In the July 1983 issue of Life magazine, writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark published “Streets of the Lost,” an in-depth article and photo essay on Seattle street kids. In the piece, McCall and Mark tell the story of a group of homeless and runaway teens—Tina, a 13-year-old prostitute with dreams of diamonds and furs; Rat and Mike, 16-year-olds who eat from dumpsters; and Dewayne, a 16-year-old boy who hanged himself in a juvenile facility when faced with the prospect of returning to the streets. It’s uneasy subject matter, and a staggering portrait of what life without a stable home can look like.
I discovered Mary Ellen Mark’s work after finding this photograph of Rat and Mike (pictured) last winter while leafing through an old Time-Life photo treasury at a thrift shop. I didn’t want the whole book, so I wrote the photographer’s name on the back of my hand in pen. Later that night, I learned the story behind this particular image:
To pay for their bus trip to Seattle, both Mike and Rat stole money from their fathers and claim they now fear them more than the authorities. “My dad literally wants to kill me,” Rat believes. A more immediate threat, however, lies in the streets. After Rat was attacked by a crazed heroin addict, he sold his Pentax camera and Mike his two beloved Stratocaster guitars to buy their Colt .45. Despite this chaotic, dangerous way of life, Rat says he enjoys his freedom. Mike, however, is frankly miserable. But he knows that when he turns 18, his juvenile record will be wiped clean. “I can’t wait until my birthday so I can go home again,” he says.
It’s been 31 years since Rat and Mike were photographed on the street in Seattle. If they survived their situation at that time, which included squatting at an abandoned hotel and evading police, they would be 47 years old today. It leaves me curious if Rat and Mike were ever able to go home again, or if they were left to wander in search of better circumstances.
(Photograph: Mary Ellen Mark. Caption: Friends Rat, 16 (far left), and Mike, 17, have this Colt .45 only for defense, they insist, against men who try to pick them up or rob them. “I get hassled a lot” says Rat. “Mike’s my protection.” They picked Seattle because Mike had once lived there.)