Ashley's home in Long Beach's ethnically mixed westside, which also abuts a gritty industrial area, is a lively hub of small apartment buildings filled with families and children. Battered by losses in the aerospace and shipbuilding industries in the early 1990s, the area has rebounded considerably. Still, according to neighborhood drug counselors and educators, at least a quarter of the area's residents are addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Telltale signs abound. Children as young as 2 or 3 wander the streets alone. Kindergartners sometimes panhandle for food money outside grocery stores. Mother-daughter prostitute teams walk on nearby Pacific Coast Highway. Rehab centers dot the community's streets.
This is the world Tamika Triggs has known for three years, her entire life.
On a summer afternoon, her mother, Theodora, runs into a friend at a Long Beach gas station who offers to share her drugs. Theodora and her daughter follow the woman into the drenching heat of a clapboard shed.
Tamika, her sweet face framed by golden ringlets of hair, sits silently in a wicker chair watching her 34-year-old mother prepare for her daily sustenance.
Her mother's friend, Dorene McDonald, picks several rocks of cocaine out of her belly button, then positions a milky white pebble in a pipe. As the women alternately take hits off the small glass tube, crack smoke envelops Tamika, who blinks sleepily in her mother's arms.
Dorene, her neck raw with needle marks, hunches over a tin plate, warming a mixture of heroin and water in a spoon. Theodora, who is HIV-positive, slams the solution into an arm marbled with track marks. Then, intent on smoking the last crumbs of crack, she gently lowers her girl onto a mattress moist with urine and semen. As mom inhales, Tamika sleeps, her pink and white sundress absorbing the fluids of unknown grown-ups.
Theodora insists she loves her daughter. She holds her hand when they cross a street. She rushes her to the emergency room when Tamika gets sick. When they sleep in near-strangers' homes, or with a new boyfriend, she slings her leg over her little girl so no one can molest her.
But love for Tamika arrives in brief moments, when her mother is not zoned out or so consumed by her body's convulsive cry for heroin that she can think of nothing else.
"When I'm using, I'm chasing my drug. I'm not paying attention to her," Theodora tearfully confesses. "I hate myself every day. It's a disgusting habit. It's a disease."
Theodora--who used to be a nurse's aide and waitress but now subsists on welfare and food stamps--assuages her guilt by pointing to children worse off than her own. "I see drug addict moms who make me sick," she says, referring to a friend who beat her son's head on a porcelain sink when he accidentally spilled a spoon of heroin.
While not physically abused, Tamika, like most children of addicts, is emotionally starved. Often, she is left alone in an apartment shared by her mother's boyfriend of the moment, Johnny, and a changing cast of other addicts.
One afternoon, while jumping on the bed in a filthy nightgown, Tamika suddenly realizes her mother--and everyone else--has left. Flinging open the front door, she cries, "Mommy! Mommy!" There is no answer. Without so much as a goodbye, Theodora and Johnny have gone to score drugs with food stamps he was paid with for doing some mechanical work.
Tamika passes the time alone spinning the spokes of a bicycle in the kitchen, where she steps on shards from a broken jar. The toddler hobbles to the sofa, sits down and digs two pieces of glass from her bleeding feet. Not a tear is shed.
Sitting by the apartment's front gate, Tamika finally sees her mother, shuffling by in pink fuzzy slippers. After helping a friend inject heroin into his arm, she is delivering drugs for him in exchange for her own small hit.
"My dad's in prison," Tamika says as she waits patiently by the gate. "And my mom is sad."
When Theodora disappears like this, Tamika fears she will be gone forever, a fear compounded by her roustabout life. Tamika has lived in at least nine places this year alone, including a crack den, the home of an ex-boyfriend's mother, a garage, a hotel and the apartment of a druggie who talks incessantly about putting a bullet in his brain.
"I want my own house," she tells her mother, who harbors her own fantasy of kicking drugs and settling down. For now, it is only a pipe dream.
Late on a Sunday afternoon, Tamika hasn't eaten for 24 hours. Theodora, pacing the apartment, is focused on her own hunger--and her empty pockets.
"I gotta get some dope," she mutters, growing irritated by her daughter's repeated pleas for food. "Tamika! Hush! God you're driving me nuts today," she yells. "Go play!"