Runaway Train

Tricia Sullivan fled her Southern Oregon hometown and the confines of her family in April. Arriving in San Francisco, she melded with the street community of young castoffs, misfits, and rebels. Phoning home, she lied and told her dad she was in New Yor

Between bits of his chocolate-covered glazed at Rolling Pin Donuts, a chaos punk is threatening to kill me. I don't tak it personally: He's too high to do me any real harm, and I know speed-fueled hyperbole when I hear it. Besides, I've accidentally betrayed his trust: He is talking to me on the condition that I not use his name - not even his street one - and has agreed to accompany me later to Polk Street in search of a key witness to a recent murder.

But the agreement explodes when one of the teen's friends approaches, affectionately cuffs him on the head, and calls him by his street name. Without thinking, I write the alias down.

"You fuckin' narc!" he yells when he glances at my notebook a few minutes later. "I'm gonna kick your fuckin' face in. I'm gonna kill you right here."

I apologize profusely, plead habit, then stupidity, but to no avail. He rips out a clump of pages from my notepad and storms out of the Castro District doughnut shop.

The friend starts scavenging the abandoned pastry.
"You weren't gonna find him anyway," he says of my search for the murder witness. "It's pretty easy for people like us to disappear."

On May 12, 1995, a different street teen disappeared - for good. Police found her body stuffed into a closet in a burned-out church taken over by squatters. She had been strangled. Black and red occult symbols adorned her face. Downstairs, in the makeshift bedroom of one of her alleged assailants, a dresser held dirty laundry, a bottle of bleach, and used syringes. Above it was a fading Judy Collins photo and a bit of graffiti scrawled on the wall: "There's nothing like senseless violence to snap you out of a depression."

There was no identification on the corpse, just a Muni transfer ticket and some pocket changes. The body was transported to the morgue, placed on a slab, and classified as Jane Doe No. 16. Autopsied by the city pathologist four days later, she was found to be a healthy woman, between 15 and 18 years of age.

A runaway who had given herself a new identity and rechristened herself "Stevie," she melded with the other lost souls, young discards, and misfits who have thrown off mainstream society's rules and call San Francisco's streets home.

Something akin to fate delivered Stevie into the arms of two other denizens of the street, who shared with Stevie the belief that they had been abused by parents and life. One, a young woman, had escaped the suffocating confines of her family; the other, a young man, had been exiled from his. Together, the two had built a relationship based around the idea that he was a master of an ancient religion and that she was his priestess in training.

In the squats and parks and coffeehouses of the city, far from the boredom and conformity of lower-middle-class neighborhoods in which they had all been raised, the three made common cause. So when Stevie expressed her oftspoken desire to end her life, her two new acquaintances were faced with this ethical question: If a troubled friend asks you to assist her in her suicide, what do you do?

The city of Klamath Falls is incredibly flat. The Southern Oregon town of 18,000 people sprawls lazily in a huge valley rimmed by imposing treeless mountains, gone scrubby and brownish-yellow in the 90-degree heat. Everything seems open, the cloudless sky a cornflower-blue tease of infinity. There's space to spare, so architects build out, not up. No edifice seems to be more than two stories tall.

Main Street runs through Old Town, a once thriving business center now inhabited mainly by thrift stores and the occasional upscale sandwich shop. In the neighborhood, there's a roller rink, a Holiday Bowl, and art deco theater, a grocery store, and a large antique mall catering to the tourists who blaze through the city on their way to Reno. Or to Cell Tech, "the hope of the town," a New Agey company that specializes in Super Blue Green Algae products like nutritional supplements and skin-care systems. The algae is harvested in Upper Klamath Lake. The falls of the city's name dried up ages ago.

A small highway leads into the new town, a service-economy mecca of strip malls, fast-food franchises, car dealerships, and motels. Numerous churches dot the landscape. It's a hot summer night, but there are no young people out on the streets. There's absolutely nothing to do.

In Klamath Falls, high-school baseball scores make the front page. Strangers nod at each other in the Safeway aisles. The waitress at Denny's tells you to finish your eggs, honey, because you need to put some meat on those bones. The elderly man standing in line behind you at Sizzler tells you not to order the steak, dear, because 70 years of T-bones gave him the gout and you've got to watch your cholesterol or you'll drop dead of a stroke like his wife. A teen-age floor sweeper at Taco Bell takes one look at your shoes and guesses that you're from "some big city," then asks why you're visiting "a boring shithole like K. Falls." Big city anonymity is out of the question. Any deviance happens behind closed doors.

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