Shadowing Stephen

Under the cover of night, I follow my son through the streets, into the subway, across the viaduct, until we come to the place spray-painted with elegies for dead friends.

By Deborah Digges

Published June 27, 2001 12:35AM (EDT)

The first night I shadow Stephen, I watch his direction from our balcony, then tiptoe down the stoop into the brisk early December air. I keep the hood of his sweatshirt tied tightly, my hair tucked in a stocking cap underneath.

At about a block's distance, hugging the stone wall down Winthrop Road, he heads toward the T-stop. I feel giddy and must suppress a nearly overwhelming urge to call out to Stephen, as if, outside the arena of our discord, we could meet and embrace, set out together in compatible alignment.

As he boards a southbound train, I look at my watch: 12:45. I've planned badly. I have no money, no contingency plan for a taxi after the trains have stopped for the night, no way of knowing where he'll get off -- though I suspect Hyde Park or Mattapan -- and no idea of how I might change trains, board or exit without being discovered.

Against my will something like admiration steals over me. How well Stephen has learned to navigate the night. He'd boarded that train with presence approaching dignity, offered his token to the conductor, and taken his seat like a veteran. Walking back up the hill I wonder at the chasm that has opened between us. How have we assigned each other so distinctly to different worlds? And is it, to Stephen, even personal? Or does it only become personal -- and volatile -- when I, assigned to represent the tedium of the day life, try to coax him back. It's fun out here in the dark, I agree. It's strange and awakening now to find my way through the cold past tomorrow's garbage pickup, past the almost salvageable chairs, an entire set of windows, an old doll house I am tempted to retrieve and take home.

Fighting a temptation toward anger at Stephen's refusal to apply his mastery to anything but deviant activities, I remind myself to just observe for now. Observe and learn. I remember a passage from Jane Goodall's "In the Shadow of Man," a passage I've written down in my journal: When the frustrations of being with individuals so dominant ... become too great, the adolescent male [chimp] travels ... frequently by himself ... This aloneness is quite deliberate. ...

I've turned to many texts to try to learn how best to understand Stephen. Most if not all the psychology books are either briefly vague on adolescence, or they discuss the problem theoretically or in regard to two-parent families. There is a good deal of information on behavior modification, but none of the texts explain what it feels like to be an adolescent boy.

I first read Goodall's accounts of her studies of chimpanzees years ago, sitting in the bleachers, watching Stephen's soccer practices. I'd written his name, Charles, and mine in the margins of the text as I'd read about the various behaviors of young chimps in relationship to their mothers, siblings, and the community at large.

Among other similarities, the strong, solitary bond between a mother chimp and her offspring -- independent of the adult males in the community -- seemed pertinent to us. Just as the adult males live in wide orbit around female chimps and their young, so the boys' father and stepfather have always lived on the far edges of our lives.

My boys' father flew planes in the Air Force. We lived parallel to the base's east-west runway, the huge C-141 planes taking off and landing morning, noon, and night. Stephen was born into a family in which, from the day he entered the world, he watched his father come and go.

My marriage to Stan is in many ways no different. For five of our six years together, we've maintained two residences, he living and working in Maryland and I in Boston.

Sitting high in the bleachers over Brookline's playing fields, watching my small son run with his teammates, knowing my older boy painted or read at home, I had starred a passage: The behavior of some human males is not so different from chimpanzee males as might be expected. In the Western world, at any rate, many fathers, even though they may be materially responsible for their families' welfare, spend much time away from their wives and children -- often in the company of other men. ...

Goodall's writings about the chimps at Gombe helped me come to terms with and value my singleness. Invested with a more anthropological and philosophical view of our one-parent household, I attempted to peel away the many-layered fiction of American family life and the eighties consensus view that single mothering was somehow a new and aberrant condition.

When did men not go to sea, to war, set out on seasonal hunts, get lost, die of smallpox, malaria, die in the woods with handwritten wills frozen to their chests? When did they not board ships for a new world, secure a place on a wagon train going west? Were the months, often years-long absences irrelevant to their children's lives? Sanctioned or not by traditional values, isn't absence still absence? And through those absences, who fed the children, sang to them? Under whose single care might we document that we grew?

As Stephen enters such a troubled adolescence, I've found myself poring over Goodall's book once more in regard to the behavior of adolescent chimps: Adolescence is a difficult and frustrating time for some chimpanzees just as it is for some humans. Possibly it is worse for males in both species ... One of the most stabilizing factors for the adolescent male may well be his relationship to his mother. ...

A few nights later, the door softly closes and I pull on again the black sweatshirt and pants from Stephen's drawer. Just now he and I are almost the same height and weight. I've tucked some money in my sock, but tonight Stephen cuts down the terraced steps toward Washington Street and past the T-stop. He wears his backpack and I can hear the ball bearings rattling in the paint cans as he bounces down the long flight of stairs.

I follow him at a distance along Beacon, he on one side of the street, I on the other. I keep to the shadows of the awninged storefronts. To my relief Stephen is listening to his Walkman, which gives me greater ease in my movements. I can follow a bit closer without worrying that he'll hear me.

At the same time the fact of his rather distractedly bouncing down the street makes me evermore protective. Someone could jump him and he'd never know what hit him. I scan the streets, the openings to the many alleys. Stephen leads toward Boston. As I dart and stroll, hesitate when he is too clearly in view, I feel a strong pull toward home. Does Stephen feel anything like it? He certainly doesn't appear to.

We are almost to Fenway when he cuts left onto St. Mary's Street. At the corner two kids about his age step out of the convenience store. Stephen stops and removes his headphones. There's an exchange. On the spot I decide that if violence erupts, I'll blow my cover, step in.

Though I know I can't stop a fight all by myself, I'm banking on the surprise factor, pulling off my hood and cap, shaking out my hair to reveal myself as mother on the scene ... When he is attacked ... there is little a mother can do, but she usually hurries to see what is going on, and may utter waa barks in the background. ...

But the boys join Stephen as they make their way behind the apartments, stopping at a fence to toss part of a Slim Jim to a dog. Maybe the boys feed the dog to keep him from barking. Stephen kneels a moment. He reaches his fingers through the wire mesh fence and scratches the animal on his head. Then the boys head off again toward Commonwealth, cross the viaduct, and disappear. Crouching along the rail, a few cars whizzing by beneath, I follow.

When I reach the other side, I peer down the path between high dead weeds to an old trestle. Even from a distance, in the midst of the rubble grown up around it, the trestle retains something of the baroque vision of its builders, elaborate scrolls and buttresses written into the behemoth stone and concrete structure.

Here and there off the path, the homeless have erected low, tarp-covered houses. Just now no one stirs. They're either asleep or roaming. I can feel my pulse in my temples -- I set off one morning for the mountain ... -- and squat to catch my breath as I behold the enormous ruin.

Something like gunshots followed by laughter brings me to my feet as I sprint down the path and flatten myself against the outside wall. It is like looking into an enormous tortoise shell, or a cave whose entrance your head barely clears, then opens before you like a cathedral.

I can see that the explosions are the result of ignited spray cans flaring to small fires along tracks that run the length of the enclosure. The litter of fires from one end of the trestle to the other creates enough light that the ten or eleven boys there, including Stephen, take to clowning in front of them, casting huge shadows on the opposite walls like the shadows of the carriers behind the screen in Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

And I can't help thinking of the caves of Lascaux as I take in the huge, colorful paintings, many of them elegies as I observe, elegies for friends who have been shot, or died of overdoses, or who, as the captions read, were sent up da riva to juvie.

Obscenities, rap lyrics -- fuck da police, bum rush the show, and a little somtin fo da younstas -- are brandished in black under the faces of the dead. Valiant swan songs, ballooned speech announces see ya lata and live and let live2X.

The walls are a swarm of tags overlaid, painted out, rewritten, and resurfacing, secret names the boys have given themselves or their gangs. Tags ladder the walls like a catalogue of ships, or a roll call to something to arms, to the New Jerusalem -- the effect of their numbers glorious, disturbing.

The boys choose names of one or two syllables, perhaps because they are easier to remember, or because of the hammer-blow of the sound. They spell their tags phonetically, as if to translate as far away from culture as possible without losing meaning, tags like abuz, sez, chek, beepr, alirt, myo, hed, and many, many others scrawled elaborately across the walls and up to the dank, green-to-black mildewed ceiling arcing at thirty or forty feet.

I slide a bit on the steep embankment, find my footing. But I'm undetected in the shadows outside the abutments, the traffic sounds, amplified inside the tunnel, covering the noise of my bumbling in the weeds as every now and then I glance behind me to the cardboard houses, then peer around the wall to watch Stephen, at the far end of the trestle, unload his backpack of paint cans.

He lights a few empties to the delight of his comrades. His laughter, so childlike, so catching, sounds both liberating and exclusive, as if I'd stumbled into the wrong dream. The cans hiss, spray fire like heavy rain that weirdly illuminates the floors littered with freebase lids, broken syringes, homemade bongs, rolling papers.

Stephen begins squaring off a section of wall with white paint and fills it in, creating for himself a field. Then he backs away to let it dry. The exhilaration of the night's discoveries begins to dissipate in waves of dizzy fatigue as I survey the scene. Paint fumes hit my nostrils and I step back in the dark.

Deborah Digges

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