In April 1983, reporter Cheryl McCall and I traveled to Seattle, Washington, to do an article for LIFE magazine on runaway children. One of the reasons we chose Seattle was because it is known as "America's most livable city." Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York were well known for their street kids. By choosing America's ideal city we were making the point "If street kids exist in a city like Seattle then they can be found everywhere in America, and we are therefore facing a major social problem of runaways in this country."
Seattle is a beautiful city. We spent our first few days driving around the downtown area looking for places where the kids might hang out.
Cheryl and I had a long working experience together on several difficult stories. We trusted each other's instincts, and were an excellent working team because we totally immersed ourselves in a story and tried to get as close to our subjects as possible. We became obsessed with finding and meeting Seattle street kids.
I will never forget the first time we saw our kids by the graffiti wall between First and Second on Pike Street. We had driven past that wall many times before and it was always empty. That particular day we drove by around 4:30 in the afternoon and the wall was transformed into a meeting place for kids. This is where we began our story on Seattle's street children.
At first they were very suspicious of us. They were sure we were undercover cops. We showed the teenagers magazines and books with previous stories that we had done, but nothing would persuade them.
I think that there were two important factors that helped convince the kids that we were o.k. The first was my getting a jay-walking ticket and having an argument with the policeman who gave it to me. The kids gathered around and watched the dispute. They were impressed that I stood up to a cop. The second factor that brought us closer to the kids was Lulu's accepting us.
Lou Ellen Couch was a 19-year-old girl from a large and turbulent Seattle family. She had been on and off the street since she was nine years old. She was gay, and at the time we met her she was involved in a difficult relationship with a girl named Wendy. Lulu was by far the most loved and respected person among the street kids. She was high strung and emotional and she had a major drinking problem, but she also had an extraordinary sense of justice.
Lulu was constantly defending the kids she felt had been done wrong. As a result she often fought with men and women much bigger or stronger than herself. She always gave them a good fight and most of the time she won, but as a result of her constant baffles she often had a black eye and a scarred and battered look. Sometimes she reminded me of a sad but feisty old alley cat. Lulu was an extraordinary character and Cheryl and I were immediately drawn to her. When Lulu decided that we were okay most of the kids accepted us.
One by one we met the group of street kids that we came to know, write about, and photograph. We met a sad and lonely Shadow on his 18th birthday and celebrated with him. He in turn introduced us to his friend and "popcorn pimp" competitor Munchkin, who introduced us to his combative girlfriend Patti.
Every Friday and Saturday night the kids would gather at a questionable Seattle discotheque called "The Monastery." Most of the street kids didn't have the entrance fee so they would hang out in the parking lot. They would run from car to car, drink beer or whiskey, buy and sell drugs, and generally get high. The energy and expectancy level in that parking lot was highly charged. Occasionally fist fights would break out and there was a continuous entrance and exit of cars on the lot.
The first time I saw Erin Blackwell was in this parking lot. A big station wagon taxi pulled up and two little girls looking about 10 and 12 stepped out. The one who looked 12 was actually almost 14 and her street name was Tiny. The other was her friend Phillis and she was 11. They both wore tight sweaters, tight jeans, and lots of make-up. They looked like little girls playing "dress up" and they were amazing.
I approached them, introduced myself, and asked if I could spend time with them to take pictures. They both started to giggle and ran towards a waiting car. The next day Teresa, a social worker, introduced Cheryl and me to Tiny. She also assured her that we were journalists not police. That was the beginning of a long relationship which continues today.
One day an old merchant seaman named George approached us on Pike Street. He heard about the story we were doing and he knew two young boys that we just had to meet. The boys were called Rat and Mike and they lived in an abandoned building. He said the younger boy looked like a little kid and was a real character.
The next day George took us to the abandoned building which was several blocks away. We borrowed a ladder and the three of us climbed up into the building.
I was really glad that George was with us, even though he was an old man and I don't know how he would have helped us if we were attacked. It just felt better to have him there. The interior of the building was beyond terrifying. It was dark and deserted and full of garbage and broken glass. There was evidence that people lived there: old mattresses, bottles, rotten food, and even some old Playboy magazines.
George took us down a long hallway to the room where Rat and Mike lived. We knocked on the door but there was no answer. The entrance to the room seemed to be blocked by a piece of furniture. We found another way into the space through an adjoining room. Once inside we found it was empty but we felt that people lived there and that they would return. There was an old couch in the room, probably moved from another part of the building. There were music and movie posters on the walls and in the corner there was a lace-up pair of roller skates.
Cheryl and I left a note for Rat and Mike saying that we would return to find them.
A few days later we came back to the abandoned building. We arrived there this time at 6 a.m., because we felt it was a sure time to catch the boys still sleeping. George didn't want to come with us that early so Cheryl's friends Rick and Connie followed us to the building in their pickup. Thinking about entering the building alone made us really nervous, so the understanding was that every 10 minutes Cheryl and I would wave from a window in the building to Rick and Connie. This way they would know that all was okay and this gave us a sense of security.
We found the room and knocked on the door. This time there was clearly someone inside. We pushed the door open and saw four people asleep in the room. Three boys were buried in sleeping bags; one slept on the couch. Two of the boys looked older. They could have been in their late 20's and looked more like hobos. The other two were younger. They introduced themselves as Rat and Mike and they were both 16 years old.
Rat looked more like a 12-year-old and he was actually the leader of the two. Mike acted as his protector. The two boys were from Sacramento. They had run together after arguing with their families. They lived by begging, stealing, and eating from dumpsters. While searching for food in a dumpster Rat found a pair of roller skates, and he loved to skate up and down the hallways of the abandoned building.
The next morning I spoke to my husband Martin. He is a film-maker and we often talked about working together. I told him about the strange and fascinating lives of the Seattle street children, and I told him about a kid named Rat roller skating down the hallway of an abandoned building. At that moment we all decided that we must come back to Seattle and make a film.
Cheryl and I returned to New York in mid May. In July 1983 our article appeared in LIFE magazine.
In late August 1983 Cheryl, Martin, and I returned to Seattle to make Streetwise. Cheryl raised $80,000 from her friend Willie Nelson. The additional money needed to shoot the film was invested by the three of us. We totally believed in the project because we knew that the kids had a special story to tell.
We found Tiny, Lulu, and Rat still in Seattle; Rat's partner Mike was gone. He was in a juvenile jail in California. Other children were also gone and there were many new kids on the street. In many ways it was like starting all over again. When we were shooting on the street, Lulu's accepting us was once again a major factor in helping us gain access to the other kids. One by one we met the main characters in our film.
We were introduced to Dewayne, a fragile 16-year-old boy who had been in a juvenile facility while we did our story for LIFE magazine. His mother had deserted him and his father was in jail. He lived in a trailer with a young street couple and their newborn son. He ran errands for them, and in return they gave him food and a place to sleep. We learned that he was going to visit his father in jail and immediately sought permission to film the visit. This meeting between Dewayne and LeRoy Pomeroy was one of the most moving scenes in the film.
In every successful still photographic project that I have completed there has always been a turning point in the story where I felt that perhaps I was working on something that could be very special. This happened three weeks into our filming in Seattle.
All of us felt that Tiny could be a very strong character in the film. When we first started to work with her we were a bit disappointed because she was too self-conscious. One afternoon we decided to film her while she visited her mother Pat, who worked in a local coffee shop.
When Pat finished work we followed them home to the tiny shack that they shared. Pat started to drink beer and play solitaire and Tiny went into the bedroom. They started to argue, and an intense personal conversation developed between mother and daughter that touched the core of their relationship. We filmed many moving scenes with Tiny and she became a major character in the film. By chance she fell in love with Rat which led to a sad and beautiful departure scene when Rat left Seattle a few weeks later.
We all worked long and hard hours. Cheryl was brilliant at dealing with social service agencies and gaining access to families and institutions. I worked as a link between Cheryl and Martin and tried to help Martin, especially when he was filming on the street.
When it was time to leave Seattle it was very difficult to say goodbye to the kids. Halloween was our last night of shooting and there was a party at the Dismas Center. All the kids came in costume. Shadow wore a skull mask and a top hat. A 13-year-old girl named Lillie came as a mouse with a red nose, whiskers, and a green wig. She gave us each a tulip bulb to plant so we would not forget her. Tiny looked very grown up and beautiful in a hat with a veil, a short black dress, and dark stockings. She told us she was dressed as a French whore.
Sunday, the day before we left Seattle, Martin and I drove to Tiny's house to say a last goodbye. She had been out all night and was still in bed. She looked so sad and vulnerable, so alone. "Take me with you," she said. I told her that if she lived with us she would have to go to school like a normal 14-year-old. I also told her that at night she would have to be home at a reasonable hour and that she would not be allowed to hang out on the streets.
"Forget it," she said. "I don't want to go back to school because I would have to go back to the sixth grade where all the kids are only twelve years old. It would be too embarrassing.
She propped herself up on some pillows. She had just gotten a permanent, and she suddenly looked older. "I could never leave the street," she said. I took one last picture of her. She was wearing a T-shirt that had a prominent 16 on it.
We returned to New York and eventually raised additional finances for post-production. Cheryl returned to LIFE magazine to report and write and I continued my work as a freelance photographer.
In July 1984 Cheryl and I were assigned by LIFE to do a story in Minneapolis on sexually abused children. One afternoon I was photographing a mother with her two daughters in their home when suddenly I had a strong impulse to call home and speak to Martin. I asked if I could use the phone. The line was constantly busy, and when I finally got through Martin told me that he had just been speaking with Jerry Esterly, who had phoned to tell him that Dewayne Pomeroy had hung himself in a juvenile correctional institution the night before his 17th birthday. Martin, Cheryl, and I immediately returned to Seattle. Dewayne's death was a great tragedy. He was about to get released from the juvenile facility and we felt that the idea of facing the streets alone again was just too much for him.
In October of 1984 we returned to Seattle to show the completed film to the kids. This was the first public showing in this country of Streetwise, and it was for all of us the most terrifying. If the kids in the film did not like the film or if they felt betrayed by it then we would have failed.
About 50 street kids and a few parents and social workers piled into a small room in a social center in Seattle. During the first part of the film the kids laughed and hollered whenever they saw themselves on the screen. Lulu was especially excited about being in the film. She brought a group of friends with her and all of them roared with laughter whenever Lulu appeared.
Halfway through Streetwise the mood of the story changes, and the film becomes more serious. At that point, the room became silent. By the end of the film many of the children were in tears. One boy approached Martin. "Are our lives really like this?" he asked. He then continued, "I want to hit someone but I don't know who to hit."
The street children of Seattle embraced the film as their own. They felt it was truly their story. The only criticism that they had was that we were not present at a memorial service for Dewayne Pomeroy they held a week after his death. They planted a tree in his memory in Freeway Park. Teresa from the Dismas Center gave each of them a balloon and told them to think of something that they would like to say to Dewayne. They then released all the balloons over the park. The children thought it would have been good for us to film this, and they were right.
Basically the book came out of the film, which was released in the winter of 1984 and nominated for an Academy Award for best feature length documentary the following year. The film got an incredible amount of play and reached a lot of people in theatres ‑ unusual for a documentary ‑ and even more since it has been available in video.
But a book is different; it has a real life of its own. So we decided to put together a book from the existing photographs, both those done for the LIFE story and during the filming, along with the screenplay of the documentary. This is a very different photography book from the others I've done where I had an idea and went and did the book. This book was a collaboration really; more a book about a film; a way of making the film live on.
It is very difficult to find a publisher for strong documentary books dealing with reality and a tough reality. I went to many publishers- maybe 20- for four years. I never give up. I've never given up on anything I've started. For all my books it's never been easy… but I've always found one. I believed in this book, that it had a right to exist as a book- and it did.
The University of Pennsylvania Press did a wonderful job… I'm an alumna. As with the film, we all put a lot of our own money into it. We paid for the plates, the design, the printing; the writing already had been done. We had a book ready to go.
I hope people are moved by this book- that's why it was done. The main message is to love and take care of your kids if you are parents; the main message for kids is that it's a very dangerous world out there. I don't think that photography necessarily changes things, but I always feel that I am dealing with subjects that are going to open up peoples' eyes to the world that I see ‑ and that I think they should see.
(Mary Ellen Mark, an ASMP/New York Chapter member, has a long list of books, articles, exhibitions and awards to her credit, and is internationally known. Her books include Falkland Road, Ward 81, and Mother Teresa.)