Tenderloin: A Memoir

The best the cop can do is take my daughters name and add her to a national database of runaways.

From across the counter in this dank San Francisco police station, he offers this, as if typing names of missing children rounds them up in some satisfying way, as if that alone should be a comfort and I should leave here with my mind at ease. It’s what I get for my hour’s wait: the officer’s well-practiced speech about how it’s not against the law in California to run away from home and how it’s not possible to take minors into custody for loitering or smoking or even shoplifting because the jails are too clogged with more serious criminals. Besides, he tells me, mothers or fathers aren’t called if arrests are made because authorities have no choice but to assume harm to the child is what forced her to leave home. Arrested runaways, he says, are turned over to a social service agency

The cop gets up, telling me my attempt to report my missing child is over.

“I just hate the truth,” he says. “But there’s nothing the police can do about helping parents like you find their teen-agers.”

I did come to the city thinking I might find mine. But less than 24 hours off the plane from Oregon, leaving the police station and walking the dips and rises of San Francisco, I feel doubt settling across my shoulders like the heavy fog banked up against the coastline. Why have I come? What hope do I have?

For over four months, I’ve waited at home for some word of my child. I’ve talked to kids on the streets of our own downtown, passed out pictures of her, looked at listings of runaways on the Internet, e-mailed youth centers in towns I’ve heard attract these teen-agers, who call themselves “travelers”: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Tucson, Austin. Authorities I’ve turned to have answered with only a shrug. There is no office, no phone number, no agency for parents to turn to when their children run away.

A few weeks ago, I got the first confirmation that my daughter had been in a specific place. I know, from her own sister, that Stephanie spent six weeks on the streets of San Francisco and could be here still.

Stephanie has not, over the past 18 weeks, phoned our house to explore the possibility of coming home. And I realize that if she’s in San Francisco on this day and sees me, she’ll have to step out from the variations on gray and brown that are this complex city and allow herself to be spotted, flash her blond hair, turn her body to me in such a way— the slightest move—that I’ll know without a doubt that it’s she.

But if she wants to stay hidden, she will.

At the ages of 14 and 16, Stephanie and my older daughter, Amanda, left our house. On September 20 that year, they went to Portland for a few weeks. They found the scene they desired, the heady wildness of adventure, with teen-agers who were hopping trains in Portland to go to live in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. This I heard from Amanda, who had returned by plane to Eugene on Christmas Eve. She spoke in short, clipped sentences while telling me where she and her sister had been—not wanting to be back under my charge, not wanting to be anywhere.

The police had found Amanda unconscious in an alley, huddled in a corner, white goo running from her mouth, her feet bare and blue because someone had stolen her Doc Marten boots as she lay on the cold asphalt. Her pale forearms were maps of needle trails, and her heart was barely beating. All the sorting out we’ll do for the rest of our lives about who’s to blame doesn’t matter; my daughter ended up alone in an alley choking on her own drug-laced vomit, her 16-year-old heart giving out on her. How can I let that in? How can I think of it as a real part of my family’s life? It is, though, and the dark blessing is that it brought her home.

But she came without Stephanie. Where is Stephanie? Amanda, dark with rage, her chest and back and legs and arms beaded with red, oozing scabies sores, her blond hair dyed ink black, a screw through one earlobe, a zipper-pull through the other, doesn’t know. Disappeared, gone. They made it to San Francisco together, then got separated. Maybe Stephanie (who has spelled her name Stefiny for many months, which goes to show how little I know of her, Amanda says) went to Tucson, maybe to Austin—there’s a good music scene there.

“Where did you last see her? Was she healthy? Was she using? Was she with good people? Was she all right?”

“She’s not dead, if that’s what you mean,” Amanda says. “She knows how to take care of herself.” But this exchange and no other causes tears to well in Amanda’s cold eyes. Then she says that Stephanie is probably crouched down on the sidewalk, all wrapped up in that black sweatshirt she always wears, the one dotted with patches, smoking a Pall Mall, grubby hand out at her favorite panhandling corner at Sixth and Market in the Tenderloin.

That’s when I ask my friend Molly, a woman who knows and loves the girls, to help me look. In late January, with Amanda in professional care and my two younger children safe with Molly’s husband and other adults, we go to San Francisco.

Our plan is to check all the places Amanda remembered from their time in the city. We make a list. Shelters, agencies, law enforcement, starting first thing Saturday since many of them will close on Sunday. Then the actual searching of the streets—walking the Tenderloin—on our last day. Our plane leaves Sunday evening.

Friday night, just arrived, we go to the Larkin Street Youth Center, even though it is late. Amanda said that she and Stephanie often went there for food. From our hotel on Polk Street, we clip down busy sidewalks trying to adjust to layers of traffic, music, conversation. Lights shine from window displays of closed shops. Cheery groups of people drinking in pubs and eating in intimate restaurants flash by us as we maze through city streets, looking for the center.

“What are you going to do if you find her?” Molly asks me, just as she did on the plane, in the airport, at the hotel.

“I don’t know,” I say again. And I don’t know. Force her to come with us? Molly and I both realize there’s no way to force a 15-year-old girl to do anything, especially if she’s surrounded by others of her ilk. Try to persuade her to return home? That doesn’t make sense. Nothing has changed, none of my rules. I’d still insist that she go to school, take a bath, wash her ragged canvas logging pants, stop putting holes in her face, spend her nights at our house—all the reasons she threatened to leave and finally did, all that “control” she says she can’t abide. Even if I got her back into our house, why wouldn’t she just take off again?

“Maybe I won’t recognize her,” I say to Molly, not believing the words myself, that this child who once—and not that long ago— could not be in the room with me without sweeping my arm like a cat, bumping against me for a quick embrace or touch, that this child could now be a stranger. Yet she’d been a kind of stranger for at least a year before she left. So many months of fuming anger. Where does that kind of rage come from? Something in these two girls turned against the life the five of us had built after their father and I divorced and we moved far away from him. But a canyon of fury dug so deep that they could walk out one September day and not be urged back by the simple tenderness of family? I can’t grasp it.

Stephanie turned 15 on January 4, just three weeks before our trip here. The anniversary of her birth passed through our house in silence and emptiness like—I imagine—the anniversary of a child’s death. Surely in the five months since I’ve seen her she has grown. What if she is an inch taller? Three or four pounds heavier? Skin, flesh, bone of my own child that I’ve never seen, never touched, fed, clothed, sheltered. An inch that is the world’s and not mine.

I pull my wool coat tight and walk alongside Molly as we head downhill and into the wind.

The Larkin Street Youth Center, on the northwest corner of the intersection, is dark when we arrive, about 9:30 that night. The windows are black, although a smear of light sneaks out from far inside the building and up to the side door propped open a bit with a shoe. I push it all the way open and step in, Molly behind me.

An awkward greeting from both of us: “Hello? Excuse me?” brings no response, though we hear the soft clatter of friendly talk and dishes from a back room.


We move through a large area in which school folding tables are lined end to end, covered with paint kits, cut-up magazine pictures, scissors, butcher paper splashed with bold colors muddied by the dim light. The rug, avocado green, thin, scuffs up under our shoes.

“Is anyone here?” Molly calls more loudly.

Chairs get noisy then, pulled back in a series of grunts and scrapes, and before I can look around the corner to the back room, five or six men and women, young, not street-like but in their 20s and wearing earnest flannel shirts, jeans, hiking boots, come rushing toward us. They weave together like a human fence, push forward. We step back, and back some more.

“Wait, wait,” I say.

“What are you doing here?” one man asks us. “Who let you in?”

“I’m looking for my daughter. Can you help me? Can I come in and see if she’s here?”

The same man, with a gangly, long frame and a jolt of close-cropped hair, his napkin still in his hand, walks around Molly and me and opens the door we just came through. The rest of them urge us to the exit.

“We’ll call a counselor. Maybe she can talk to you,” the man says. “But you can’t come in here.”

A woman repeats it—”You can’t come in here!”—as if we’ve broken in on a secret or spotted contraband.

Back on the dark street, the door snaps shut in front of us. A lock clicks as a last reminder of our status. We wait 10 minutes, 15, shrugging our confusion. Then another door opens up the sidewalk—the main Larkin Street Center entrance. A middle-aged woman beckons us to come in. Molly says this time she’ll wait outside. I enter the dingy office, small brown sofa under the blind-covered window, desk in the center of the room, large chalkboards on the walls scrawled white with names: Justin, Amy, Steven, Kim.

“Tell me about your child,” the woman says, but before I can respond, the phone clipped to her belt burrs, and she holds a finger up to me as a Be Patient sign and answers it. When she pushes the off button minutes later, I have Stephanie’s poster unrolled on the desk.

“This is my daughter,” I say. “Is she here? Have you seen her?”

The counselor looks hard at Stephanie’s picture—one from the first day of ninth grade, her full satchel on her back with lunch and notebooks and new pencils inside—and then she tells me she can’t say if my daughter is at the center. Even if she has just seen Stephanie, even if Stephanie is in the next room eating pizza with other street teen-agers, even if she is sick, in trouble, addicted, I can’t know.

“We have to protect the kids,” she says.

“If my daughter is here, I want to see her,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “We get hundreds of parents every month. Every mother and father that comes in here tells me their children are safe with them. But it’s not my job to decide that—I’m here to take care of the kids.”

I see her holding tight to the position granted her, state-sanctioned permission to assume she can do a better job than any parent who walks into her office could. Somehow she is allowed to believe she is more capable at negotiating this profoundly complicated business of raising teen-agers.

The counselor gives me the same advice she says she passes on to all parents: Drive up and down Haight-Ashbury and hope you spot your child. She pulls a photocopied map out of the top drawer of her desk and hands it to me as I explain that Amanda has told me to go to Sixth and Market, that if Stephanie is panhandling, it will be on that corner.

“Oh, I’m sure not,” she says. “The Tenderloin is prostitution and heroin. It’s a place of little hope. Hard core. We don’t find runaways from Oregon in the Tenderloin.” She touches my arm, indicates the door as her phone buzzes again. “Believe me,” she says, hand over the mouthpiece, “drive in Haight-Ashbury and on Pine Street. If there’s any chance of finding your daughter, it’ll be there.”

Back in our small room, I call the drug rehab clinic where Amanda is staying. I tell her about the woman at Larkin Street. About Haight-Ashbury.

“No. Sixth and Market,” Amanda says. “Stephanie would never go to Haight-Ashbury, no way. That’s where poseurs go. That’s for stupid-ass girls who say they want to live on the streets, but they want it easy. They don’t want to get too cold or too hungry or too scared. If Stephanie’s in the city and needs money, she’ll be at Sixth and Market.”

At 7 o’clock in the evening on Saturday, the first full day of our search is over. We began the morning by walking through soup kitchens, meeting with a city councilor, filing papers with the police, handing out posters I brought. Saving the Tenderloin for Sunday.

Tonight Molly has gone to dinner with old friends from college, and I have climbed San Francisco Street to the house of acquaintances, friends of friends, whom I called to say hello to. They insisted I come by.

Inside their narrow, cozy living room, I sip chamomile tea from a pretty cup and watch Nancy’s hands as they hover behind her baby’s head. At 8 months, Haley is pulling herself up to the coffee table, teetering there, toes curled and fat feet wobbling. Nancy doesn’t stop the adventure, just puts out her arms as a barrier against a fall, and coos encouragement.

Creamy yellow walls and gleaming white bookcases, lined with what looks like a thousand books, soar 15 feet to the molded ceiling—I’ve never been in a house with this kind of upward expanse. The airiness whirls above my head. Tom and Nancy bought the 100-year-old Victorian and fixed it up, room by room, as the place Haley will know as home all her life, Nancy says. As if to confirm that effort, a faint smell of solvent worms up the stairs from the basement, and when paint-spattered Tom comes in to say hello a few minutes later, Nancy worries aloud about toxins stinging Haley’s nose and throat. Haley’s dad rushes off to open windows.

Nancy is my age—nearly 40—and is making a family two decades after I did. Her gaze, which falls on Haley every few minutes, is one I remember well, full of determination that evil and harm will choose a path away from this child and that she will grow up knowing she is beloved, secure. With 20 years of life experience, maybe Nancy will do better than I did at sustaining that promise for chubby Haley, who holds herself to the table by a couple of round fingertips.

As I drink my tea, Nancy asks me questions about Stephanie, expresses her concern. Underneath the warmth, I hear the distinct this-will-never-happen-to-my-child tone that I’ve gotten from most parents over the past four months. I want to tell her I hope it won’t happen to her, that no one should have to go digging around in that soft part of the heart. But I’d also have to tell her that preventing it won’t be as simple as she believes, as she catches Haley’s diaper-padded bottom mid-plunk, lowering the baby gently to the ground.

“Would you like a tour of the house?” she asks.

We stand, and I follow her up the gentle curve of black steps and white risers that reach from top to bottom of the home. Nancy climbs in front of me, Haley tight in her arms. The baby’s face, beaming from, the safe mama squeeze, looks back at me over her mother’s shoulder, and the three of us float up through the house to the second floor, the third, float like their happiness at being this family, set apart from a damaged and wounded world.

When I return to the main floor, Tom leads me to the kitchen and, since they have eaten dinner earlier, makes me a turkey-and-provolone sandwich I can eat back at the hotel so I don’t have to go alone to a café. He puts it with some carrot sticks into a brown paper bag and crimps it closed with neat folds at the top. I carry the bag, warm from the toasted bread, rich with the mingling smells of meat and cheese, to the door. I put on my coat. Nancy comes back from changing Haley’s diaper, and we all stand at the massive front entrance, looking out at their bright porch and the dark street beyond. I kiss Haley’s cheek, and she pulls at my hair. Nancy hands me a collection of Alice Munro stories to read in bed. At the last minute, I hand Tom a copy of the poster that I’d stashed in my coat pocket, rolled up in a tube. Stephanie’s grainy image and “Have You Seen My Daughter?” printed in fat, black letters across the top of the long white paper. I’d hesitated leaving it in this house for fear it would disturb the careful peace, and even now I feel awkward that it’s out in the open. Nancy takes the rubber-banded tube from Tom, tucks it into a pile of magazines on the foyer table while assuring me that she’ll make copies and hang them around the neighborhood.

I walk down the porch steps, the door clicking softly behind me, and onto the neat, vacant sidewalk. The chill of the night gets under my jacket, but I stand here imagining tall pictures of Stephanie pinned to telephone poles and street signs. My daughter hanging in the cold, January nights, torn by the wind.

Sunday we spend in the Tenderloin. Walking the litter-ridden sidewalks of Market Street, circling the neighborhood, lifting the edges of thin blanket tents to look inside, peering into ragged sleeping bags rolled out on the library steps or metal park benches or the white retaining walls surrounding a long-dry fountain. We’ve seen no one who resembles Stephanie. Hundreds of teen-agers and even more adults have stumbled and slumped down the dingy streets around us. Through the honking and thumping of downtown traffic, some have asked us for money. We’ve spotted a few with their backs to us peeing into corners of brick buildings, thickening the air with urine stench. Others hunched over and waiting in a snaking line outside a soup kitchen. But I’ve seen no one with my daughter’s sharp shoulders and elbows. I haven’t recognized her narrow hips or the slope of her long legs under any of the drooping pants. Stephanie’s eyes hold their own chocolate-brown color, not like anyone else in the family, and she has a drift of moles across her cheek like a constellation. Those distinctions are on no face here.

And now, after hours spent in this one piece of geography, we must go. We barely have enough time to catch our plane. Molly is insistent.

“Just a couple more minutes?” I ask.

And so I stand alone on the corner of Sixth and Market, keeping watch in the twilight for any sign of new panhandlers as Molly walks one last time through the tables inside McDonald’s.

The crowd on the sidewalk clears a bit, and I see a young girl sitting on a concrete bench a few feet from me. Her wool-hat-covered head hangs down between her parted legs, strands of dirty blond hair sticking out and falling toward the pavement. For January it’s not that cold—the sky has been bright and blue all day—but she shivers so violently I can see the fabric of her worn and filthy coat tremble. A young man, maybe 16, has his left arm wrapped around her bent body. He holds a sandwich near her face and is whispering in her ear. Although I can’t hear him, I know he’s encouraging her to eat. Both of them wear gray-and-army-green pants and black sweatshirts with writing on the backs, clothing piled on more clothing, bulky, rumpled, falling apart. The boy attends to both the girl and the shopping cart next to them, which holds a pile of blankets, a couple more sandwiches and a collection of Charles Bukowski poetry.

I step closer, and closer again. Neither of them notices me watching.

Her damp hair sticks to her face, and with her head down, I have no hope of seeing the real shape of her, or even a little skin or cheek. I can’t see her eyes. At this distance I can smell them, or at least her, rancid, sour. Even the rush of traffic and the wind down Market Street can’t sweep away the stench of exhaustion and illness. The young man pushes the triangles of white bread toward the girl, but her head only sinks lower, and strands of saliva web out from her mouth, drip to the ground. She’s barely holding on to the bench; I wait for her to topple to the sidewalk, wondering if I might be close enough to catch her. Wondering if I’d be able to catch her.

I could tell him that if he keeps forcing her to smell food or if he continues to talk about eating, they will both soon be covered in vomit. I could ask him if he knows a place where she can lie still, warm and safe for a little while. But I don’t talk, just watch him squeeze her tighter, reach in to lift her chin, beg her to take one bite.

Molly calls my name as I take the last step forward. I’m inches away from the bent girl. Kneeling to the ground, I look up. And I see that though she is someone’s daughter, she is not mine.

I stand up, back away. I let my vision allow in other people on the gray-and-brown streets, where some live like smoke wisping in and out of view. The boy and girl on the bench merge with the crowd on the sidewalks and those in cars going home for Sunday dinner, and then there’s Molly looking at her watch, urging me back up the hill, into a bus, an airplane and into the air that will lift and pull us north up the coast.

I’m flying already. Gone from the Tenderloin, far above the city. My arms close around my chest as hope of finding my daughter fades like the day.

About the Author

Debra Gwartney

Debra Gwartney is the author of Live Through This, a memoir, and the co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. She has published in such journals as Tin House, the Normal SchoolPrairie Schooner, and the American Scholar, and teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.

View Essays