"My mother would leave me in her car, parked in front yards, in apartment
complex lots, in alleys. I would sit for hours waiting for her to
come back. She would tell me to stay out of sight, so I would lie down
on the backseats or sit in the footwells or pull down the seats and lie
in the trunk. When my brothers and, later, my sister were in the car
with me, my mom would scare us by saying that if the police saw us,
they would take her to jail, and we would have to live in a foster home
with an evil woman who would beat us. My mom never hit us, so she
thought threats of violence would scare us. I didn’t know enough to
fear corporal punishment, but I was afraid of losing her, which was a
possibility time and again.
One of those times happened when I was in sixth grade and my
brother was about five. We didn’t have gas in our apartment, so my
mother had boiled water in an electric wok to make pasta. The handle
had melted, and when she tried to lift the wok to drain the pasta, the
contents spilled onto her pregnant stomach.
“Don’t worry, I’ll watch your kids,” a neighbor said, as the paramedics
carted my mother off.
She yelled up from the gurney, “Stay away from my fucking kids
you piece of shit! Stefano, stay inside. Keep the door locked.”
My little brother and I spent the next two days in the tiny apartment,
alone and terrified, watching TV and eating uncooked Top
Ramen noodles, too scared to use the wok with the melted handle.
On the second day, I walked up to Victory Boulevard to find a super-
market where I could steal some food. I was scared to be defying my
mom’s orders, but I was hungrier than I was obedient.
Other times my mom would just disappear. I would wake up to an
empty apartment, quiet except for the noise from the TV that was always
on. It would be past 8:00 a.m., so I knew I wasn’t going to school,
but I would be starving, as kids tend to be when they wake up. She
usually arrived home around noon with a single McDonald’s breakfast
sandwich. The otherwise repulsive smell of that food mixed with old
cigarette odor was comforting because it meant she was home and
not in jail, dead, or lost. It also meant I didn’t have to go in search of
something to eat, although by age eleven I knew how to get around.
When cops came looking for my stepfather at whatever house,
hotel, or apartment we were living in at the time, they would tell
me that my mom would go to jail if I didn’t tell them where he was.
I remember one cop yelling in my ten-year-old face, “Tell us if he
is in the house or I am taking your fucking mother to jail and you
will have to live with a bunch of fucking rapists in juvenile hall!”1 I
couldn’t tell them because I didn’t know where he was, but regardless,
juvenile hall sounded better than the foster homes my mom
had told me about.
A few times, my mother was taken to jail after a traffic stop, where
she would serve a day or two, or maybe a weekend, for a warrant.
Once, when I was five, the police took me with her and put us into a
holding cell for a few hours. I spent the time spelling out the names
carved in the paint on the wall. Other times, I would come home
from school to find one of her friends at the house, smoking and
nodding off, there to tell me that my mom needed a break from us
because we were driving her crazy. In each case, we later found out
she had been ordered into a drug rehab facility. And each time, she
would leave early, sometimes breaking a court order, and greet us
with hugs, a pack of baseball cards, and promises that she would take
us to Disneyland for being good kids. Promises of Disneyland were
always hanging in the air.
Every couple of years, I would find her in the bathroom after she
had ODed. I would have to open the door by sticking the ink tube
from a pen into the hole in the doorknob to release the push-button
lock, drag her into the hallway, and, if we didn’t have a phone—which
was almost always—run to a neighbor’s to call 911.
My mother’s habit of leaving me in her car went on for several
years. When I was older, I would leave the car, defying her order
to lie low, and instead walk the block catching “Cisco” tags.2 I had
lived in enough neighborhoods to read my surroundings quickly.
In fact I felt anonymous, almost invisible, in a way that worked to
my advantage as a writer. I never felt I stood out. My main concern
was how my tag would be seen by someone who might pass through
the area. I would always find a bus stop and catch a tag at the base
of the bench facing an oncoming bus. From there I would find the
nearest freeway, walk up an on-ramp to write on a light pole, guardrail,
or sign facing oncoming traffic. I caught these tags during the
day, usually with no more than a yellow Mean Streak, and I would
be back in the car, no incriminating spray paint on my fingers, before
anyone called the police. Then I would keep out of sight, not
because my mom had told me to but in case my description had
been given to the police: shaved head, white T-shirt, blue Dickies, black
Nike Cortez shoes.
The audience I cared most about were the people who knew me
or knew of me, but I also wrote for myself. I loved to see my work up
in places I had been before and think about how my tag lasted long
after I was gone. So I looked for landmarks in addition to the fame
spots on the freeway and bus benches. Tags there did not last long
but would get immediate views. I would hit every dumpster in the
alley, the bases of streetlights, or the side of a drainpipe on the back of
a store. Few people would see these “low-pro” tags other than local
writers who would wonder what I was doing there. Prolific taggers
do not discriminate when deciding where to write, knowing that
every tag counts—every tag gets seen by someone at some point.
And behind every tag is a story about survival and about striving to
be seen, or a momentary reprieve from deprivation and desperation."