Who are these children and why are they living like this? According to Jerry Esterly: "The street is like a drug. It has a certain glamour to begin with, your body's strong, maybe you've got a little fat, your coat is warm, you're not hungry, you can take it. There are three kinds of street culture. There are the black kids who go down to prey on the white kids. Many of the black kids have homes and families, and they'll go downtown to deal or be the pimps, then go home at night. Then there are the white kids from middleclass, good homes who may be looking for excitement. These are the ones like Kim who, if they're lucky, will survive and grow out of the street and get back into society. Lastly, there are the ones who have no place else to go, who are down there for serious stuff, like Tiny."
But Tiny does have a place to go, currently the bare subsistence apartment of one of the two men her mother Pat lives with, if living is the word. Unemployed and alcoholic, Pat Ropell loves her second husband Tom, who is also a drunk, refuses to hold a job and beats her, while she is loved in turn by quiet, romantic Larry, a dishwasher whom she despises for not standing up to her. It sounds like the plot of the television soap operas Pat Ropell watches all day in between doing jigsaw puzzles and drinking and making periodic trips to the charity Food Bank for giant tins of beans and apple sauce and cast-off turkey legs. There are three rooms in the apartment and only mattresses for beds, and while Tiny and Elisabeth (who's not even sure where her own mother is living right now) retreat there to change their clothes and snatch some daytime sleep after their nights at the disco, they are frequently frustrated in their quest. This very weekend, Tiny has spent half of Friday night fighting with her mother and her stepfather, who were fighting with each other. Tiny threw a pot of chilli at her stepfather, which at least was less lethal than the knife she threw at him on another occasion, or the time he tried to choke her. Mary Ellen Mark says: "Sometimes I think all of these people in Tiny's family thrive on the violence in some awful way." Tiny says of her life: "I have so many fights with my mom and [step] dad. We fight all the time, so sometimes I don't feel I have a life." Certainly it's a ménage where everybody throws everybody else out of the house with regularity, and everybody always comes back, having no place else to go unless it's to an abandoned building, another relative, another street kid's place with equally awkward parents, or the Greyhound Bus Station.
It's a familiar story to anyone who has read Up The Junction or seen the likes of Cathy Come Home, as true in England as in America: what takes place when working-class existence hits bottom and, under the impact of illness or unemployment, booze or bad luck, splinters into anarchy. Only in America they up the ante. In America, you can wind up not just destitute but dead.
If Tiny is the star of Streetwise, Lulu Couch deserves the title of Best Supporting Actress. "Lulu," says Teresa Killsguard, "was known as 'the queen of the streets'." A hefty, cheerful lesbian with a whisky-and-cigarettes rasp, Lulu went "downtown" from the age of nine, egged on by some of her seven brothers and sisters, escaping from her ramshackle house where there is precious little furniture but a state-of-the-art stereo and projection television, where 20 people of various races and ages live, where strangers are viewed with suspicion but others are always arriving and departing on mysterious "business" and where, as at Tiny's, it is very hard to get enough sleep. On the streets, Lulu says, "I got beat up a lot at first--like for about six years, man, I took everybody's shit. After that, I just thought, I'm going to let every little kid who comes down here thinking it's cool know what's happening. Like Tiny--I stood up for her a lot."
Indeed she did (a favour Tiny later repaid by accusing Lulu--to the police--of acting as her pimp), and not just for Tiny. Lulu became the enforcer and unwritten arbiter of First and Pike. Whenever there was a fight, Lulu would be in the thick of it, sorting out the combatants, knocking heads together and, as shown in the film, on occasion forcing miscreants to make formal apologies to each other. Lulu's form of unpaid social work was only somewhat vitiated by her penchant for alcohol and under-age girls, but in the eyes of the street kids she was a heroine. "I was always a tomboy, a tough-ass," she said. "I'm the type of person who says, 'Never say you can't do anything."