Thursday, November 05, 2015

Review of Justin Reed Early's Street Child: a Memoir

Subtitled: Surviving Streetwise

I said it before in my review of Jo Napoli's The King of Mulberry Street: there should be a new genre added to the list, called "street kids" or "homeless children". They'd cover the whole range from fiction to non-fiction. Included would be Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Fr. Joe Maier's Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok's Bleakest Slums (whom I had the privilege of working with in Bangkok), Robin Lloyd-Jones' Fallen Angels: Stories of Los Gamines, as well as my own Pepe. Certainly not least in this line-up is the one I just finished reading: Justin Reed Early's Street Child: A Memoir.

As the title suggests, it's Justin's own story . The first two chapters cover his own life as the third son in a middle class family in Washington State, his tumultuous relationship with his father (it's hard to imagine a worse father than Justin's, a very unhappy man indeed!) which led to his leaving home at the age of ten, his entry into the world of foster car and youth homes, and finally his escape to street life.

Street life seems glamorous, perhaps for the first few years. He meets the right people, street kids like himself, but mostly older. Roberta and Frankie become his closest friends. Because he's so young, everyone takes care of him. He quickly finds that the most lucrative means of support is the sex trade. At his first pick-up – “trick” is the local slang word for it – Roberta warns the customer that her friends are watching, and “no penetration”. He gets picked up by the police a few times, and even sent to a youth facility far off on the other side of the state. He escapes, and as a “cute little boy”, he has no trouble getting back to the streets of Seattle. Someone even buys him a plane ticket.

One only remains a “cute little boy” for so long, and after that, life isn't as easy. While life as a street kid may have its romantic side, Justin Early holds nothing back in showing the consequences such a life can lead to. The chances of surviving into adulthood are much less for a child of the streets, especially when there's a serial killer on the loose – and the AIDS epidemic – and the suicide rate...

One of the events that Justin describes is the filming of Streetwise. When I got to that part, I did a Google search and watched the whole feature-length film on YouTube. I understand it was a popular film in its time – it was nominated for an Academy Award – but I had missed it. In one of the opening scenes, I recognised Justin standing next to a phone box with Roberta, from one of the photographs in the book. Other than that, Justin doesn't show up much in the film, because Frankie had warned him to stay away from people with cameras. However, many of the characters from the book are remembered in the film. Lou Lou is the one you see loudly threatening anyone who would abuse her fellow street kids. In the book, she chases away a would-be pimp, and in the film, forces an older tramp to apologise to one of her young friends. She's Frankie's sister and Roberta's lover. Then, there's the tragic story of Dewayne. It would be a spoiler if I said more...

If you do read the book, you'd be missing out if you didn't watch Streetwise, at least the YouTube video:

As I said, this would fit into my proposed “Homeless Children” genre. However, all Homeless Children books would necessarily be a sub-genre to others, like Science Fiction as in the case of my Pepe, or Classical Fiction in the case of Oliver Twist. This one, of course, is a Memoir, but it could also be classed in yet another genre, GTLB, due to the permanent effect Justin's street life had on him. It wasn't the sexual orientation of his choice, but too much had happened, and the last part of the book describes how he came to terms with it.

It's also not how I would have hoped it would turn out. To be up front, I'm a Christian who believes that being Gay isn't God's plan for human relationship (but please keep that in perspective: nor do I believe that a heterosexual relationship outside of wedlock or with multiple partners is God's plan. Nor, do I believe, is gluttony or alcoholism. But I have friends who are all of those, whom I respect and enjoy being around – when they're not doing those things. We've all been broken in some way or another). It doesn't keep me from enjoying a book like this, and highly recommending it as an eye-opener to what really happens on the street.

It happens in America, even in pristine cities like Seattle Washington. Granted, a slightly larger percent of the street children there are from dysfunctional middle class families. Fewer – though still some – are abandoned. Dewayne had run away from a foster home and was waiting for his dad to be released from prison. Also, apart from the occasional serial killer, the streets of Seattle are probably a bit safer than places like Brazil, where the police have been known to round up street children and shoot them. But the streets are still the streets, kids are still kids, and life can still get ugly.

For Justin, it was ugly, but with a happy ending. There's a lot about forgiveness, and his last moments with his dad are happy ones. Justin now has a career in helping to improve the lives of other kids like himself.

That's not a spoiler – he did, after all, write this book himself....

No comments: