The Seamier Side Of Life

THE DIM, FLICKERING STREET LAMP CAST AN OMINOUS shadow on the tall, well-built man standing beneath it. Not moving, staring into my eyes, never blinking or altering his gaze, he waited there silently, not allowing his eyes to reveal the thoughts below the surface. In the search for my son, walking the streets among drug pushers and addicts, I'd become used to the look. With minimal movement he slowly pulled back his jacket enough to expose the butt of a gun peeking out above his belt. His message was clear: this area of Oceanside, Calif., was his domain. I was not welcome here.

For the past three years, I've found myself standing toe to toe with the denizens of the drug underworld. My son, Jeff, vanished from his home in Phoenix, Ariz., just before his 25th birthday. He was a drug user, and I went looking for him.

Jeff worked from his home as a computer technician after moving to Arizona in 1990. When his weekly phone calls ceased and his phone and pager were shut off, I started writing him letters. He didn't answer. Then one came back stamped by the post office HOUSE VACANT. I phoned Jeff's friends. They, too, had lost touch with him because, as they sadly revealed, he had begun taking drugs. I was stunned. Jeff had not done them as a teen so I'd never even considered the idea. His drug of choice, I was told, was crystal meth.

I immediately sought out authorities who I believed would, should and could help. I was in for a rude awakening. The Phoenix police wouldn't file a missing-persons report on Jeff because they said he didn't fit the criteria. The FBI refused to help me. Even ""Unsolved Mysteries'' wouldn't do a story. A drug addict walking out of his home didn't constitute a mystery.

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Private detectives were above my means, but I picked their brains for ways to locate people who've gone missing. One investigator told me Jeff was probably living on the street. ""To find him you have to get out there, kick some ass and take some names.'' I am a small woman, 5 feet 3, weighing about 113 pounds. I couldn't kick my own ass, but I went anyway.

Not even sure he was still in Arizona, I didn't know where to start. A friend guided me to a psychic who felt Jeff had traveled to the San Diego area. That's where I began. Armed with photos of Jeff, my cell phone and my very brave best friend, Vickie, I left my home in Portland, Ore., and took my first trip to the streets. First stop: the Oceanside police station, to find out where the heaviest crystal-meth users could be found. The search took us to neighborhoods that rivaled any movie depiction of the drug world. Rundown houses stood sadly with broken windows and torn shades. Yards were piled with trash, toys and car parts. The poverty was humbling.

One step led to the next. Each person would expand our search by suggesting new places to look. Those who trusted us gave us addresses of crack houses. Others would either clam up or show us their weapons. We never tested the threats. We would quietly say ""Thanks'' and leave.

One pool hall in El Cajon, Calif., fronted for a shooting gallery. Filth seemed to ooze from the walls. Stale cigarette smells coupled with the longtime unwashed bodies of the inhabitants assaulted us as we walked in. I spoke with a young girl who thought she'd seen Jeff the week before. As we talked, she began to weep. Putting her arms around me, she said, ""I wish my mom would look for me. I really hope you find him.'' With that, she straightened her shoulders and walked through the door, disappearing into the darkness.

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I took seven trips in all. Vickie came with me on three. I moved as far into the drug underworld as I could get, even dressing as a bag lady to search for Jeff in homeless communes. I'd work, save money, take a trip, return home and start the process again.

Finally my efforts paid off. Years of searching the streets taught me well. Besides questioning addicts and pushers, I'd stop in at retail stores, showing Jeff's picture to see if they recognized him. Slowly I learned there was a wealth of information on those stores' computers. Birth dates, Social Security numbers, addresses are all available, depending on the establishment.

When Jeff left his house in Phoenix, he'd had a roommate. I'd never been able to locate or find any information on her. No one I talked to seemed to know her whereabouts. I knew her name, but what I didn't know was that I had the incorrect spelling.

Returning to Phoenix in June, I tried my newfound technique of using store computers. A video store close to Jeff''s old house turned out to be a gold mine. The clerk tried varied spellings of the name and surprised us both by finding an old account for her. It had been closed for two years, but it provided me with her Social Security number and birth date.

Once back in Portland, I used this information to run an address check. The last listing was from May of '95. I called a Phoenix real-estate agent who used a reverse street directory to come up with a phone number. I called and reached the woman's parents.

Jeff was buried deep in the drug life, but through them I eventually managed to get a message to my son. I had no money so my friends raised funds for me to leave for Phoenix the next day. I checked into a hotel, left my number with the ex-roommate's parents and waited.

Jeff rode 10 miles on his bike in 106-degree heat to reach me. We leapt into each other's arms. He was thin, he had recently been beaten up and his teeth badly needed repair, but he was alive. He had been trying to leave the drug life for about a year. His silence had been about protecting me. My search had been about protecting him.

Jeff is now back home with me, clean, working, attending Narcotics Anonymous and hoping to help others walk out of the darkness of the life he worked so hard to leave behind. We've both learned a lot through this. For me, it's simple. Enough love can move mountains and create miracles.

The Seamier Side Of Life | News