hungry. And in a very quiet, casual way, he’d help me out. He’d buy me milk. Or in the mornings they used to sell cupcakes at St. Jude’s, and in this very easy, no-big-deal way, Steve’d say, ‘Hey, Marco, let’s get some cupcakes.’
“So, you don’t ever forget something like that,” Curiel says. In his pocket he jiggles the keys to his big white suv parked in front of the Esmedina house. “Even 40 years later, you don’t forget something like that. Which is why I’ll always remember him as this very generous guy. My buddy.”
Curiel turns to leave. He gives the back yard one last glance.
“What tortured Steve? What were his demons? I’ll never know.”
The photo albums on the front porch offer no clues. They show large happy family get-togethers. One album in particular, a large white one, follows Stephen’s life from three months old to when he was 11 or 12. This large white album chronicles mostly Stephen’s birthdays, which were large affairs. See him at 4 years old dressed like a cowboy, sitting astride a pony his parents apparently rented for the party. See him at 8 blowing out the candles on a large cake. At all these parties the cakes were enormous and elaborately decorated. Stephen always looks directly at the camera and smiles.
It isn’t till you come to the last page of the large white album that you notice something a little odd. You notice finally that all the dates and notes jotted beside all the photos are written in Stephen’s hand. He must have compiled the album, gathered up all the various pictures of himself and his birthday parties, when he was 13 or 14 years old. And on the very last page Stephen has mounted a snapshot of himself as an infant. Beneath the photo, in ballpoint pen, Stephen wrote, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only the Shadow knows.”