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COLUMN ONE

Orphans of Addiction

Children whose parents abuse drugs live daily with fear, neglect and helplessness. Some don't survive; for those who do, the inner damage can last a lifetime.

November 16, 1997|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Signs of withdrawal have risen to the surface. Theodora's pockmarked face is pale and sweaty. Her nose and eyes run. Her stomach churns. Desperate, she grabs Tamika and heads to the Lovitt Hotel, where the two stayed earlier when she was living with another man. Theodora scours Room 20 for money.

Lit by a bare fluorescent bulb, the room is filled with flies. There is a sink, but no toilet. A plate of chicken leftovers and an empty can of Magnum malt liquor are on the floor. Tamika's cotton panties are still strung along a rope on one wall, alongside a pair of men's boxer shorts.

The closet is empty, save for a syringe and spoon stored on a tiny ledge. Tamika begins to scribble on the sheets with a marker. Theodora, her patience now wafer-thin, smacks her hard, then tells her to stop crying and wash her face.

They leave as poor as they came.

Downstairs, at the neighboring La Colonial Market, an employee barbecues chicken in a black kettle on the sidewalk. Tamika devours the feast with her eyes. A trip earlier that week to a medical clinic for several infected spider bites revealed that the girl had lost 10% of her weight in a week, dropping to 36 pounds.

Theodora sees Johnny up the street, bums a little change, then heads to a nearby liquor store. Inside, Tamika presses her nose against the pastry case. Her mother reaches in, grabbing two pieces of sweet bread at 25 cents each.

Standing barefoot in the liquor store's parking lot at 5 p.m., Tamika eats her first meal of the day. Her mother leans against a wall, complaining of weakness.

"I really don't know what I'm doing today," she says. "It sucks."

Tamika, happy to have something in her stomach, begs: "Hold my hand, mama!"

"I don't want to hold your hand," Theodora snaps. "Leave me alone!"

As always, Tamika takes the rejection in stride, using the store's hand railing as a monkey bar to play on. On the way home, she holds Johnny's hand instead.

Johnny has spent more than half his 44 years in prison. After getting out of Lompoc federal prison a few days ago, he has stayed up for three days on speed, obsessively picking at his body. Bloody sores the size of dimes cover much of his heavily tattooed arms, chest and face.

Tamika doesn't mind. His arms may be raw, but they often are the only ones to reach out and hug her.

Tamika has adapted to living in a world devoid of lasting affection and friendship. She has become her own best playmate.

One afternoon, her mother runs into a prostitute named Pumpkin on Long Beach Boulevard. "You got any black [heroin]?" Pumpkin asks, hugging Theodora, who shakes her head. Pumpkin, who has flowing blond hair and bad teeth, flags down a customer, promising to return with cash.

As Theodora paces, waiting for Pumpkin's return, Tamika stands on a blue bus bench and plays patty-cake with herself. "Miss Mary Mack Mack," the girl sings, patting her hands against the air. "All dressed in black, black, black."

Sometimes, the 3-year-old becomes a mere prop for others to duck the law or hustle small change.

At 8 one morning, another prostitute, wearing very tight jeans, white stiletto heels and days-old makeup, arrives at the apartment. She gives Tamika a big hug.

Theodora met her at the Lovitt Hotel. The woman, who confesses that she is pregnant with her ninth child, offers to watch Tamika. Theodora declines. She later explains that the last time the woman baby-sat, she took Tamika onto the streets with her so police wouldn't suspect she was looking for tricks.

Later that same week, however, Theodora exploits Tamika's charms herself. At an hour when most kids are getting into bed, she takes her daughter's hand, grabs a child-sized plastic chair and heads for the Arco gas station.

"I don't want to go, mama," Tamika says, crying.

"I need you," her mother responds.

Theodora once again is broke, and panhandling with an adorable kid like Tamika always works better than going it alone.

Tamika is well-rehearsed and practiced. She perches herself on the tiny pink chair near the gas pumps, making sure customers can see her. Each time her mother shuffles up to a car, Tamika--loud enough for all to hear--asks: "Did he say yes, Mommy?"

A man in a blue van drives up. "Hi there!" Theodora says in an overly cheerful voice. "Can I pump your gas for some change?" All he gives her is the brushoff.

Another customer pulls in. "Mama! Ask him!" Tamika coaches. Eyeing the youngster, he hands over a few coins.

Between customers, Tamika sings songs or plays peek-a-boo with herself using a church handout she found on the pavement. By 9:10 p.m., with $1.56 in hand, Theodora buys a few loose cigarettes and some cookies for Tamika.

The girl's sad predicament is not lost on neighbors, who sometimes try to help. But they don't call the police--unwilling to get involved or fearful that she might end up in an abusive foster home.

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