I was twenty-four hours too late to meet Chico. The faint stains of his blood were the only mark that he had left behind on the Brazilian streets that had been his home for most of his sixteen or so years.
If you don’t count the unborn child being carried by his early-teens girlfriend.
She stood a few dozen yards away from where he had been gunned down, crying silently while other members of the gang hovered around. Some looked awkwardly at the ground, shifting from foot to foot, while others flicked their eyes menacingly at everyone who passed by, daring someone to start something.
Less than a day after their leader’s body had been taken away, Chico’s gang was still jumpy. The tension was caught by those arriving at the cinema whose steps and entrance the youngsters considered home. They moved inside briskly. Almost everyone knew him in the neighborhood around Belo Horizonte’s Cine Teato Brasil, on the Rua dos Carijos. He got his nickname Doido—“Crazy” in Portuguese—from the times he would fight wild, or space out on whatever he could sniff or swallow.
Chico would go to restaurants and cafés, eat and drink, and then refuse to pay, as a taunt. He tried it once too often, pushed once too far. Infuriated by Chico’s cheek, a waiter at one restaurant came up behind him and shot him in the back of the head.
Half a world away, Nicky sat in the middle of the Manila pavement and tried not to flinch too much as his friend Reinaldo knelt behind him and scraped the razor blade across Nicky’s head. Dabbing the blade occasionally into a plastic cup of dirty water, to wash away the flecks of blood and lubricate the dulled edge, Reinaldo scratched away Nicky’s hair like a clumsy hairdresser.
Gradually Nicky’s mop fell away to reveal his scalp and the reason for the cropping—cuts and welts across the top of his skull from a fight the previous night in which Nicky had been the loser. Though caked dry, the wounds were deep enough to warrant stitches. But that would mean a visit to the hospital which would have to be paid for. And the injured twelve-year-old just didn’t have that kind of money.
So, instead, Reinaldo offered the standard first aid of the street: shave away the matted hair so that the wounds don’t get infected, then sprinkle powdered aspirin over the top as a crude protection. Arms resting on upturned knees, Nicky cried out a couple of times as Reinaldo’s untrained hand and the blunt blade combined to add to the pattern of cuts.
As he showed me round his California neighborhood, Tony recalled how, when his mother and stepfather decided that things would work out better without him in the way, they bought Tony a one-way ticket to the other side of the country. He was thirteen years old.
Ignoring their farewell piece of parental advice—“Don’t go there, it’s a crazy place”—he made his way to Los Angeles with a few dollars and even less plans. Soon he was just another young face on the Hollywood Boulevard, making a few dollars whatever way he could to pay for some cheap booze or drugs.
Together with other members of his punk street gang—Mohawk- haired, heavy black make-up—he’d charge tourists to take his photo outside Mann’s famous Chinese cinema. A soon-to-beforgotten
kid snapped near the pavements in which the film industry’s greats leave their permanent prints.
If the picture pitch was slow, there was always posing as a homosexual prostitute to mug would-be clients, and straightforward shoplifting.
Home was an empty room in a derelict apartment building back up the less glitzy end of the Boulevard. Furnishings: an old crate, dirty mattress and soiled blankets. There he and his buddies would “do drugs, sex, party . . .”
Handwriting scrawled across the walls testified to another dabble- with-danger for the hundreds of young people like Tony who drift into Hollywood, only to get sucked into its undertow of occultism and perversion—the words were daubed in blood.
These are just three personal snapshots from my travels as I turned the corner of some of the big cities of the world, into the streets of the children.
Here millions of abandoned, abused, and runaway youngsters try to make it on their own in an indifferent or hostile world.
You can read more about what I discovered, in my book Street Children: The Tragedy and Challenge of the World’s Millions of Modern-Day Oliver Twists, available in print and e-editions, on online and in-store.