In 1983, Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, met thirteen‑year‑old "Tiny"‑Erin Charles‑a young girl living on the streets of downtown Seattle. Their harrowing book Streetwise, and the corresponding documentary film project (which premiered in 1985), brought audiences into the life of Tiny and her friends. Tiny was at that time supporting her crack habit as a prostitute in Seattle. Now thirty‑five, she has nine children, the youngest four of whom are by her husband Will. In this 2005 interview with Mark and Bell, Tiny discusses motherhood, aging, and the surprise of survival. This article commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the Streetwise project.
MARY ELLEN MARK: Tell me about your kids.
TINY: I have nine kids: Daylon, Lashawndrea, Keanna, Mikka, Rayshon, Ranaja, E'Mari, Julian, and Kayteonna. Daylon's good: he helps me out. He loves his brothers and sisters and helps take care of them. He's eighteen. Keanna is top‑notch she stays in school, she loves sports, she likes to do drill team dance, and she likes designing stuff. And Mikka ... is in and out of school. He's loving too, but he fights and argues with his sisters and brothers. Ranaja, she's loving, and she does her own thing. E'Mari doesn't talk much - he's off in his own little world. Then I've got the two littler ones, Julian and Kayteonna. They're just babies right now.
MEM: Rayshon has some problems with speech, right?
TINY: Well, I think what's wrong is I did drugs while I was pregnant with him, and drank alcohol. So he didn't really talk until he was like five - he started talking but you couldn't understand him. So he has a speech problem.
MEM: Talk about his anger.
TINY: He's not as bad as he was when he was like two and three‑he used to bang his head against the wall and cut my pillows up on my couch, and bite on himself, and it was just horrible. Now he doesn't really do stuff like that. But you can see the anger in his eyes when he gets mad. I sometimes think if he was older, he would actually do something. He would hurt someone.
MEM: Tell us about Shawnie.
TINY: Shawnie's not doing so good. She doesn't like to go to school, she wants to hang downtown, drink, and smoke cigarettes and who knows what else. Hang out with the wrong people. The same thing I did. And I don't approve of it it's not okay. I know what I went through, and I don't want my kids doing it.
MARTIN BELL: What was it like when you were living on the streets? How old were you when you were out there?
TINY: Downtown Seattle? Exciting . . . at first. [LAUGHS] I was thirteen.
MB: Do you remember the first day you were out there?
TINY: I do. I packed up everything, including my kittens, and waited for my mom to leave for the bar. I knew she wasn't going to come back anytime soon. That's when I left to move downtown. And met some people, and went and stayed with them. That was it. I actually didn't get off the street until I was twenty‑something years old.
Tiny blowing a bubble (during Streetwise), Seattle, 1983.
Tiny crying and smoking, Seattle, 2005.
MEM: How old were you when you turned your first trick?
TINY: I was thirteen. But I don't remember the first one. That was like six months after I went downtown. It took me a while.
MEM: Where did the name "Tiny" come from?
TINY: They named me Tiny when I was thirteen - because I was exceptionally small. My body was tiny, .
MEM: Things have changed so much for you. Tell us about your life now.
TINY: My life now is much better. I have a husband, Will, who takes care of me and the kids, and I have somewhere to sleep, eat, and take a shower, and I don't have to worry about money because he works. I mean, it can be hard, because I'm here by myself while Will's at work, and it gets a little frustrating. But sometimes I play with the kids and have fun ........ It’s kind of boring, but I'd rather be doing what I'm doing now than be running around downtown, looking for my next hit or a place to sleep or eat. So my life is my kids and my husband, the home. And I would never give it up for that type of life ever again.
MEM: Do you think that if you went out on the street again, you'd be able to get customers?
TINY: Oh yeah, there's always a customer. But I would never do that to my husband and kids.
MEM: You've been through a lot with the kids. Tell us about when you were trying to get your life back together, when Keanna was little.
TINY: I did drugs until I was six months pregnant with Keanna. Then I got clean, went into treatment, found a place to live. And one night - Keanna was about seven months old - I go out to a club, and pick up some drunk guy ... we go back to my house, and ... that's when it started all over again .... So I went out drinking one night, and passed out on the side of the road. Luckily, this guy was with me, and he had Keanna in his arms. She could have been hit by a car, or anything! So of course, the state took her.
MEM: What was your drug?
TINY: My drug of choice was crack. But I lost Keanna to alcohol. The state took her away from me.
MEM: Were you in better circumstances when you had MIkka?
TINY: I wasn't really in better circumstances. I mean, I did drugs with him until I was five months pregnant, and then I got clean and went to the same treatment program that I did with Keanna, and got a place to live and stayed clean for about a year and a half ... but then I started doing the stuff again. With Rayshon, I did drugs till I was like four months pregnant. Then I actually came clean when I was a couple of months pregnant with Ranaja. I've been clean since then. It's been five and a half years.
MEM: How would you like to see yourself five years from now?
TINY: I'd like to see us with our own home, on land. That's what I want for the kids, so they have somewhere they can call home, instead of us moving every darn year across the state and back or to different places to live.
MEM: Do you think you'll still be with Will in five years?
TINY: I would like to be with Will for the rest of my life.
MEM: Tell us about him.
TINY: Will is the one that's kept me clean ... I look at him as my higher power. If it wasn't for Will, I wouldn't be here. I'd be out doing what I used to do.
MEM: Do you go out together and have fun?
TINY: We have not been out since we've been married! I kind of regret that. We used to go out. He used to take me out. I used to pick wherever I wanted to eat and he'd pay for it. I miss those times, because that meant something to me.
MEM: What do you remember about meeting Martin and me in 1983?
TINY: It was great... I felt spoiled when you guys would take me out to eat, or buy me things - stuff that my mom didn't do. That felt good. I actually felt like I had a parent, somebody that cared for me.
MEM: Do you think your mom loves you?
TINY: I don't know if my mom loves me. I don't care. She has her life, I have my life. When I was younger, it mattered, but now it doesn't bother me if she doesn't love me.
MEM: Do you fight with her? What triggers you to get mad at her now?
Tiny just after the filming of Streetwise, Seattle, 1983.
Tiny lying in bed, Seattle, 1989.
Tiny and Stacey from American Heart, Seattle, 1991.
Tiny and Pat on a road, Seattle, 1993.
Tiny on the street with Keanna, Seattle 1990.
Tiny on the couch with Rayshon, Seattle, 1999.
TINY: Her drinking makes me mad, and when she calls me. The only time she ever calls me is when she's drinking, and it just really makes me mad.
MEM: Do you remember, Martin and I once offered to take you back to New York with us?
TINY: Yeah. I regret that I didn't do it. I would have had to go to school, and I did not want to go to school. My life could have been totally different if I had gone to New York. If I had just gone to school, I could be doing something else. But then, maybe…I would not have met Will and had the kids that I have.
MEM: How do you see yourself now, at thirty‑five? What is your self‑image now?
TINY: Oh, I don't even want to get into that, Mary Ellen! My body's out of shape. I have stretch marks. I'm very self‑conscious.
MEM: You're still very beautiful.
TINY: I feel old. And worn out. [LAUGHS] Thirty‑five's hitting forty, where you're halfway dead. Over the hill. If I didn't have this many kids, I'd probably feel young.
MEM: Talk about the kids who died on the street, the people you knew before.
TINY: I don't really have anything to do with downtown anymore. That's just not my life. It's all about here now, being at home with my husband and kids. I have no ties with that anymore.
Tiny, Will, E'Mari, and Julian in bed, Seattle, 2003.
Shawnie in the corner, sleeping with her panda bear, Seattle, 2003.
Tiny and Daylon smoking, Seattle, 2003
MEM: Do you remember them, though?
TINY: Yeah, I remember. It was sad how Roberta Hayes died. It was just a shock to know that she was murdered. And then Patty died of AIDS. That was tough.
MEM: Didn't you worry at that time about being killed or dying of AIDS?
TINY: I never worried about anything. I just lived day by day. I mean, when I got in someone's car . . . you know, I was a little concerned, because that could have been my last time ever getting into a car or seeing anybody. But I continued doing what I was doing, because that's all I knew. That's what I had to do.
MEM: What about the chances of AIDS?
TINY: I feel lucky I've never gotten AIDS.
MEM: How many years were you using a needle?
TINY: From like thirteen until sixteen. Then after I had Daylon I did a little bit of dope. Then I shot up again after I got out of jail. When I was shooting dope, I was doing it like every day.
MEM: Do you worry about Shawnie getting AIDS out on the streets?
TINY: Well, you have to think about the danger that is out there for your kids. I've talked to Shawnie and told her everything that I did from the age of thirteen. But she chooses to do what she wants to do. I'm not going to run around town and look for her when I've got little kids at home. I can't.
MEM: Do you blame your mother for what's happened with your life?
TINY: Not for everything, because I could have made the right choices myself. But I do blame her for drinking and bringing men home - I didn't have to see that.
MEM: Do you love your mom?
TINY: Yeah, I love my mom. But if she died, I probably wouldn't shed a tear. But if one of my kids died, I'd probably go insane.
MEM: Even Shawnie?
TINY: I don't know. [LAUGHS] I don't know! I don't have that bond with Shawnie, Daylon, or Keanna. I mean, I love my kids because they're my kids and I had them - but I probably wouldn't make a fuss about it as much I would with the littler ones that are at home with me .... Would you cry if I died?
MEM: Yes, I would.
TINY: No, you wouldn't! ... Would you, Martin?
MB: I would.
TINY: You'd only be upset because I'd never be here again, so you couldn't film me anymore! But...I'd miss you guys if you died.
MEM: Because we come and torture you every so often!
TINY: No. Because you're like the parents I never had. You never talk to me like my mom did.
MB: If your mom could say something, some words that would express what she felt to you, what would you want to hear from her?
TINY: That's a difficult question. Whatever she said, I don't think it would really do anything for me now. Maybe before I left home - when I was wanting her to stay home and never go out, and not bring all these men home - if she'd told me: 'Erin, I really love you and I'm going to try to change my life around" or whatever, I'd have been jumping for joy - I'd have been happy. But now when she tells me something, I just don't believe her.
MEM: Do you ever think about your dad?
TINY: I don't think about my dad anymore.
MEM: Well, I remember what you said as a kid about your real dad.
TINY: That he could have been a trick on the street?... Yeah, I thought that. I don't know who he is. He could be anybody.
MEM: For your kids, the ones that don't know their dad, how do you feel?
TINY: It's just Shawnie and Keanna. I don't know who their dad is. All the others, I know. Yeah, I feel bad .... You know, I love all my kids the same. I don't have a favorite. But when it comes to the ones that I have by Will, I feel there's a little more attention because he, the father, is in their life with me. I didn't have a father for the other kids, and I was by myself. So I feel a little more ... satisfaction, I guess, with the littler kids because their father is there.
MEM: If you saw your old friends on the street, would you be proud of your life now?
TINY: I'd be proud to have my friends see that I made it. That I didn't end up dead, or junkied‑out.
MEM: Are you surprised?
TINY: I am surprised.
Ranaja by the TV, Seattle, 2005.
Daylon asleep with Barbie, Seattle, 2004.
Shawnie looks at her black eye in the mirror, Seattle, 2004.
Tiny, Kayteonna, Julian, E'Mari, and Ranaja on the couch, Seattle, 2004. Photographs courtesy the artist