The child’s cough racks her frail body and our darkened room. It’s four in the morning, and I pray for the sun to rise. God, I need the sun, it’s light to replace the slivers of flashing neon from the liquor store across the street, wild images I’ve watched danced around this room on the fourth floor of a sleazy hotel deep in the bowels of the tenderloin since midnight.
I live elsewhere in San Francisco. I am a photographer, but my camera has never left its bag. Ten hours ago, I didn’t even know this child was alive. Oh, I knew the city was overrun with homeless kids, the runaways, the thrown away children who roam the streets in Anytown USA, kicking it with anyone they can find who offers a kind word, drugs, maybe even some food and a place to squat.
I’d gotten a call from my friend Jake, a freelance writer doing a story on the plight of these kids, telling me he needed a photographer. As I was between jobs, I thought okay, no sweat; a couple of days, a few rolls of film, then I’m out of there. Yeah, right!
We started near the wharf, trying to get close to any kid who looked the part — what a joke. We were so far off base. We wasted three hours, misguided by our Hollywood casting mentality, and not scoring with any kid who could tell the tale we were looking to hear. Jake had combed the area for weeks and had only found one young girl halfway willing to share her story.
Her name was Moonstone, and although she said she was eighteen, Jake figured more like twelve or so. He’d talked to her late one day after he’d run off a couple of dudes trying to lift her fanny-pack, thinking to score some blow.
Only later did it dawned on Jake that he could have gotten his ass kicked, or worst, but she’d hung around long enough for him to learn her name and that she hung out with five other kids in an old warehouse near the Bay.
We headed toward the street where Jake had first met Moonstone. Shadows of twilight followed close on our heels, and I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting any minute to be jumped and glad I carried all my available wealth in the front pockets of my jeans. I’d left everything else at home, along with my new jacket, replace by a plaid hand-me-down, recently purchased at the Goodwill store.
How did I expect any street kid to trust, let alone talk to us dressed in clothes that cost more than it would take to feed them for months? Okay, I got the picture and told Jake to give me time; I’d get with the program.
We found Moonstone wandering the street, panhandling the early evening crowd, but not having much luck. I had to go along with Jake about her age. To me, she looked younger than twelve. She was tall but so thin I was afraid for her to stand sideways, knowing she would disappear. Her tattered clothes hung on her frail body, and her shoes were a trashcan-vintage pair of rubber thongs. I held back as Jake approached her, and after exchanging a few words, he motioned for me to join them.
“We’re going to get something to eat. There’s a small cafe around the corner. She’s hungry.”
We walked the short distance without too many words. The place could have used a coat of paint or maybe just a good scrubbing. I chose not to even think about crawly creatures. Moonstone slid into a booth and reached for the menu. She ordered a hamburger and fries, and a vanilla milkshake.
Our waiter, actually the owner, chief cook and bottle washer told her no shakes, the machine was broken. That was all right; she told him to bring her a big glass of milk and a scoop of ice cream.
The guy mumbled a lot, but he soon returned with her request. I watched her tiny hands, moving at the speed of frenzy, create her ice cream delight. She plopped the ice cream into the glass of milk and then reached for the three tiny packets of sugar on the table. She tore off the top and dumped the contents into the glass.
“Any more sugar?” she yelled at our chief.
“Just what’s there, this ain’t no grocery store.”
Moonstone jumped to her feet and scrounged the other tables, seeking more sugar, but all she found were several packets of the Pink stuff. Sliding back into place, she returned to her concoction, just like a chemist, stirring and pouring.
Moonstone held the bright pink packets over the glass, and her eyes followed the path of white power as it drifted out of a tiny hole in the paper, like bits of snowflakes, dancing in the air before joining the frothy mixture below. Then, her milkshake was ready.
Such a simple act, but this child of the street, trying to act so tough, so grown up, wore a look of sheer delight as if she had been given the most valued present. It’s a look I would not soon forget, making me suddenly feel so ashamed of having so much, wondering if I had what it took to continue this journey.