Down and Out in Marioland

Homeless among the hillocks.

When the rain makes its move on San Diego in January, the streets seem more lonely than in other cities; it is a broken promise. On the south Embarcadero on a Monday afternoon, in the leaden shadow of luxury hotels, children huddle in the open gazebos. Surrounded by the bobbing hulls and masts of yachts in blue canvas, the bay, the pasty color of drowned men rolling uneasily, George and Linette cup a roach wrapped in a matchbook and giggle. A third kid, a boy with a closely shaved scalp and a denim jacket with a St. Vincent De Paul’s laminated ID card pinned over his breast stands with his back to them. He is silhouetted against the bay, staring up and the lard and ash clouds. “What’s your name?” George calls to him. The boy turns and does not answer but lifts his green name tag. No one can read it from where they are standing. George lifts what’s left of the joint in a gesture of invitation and the boy returns his back to the gazebo, tripping on the smudged beauty beyond the sea wall. “Whatever,” George shrugs and smiles. He reveals a mouthful of braces.

George is 17 years old and looks older. Linette is 16 and seems more like 14. George has a home, such as it is, in East San Diego, where he stays with his mother, brothers, and sisters. Linette stays at a teen shelter called the Storefront downtown near City College. The shelter’s location needs to be vague because the staff and residents have an ongoing concern with pedophiles, drug dealers, and abusive, noncustodial parents.

“If you could give us more than just their names,” says Linette, “maybe we could help you find them. I think we know some kids by those names.” She is talking about my inquiries as to four homeless kids between the ages of 14 and 21. Someone had written to me about them. They said they were getting hassled by the cops and downtown security, according to their theory, because of the new ballpark to be installed in the Center City area.

“All I’ve got is their names,” I tell them.

“Well,” George inhales, pauses, “they’re probably around.” He gestures inland at the city. “Try Starbucks at Horton Plaza, Seaport Village, or Marioland.”

“Is Marioland a video-game place?”

George and Linette look at each other and laugh. They both nod, “Yeah, it’s just like a video-game place.” George asks me for a light and then a cigarette.

“Are you a dealer?” I ask him indicating the joint.

“Hell no. I’m a disc-jockey and I’m taking a course in public speaking. I’m just getting into it. I’m entering a speech contest.” Indeed, George’s voice is resonant and almost accentless. Between his voice, his height – at least six feet – Rasta-dread hair and his solid yet fluid street poise, eyes that take in his surroundings with a combination of marijuana merriness and cool assessment, George could be closer to 30 than 18.

I ask them if they would tell me their stories since I can’t find the kids I’m looking for. Linette looks to George as if for approval. George puts it back on her. “You’re homeless, not me. It’s up to you.”

The girl, hugging herself, pulls her windbreaker around her against the cold. She raises her hood, framing a pretty girl’s face that is becoming an exotic beauty’s. With one hand she fondles the crucifixes around her neck. She wears two of them, one silver, the other with bits of turquoise and rhinestone; between them is a brooch, a hollow silver heart. “I’ve been in a lot of group homes. I’ve been at the Storefront for about two weeks. See, I don’t get along with my mom. We’re fine if we don’t live with each other and just call each other on the phone.”

“Uh-huh. So you ran away, or what?” I was already losing interest in Linette’s story. Just a runaway: maybe spoiled, vain, too cool for school. Mom wouldn’t let her have colored boys over, smoke grass, and fuck, so she fades onto the street. I’m looking around the park for other lost souls in the rain. Some middle-aged men over by the bathrooms. They go inside when the cops cruise the parking lot. I’m searching for Wendy and the Lost Boys the woman wrote to me about: Wendy, Tito, Axel, Dopey, and Peter, they say their names are. “They pride themselves on not looking homeless,” the woman had said over the phone. But the only other kid out here is the denim jacket, crew-cut guy from St. Vinny’s. Linette is still talking.

“…moved into my girlfriend’s next door to my dad’s. My mom has custody of me but she lets me live with my dad, but he’s really violent and everything, so I went next door to this lady’s house that is my friend. I left his house last Thursday and she let me stay there and then I went to a friend’s house in L.A. I couldn’t stay there forever so…” She was all over the place. Her happily pot-wrenched brain is trying to track moves from Escondido to Tijuana to L.A. and back, making it sound like a series of whimsical turns off the freeway on the way to Disneyland. Her dad being “really violent and everything” is uttered dismissively, with a weedy smile. Maybe he smacked her, maybe not. It’s impossible to tell. She appears okay, and she isn’t taking it too seriously at the moment.

I ask her about any burning ambitions. “You know, do you wanna be a movie star or a model, a doctor, an astronaut?”

“I just want to survive,” she says without thinking too much and without smiling.

“So, are you guys boyfriend and girlfriend?” I ask. Linette giggles and retreats further into her sweatshirt hood. George exposes his braces again: silver on white in an amber face. “This is the first chance we’ve had to kick,” he tells me.

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