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"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."

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