Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mind In the Gutter

So a recent incident in town has me rankled. Yesterday, eight youths perished in a fire. The news describes them as “homeless.” Upon deeper research, it becomes apparent that the dead were part of a subculture commonly referred to in New Orleans as “gutter punks.” It is tragic that eight young folks died, and all the more so because their deaths could have been avoided.

“Yes!” I hear you cheer. “It’s a shame that the city isn’t doing more to help these poor, homeless young people!” I can picture you lamenting over your breakfast latte and muffin top. “Those poor people were the victims of an uncaring city!”

No, they weren’t.

Having had many, many interactions with members of the gutter punk subculture, allow me to reveal the real reason of why eight tragic deaths were completely avoidable. Those scruffy, unwashed “homeless” waifs (and their dogs) you step over on the sidewalks of the French Quarter are as far removed from the “homeless” you find at the Ozanam Inn or the New Orleans Mission as those same homeless are from the Southern Yacht Club. They are not down on their luck, impoverished or abused. In twenty years of EMS, I’ve picked up a LOT of gutter punks in my ambulance. The process of running an emergency call and the conversation carried on in the back of the truck affords numerous opportunities to get a pretty clear picture of any particular cross-section of the population. Here are my findings.

Extraordinarily few are local kids. In twenty years of collecting punks from the gutter, I have yet to meet one who was born and raised in New Orleans. Their points of origin are wide and varied, but heavily weighted towards the Northeast. Upon examining their reasons for choosing New Orleans as their preferred destination, apparently it is because New Orleans is well known for the gutter punk “scene” (interesting cycle, eh?). These kids aren’t leaving behind a life of abuse and squalor only to find themselves saddled with a different flavor of abuse and squalor here. No, gutter punks, by and large, come from very affluent, privileged families. And from the information I’ve gleaned, I don’t mean families that are hiding a terrible secret, like incest or beatings or a dead hooker buried in the yard. They come from families where the parents are often still happily married or at least financially successful. On numerous occasions I’ve asked my gutter punk patient “What’s your parents’ phone number?” as part of my report, and the answer was “The phone number to which house? Our house in Manhattan or our summer place in Martha's Vineyard/The Hamptons/Palm Beach?” Upon searching for identification for a patient, I’ve come across countless “platinum,” "diamond” and “black” credit cards (you know, the cards that have no credit limit in sight) with mummy or daddy’s name on them.

So why the “homelessness?” Apparently it’s a big adventure coupled with a rebellious outlook, typical of the teens-to-twenties psyche. Whereas many of us would be happy to fulfill this worldview with a backpacking trip around Europe or Asia, these folks find its fulfillment in living amongst the casual friends, abandoned hovels and handouts that are apparently so abundant in the Big Easy. And apparently there are certain social etiquettes that are required in this culture. The obvious ones are the dirty clothes, unwashed bodies and prevalence of tattoos and piercings. I asked a personal friend, something of a reformed gutter punk, why they eschewed soap and water. Apparently the act of bathing is somehow equated with “the establishment,” which is roundly rejected among the gutter punks. The equivalency of personal hygiene with the mainstream socio-political-cultural image of the general population escapes me, but I’m not one to judge another’s idea of disestablishmentarianism. I merely report. But expand this mentality to fulfilling rent, or doing laundry or (gasp) the evil of paying taxes and perhaps you get an idea of the thinking within those dreadlocked skulls. Surely, though, a comparison could be made to these young folks and the hippies’ communes of the sixties, or even the hobo camps of the Great Depression, which eventually was romanticized in song and screen. “The establishment” seems to be an anchoring phrase between the generations. With such a long history of rebellion against “the establishment,” is it any wonder that today’s young folks choose to conform to traditional non-conformist ways?

Therefore it is pointless to complain that The City That Care Forgot forgot to care. These young folks that chose to brave their way by living on its streets is not a situation for which City Hall can establish an office to “help.” Build all the shelters you want; gutter punks will not come. Offer all the assistance centers you want; the gutter punks’ parents are probably your investors. Those youths want to continue to live out their big adventure, with all its inherent risks and dangers. And I’m not railing against the gutter punks, either; I certainly understand the appeal of going against the system (though I do enjoy a decent shower). But while it is a shame that eight young people died in a fire, please don’t blame it on my city.


Pistolette said...

So glad you wrote this up. Nails it. I'm surprised sociologists haven't come up with a nice posh academic word for journalists to use when referencing GPs. I always roll my eyes when I see them in the Lower 9th. How insulting to the locals that a rich brat would go there and pretend to be downtrodden as "a lifestyle choice".

Crow Jane said...

I've met many traveling kids from troubled backgrounds. And who are you to assume that a still-married, financially successful couple isn't hiding a history of incest or beatings or dead hookers?

LRandall said...

I would love for you to be sitting here right now with me while I console my daughter over the loss of her beloved friend.

No she was not a rich brat who had chosen that life-style as a means of going against the establishment. Unfortunately the information you have gleaned about what some of these kids aren't running from couldn't be farther from the truth.

You probably wouldn't care to know that this young woman was an artist, a yoga instructor, a jewelry designer... and yes probably a bit of a gutter punk. She made a stupid choice that night but that doesn't diminish the value of her life or the heartache those who have lost her are experiencing now.

While I don't think it's New Orleans' fault that these kids died, I do think your hurtful, biased and misinformed rhetoric could be put to better use than to denigrate the memories of people you know nothing about.

Sean said...

@ Pistolette - Thank you very much for your comment and the RTs on Twitter!

@Crow Jane - I am not assuming anything. I am the guy who has had abundant first-hand interaction with countless gutter punks. What I write are not my own assumptions, but the summary of what these folks have told me themselves. That's who I am.

@LRandall - I have no illusions that my interactions with several generations of gutter punks gives me the full picture of every single one's personal history, nor would I be inclined to write the personal history of every single one. I merely describe what I find, based on a very large cross-section of the population. It is indeed a tragic circumstance that your daughter lost not one, but eight friends. As you realize, the purpose of my article is to point out why these deaths were avoidable, not, as you say, to "denigrate" anyone's memory. I make no judgement on gutter punks' lifestyle, so I have difficulty understanding what part of my post is "hurtful" or "biased." If there is a specific error in the facts you can identify here, I welcome your input to point it out and correct it.

By the way- thanks to all my commenters for having the cojones to write me here personally instead of lingering in the crowd of idiots on That is much appreciated!

Hannah said...

If you think you know something about "gutter punks" you'd know that half of them aren't REALLY gutter punks, they're just dirty.

& if you knew ANYTHING about the amazing kids that died in that fire, you'd know they weren't even gutter punks, though they were dirty. It's a generalization that rich hill billies like you that never leave your house have made up.

My assumption is that you might have met a few gutter punks that saw what a dipshit you were, and treated you the way you deserve to be treated.

A good friend of mine (a "gutter punk" as you would call them xD) who got off the streets and is now an upcoming musician, wrote a song about people like you. stuck-up snobs that haven't been through a sliver of what we've been through. "Point your nose up to the sky, & then just walk right on by".

These statements you have written are so narrow minded, and I can totally see why you had a bad experience with them. Judging by what you say, you're obviously sheltered, & very prejudice and probably ran away in fear by what they looked like.

They would've treated you as stupid as you are, If they knew you were talking down on a culture you had no idea about. WE are not homeless. We are houseless. We're all home, and we love everyone from every walk of life, even if they're evil snobs. Go live a day in the life of a traveler, & then come back and talk your mind away.

Most of us aren't anarchists. We believe "If you're lazy, you die". Some street kids are lazy and free-loaders, but those kids in there were not! & they were definitely not anything that you have said, and i know this, because they're people I know personally. You don't know them & you should be ashamed for acting like you do.

RIP my good friends. Your family loves you!

usafcbcsgrl said...

Thank you Hannah and LRandall my daughter was one of the people in that building. She had an apartment and a job here at home.

This was just one of her many trips to New Orleans. In recent years she felt drawn back there and she loved the city and the people she met there.

Her dad and I are not still married nor are we rich. We are both hard working, middle class people. She has never had a platinum card.

She was a beautiful kid who just couldn't seem to stay in one place. She had a home and a family that loves her but for some reason she chose to travel.

To lump these children together and generalize them is unfair. Sure Nikki might have been the exception to the rule, but maybe she wasn't.

Anonymous said...

I was just about to post my outrage on behalf of my beautiful friend who lost her beautiful daughter in this fire...but she beat me to it.
My friend is a hard working in the military...runs many fundraisers for the less fortunate in our city..and is the epitome of a compassionate person. She is not rich...although I wonder why that matters. Is it ok then if it's a rich kid that dies?
The generalization of Gutter Punks is all wrong for Nikki. She was raised by a loving family and she was raised with compassion. She chose to travel for whatever reason..but she was loved. She died a tragic death far from home -and she leaves behind a devestated family. And believe it or not...the rich kids parents are devestated too....No child's death should be justifiable or can be dismissed based on their status in life, whether rich or poor.
Have some compassion for the families, and don't be so quick to judge or generalize until you've walked in this families shoes. As my friend said, Nikki may have been an exception...but maybe she wasn't. And see...that makes everyone much more uncomfortable. It'd be a lot easier to dismiss..although it shouldn't be...if these kids were just a bunch of drugged out youth....But they weren't. They were smart, bright, loving kids...who didn't want the same things as those of us who are reading this drinking our latte's in our office building...That makes her different...but not a bad person.

Sean said...

@ Hannah - You are correct, I know nothing about the folks that died in the fire. But the point of my article was not to comment on their individual lives, but why their deaths were avoidable, and to give the world a bit of insight in the overall culture. You begin your comment by saying the dead were not gutter punks, but later you lump them in with the gutter punks. If they were not, then this article has nothing to do with them.
As you describe your musician friend, you prove my point about the gutter punk rejection of "the establishment" in that he would write about "stuck-up snobs" like me, and you further lump yourself in with the entire subculture, describing yourself as "we" and "us." Despite your statement, nowhere in my article do I describe "having a bad experience with them." On the contrary, I describe myself as empathizing with them in going against the system. Your inconsistencies in your reasoning become more apparent when you describe gutter punks as 'loving everyone' two sentences after describing me as "stupid." I fail to see what in my article is "narrow-minded." If there are specific errors in the facts I have presented, please correct them. But remember I am not writing about the details of your little group, rather about the hundreds, if not thousands of gutter punks I have personally encountered, not a mere "few" as you state. And by the way, if half your friends aren't "REALLY gutter punks, they're just dirty," why not pass out a few bars of soap, hm? At least the "real" gutter punks have some sort of philosophy for being unwashed.

@usafbcbcsgrl - I am very sorry for the loss of your daughter. Having seen many parents lose their children to death in my line of work, I can nonetheless only imagine how hard this must be for you. As I stated earlier in this reply, I know nothing of the personal lives of those who died in the fire, but a personal history of each of them was not the point of my article. And like any good parent, you describe your daughter as an exception. I sympathize with you, and have no doubt that she was indeed exceptional.

@ Jenna - I sympathize with all the families that have lost a loved one in the fire. There is nothing in my article that gives the impression that Nikki or anyone in the entire subculture are "bad people." Nor do I say or imply anywhere that any of the deaths are "justifiable" or "ok." On the contrary, I describe it as tragic, and nowhere in it do I judge any individual or group. Those that read it as hateful, narrow-minded, or judgmental do so out of their own inference.

To all my commenters, some seem to be missing the point of my article. Some seem to garner the impression that I wrote it to spite the gutter punk subculture, or perhaps the individuals that died in the fire. If you carefully reread the article without adding your own assumptions, grief or emotions (difficult for some at this moment, granted) you will see that nowhere in it do I indicate that any are evil, lazy, or "bad." Instead, it presents a summation of findings based on many thousands of detailed encounters with members of the community, and points out that these eight deaths were avoidable. It is not a commentary on any individual's life or choices.

Again to all my commenters, many thanks for commenting to me personally. It shows you stand out from the rest of the crowd on the idiotic news forums, and that is much appreciated and respected!

C. Wayne McAllister said...

I agree and believe the author does as well that this is indeed a tragedy, and no less of one due to the possibility of income for the victims. However - the Hannahs of the world martyring their friends' memories to their own cop-out cause is also doing Nikki no favors. It's totally fine if she chooses to not work a traditional job, or lead a non-traditional life, but because that's her choice, doesn't make me a snob for having a different one. How pretentious is that? Those who legitimately choose this course of living for the experience offered and do so for honest reasons know this. It also doesn't make me deserving of the taunts i get outside Hank's when I choose to not bow to requests for money from some dirty white kid who's younger, better looking, and more employable than myself (even if only an odd job for the afternoon).
I realize this isn't exactly the topic at hand, but roundabout it is. Of course, not everyone who chooses to be a traveler is the same, and generalizations are impossible - but hannah, that goes both ways. Dude's an EMT, and you don't know what he's seen in 20 years.
Really tho - what you've seen - what you've been through....i mean cred is really prestige, and you earn it through weathering what comes at you, not by putting yourself in bad weather's way.
In any case, we're all missing the point - which is that with all the other violence going on currently in the same area, folks are adding this to the cry about what's wrong with new orleans, when nothing new orleans could have done would have taken these kids out of harm's way, and this was avoidable. No less a tragedy, but avoidable, as in one the rest of us can/should learn from. Isn't that the best way to honor these kids after all?

Sean said...

@ C. Wayne McAllister - Thank you Wayne! That is indeed the point of my article. Gutter punks are not a "social problem," like starving children or elderly abuse. Those that would treat them as a social problem, needing some form of authoritarian assistance, are missing the point of their whole philosophy. Rather than being a social problem that needs rectifying, they are more of a group of unconventional tourists. Thanks again, Wayne!

Cholmes said...

Sean--you absolutely nailed it! No matter what choices any of us make, our choices are what we have to answer to.

Personal responsibility is such a foreign concept these days that everyone always looks to someone else to blame for the consequences of their OWN actions.

Is it a tragedy? Absolutely. Is it my fault? Absolutely not.

The most underused item I can think of is the mirror. Take a long hard look into one. As long as you can stand what you're looking at, then you're on the right track.

Thanks for the insightful experiences. I peer into my mirror every night and then sleep just fine!

Sean said...

Well, I'm sure they were amazing people but let's be honest. The dips hits were them. They for all practical purposes killed themselves. And the only ones that should be responsible are the TRESPASSERS who decided it would be a good idea to sneak in a dilapidated warehouse and start a fire in it. It sucks that those kids died but in the long run it was a result of there own bad decision making capability. I'm sure they had friends and my heart goes out to those who were close to them but I think Darwin won this round.

Sean said...

@Cholmes - Thanks for your comment. I don't begrudge anyone their choices in life. Nor should anyone complain when those choices have negative consequences that were obvious from the outset.

@Sean I likewise don't doubt that they had great qualities. Everyone does. But you are right, it takes no great intellect to realize that lighting an open fire inside a dilapidated building is a bad idea. Again, deliberate choice results in consequences. This isn't addressed in my article, but since you bring it up, there's my two cents.

nolatarot said...

Excellent article and from my experience very true.

Hannah, you are missing the point of the article. Most people feel horrible that these young adults died. But this article isnt about them. Its about the writers experience with the gutter punk culture of Nola. And his assessment is correct.

Too often I have walked into Frenchmen Deli scrapping together enough money from my 3 jobs after I have paid my rent, utilities and other bills, to get a nice po-boy. While in front of me I see gutter punks pulling out their moms/dads platinum/gold cards. Then upon leaving the Deli the same gutter punks asking me for the food I just bought or some money.
And when I kindly tell them, sorry but I have to eat, I have been sworn at and called some pretty nasty names.

I have cleaned up from them urinating on my property, I have cleaned up after their dogs, I have cleaned up the trash they throw all over the sidewalk. I have offered to buy them or their pets food only to be told they want money.

Now if your friends were not part of this culture, then this article has nothing to do with them. So dont take offense.
But also please dont tell the writer that he has no idea what he is talking about, call him a snob, a dipshit, tell him he has led a sheltered life and hasnt been thru what these kids have. And then turn around and speak of spreading love.
Here is a quote from a article from one the kids who was at the burned out house today.

"Everything we do is different -- the way we eat, the way we sleep, the way we walk, the way we talk. That's why we smell like s---, so we don't have to talk to people that suck," K. said.

That doesnt sound like spreading love to me.

You have no idea who you speak to when you direct your post to the writer.
Most of us have been around long enough to have been hippies in our days. So yes, we do understand bucking the establishment. But we didnt panhandle, we didnt drag around animals with us, we took showers. We lived in communes, we grew our own food, we hitch hiked.

There will always be a sub-culture of kids. There were the hobos, the greasers, the beatniks, the hippies, the punk rockers and now the gutter punks.
And believe me child, I have seen things that would make your hair curl. And I have no doubt that the writer being an EMT has also as I use to be one myself.

My sincere condolances for the loss of your friends.
But please, there is no reason for you to attack the writer of this article as you have.
If your friends were not gutter punks, this article isnt about them.
While the fire may be the catharsis that led to the writing of this article about gutter punks, its not a condemnation of those who perished in the fire.

I dont condemn anyone for their choice of how they wish to live. But certain lifestyle choices come with consequences. And sadly many young adults just dont seem to understand those consequences.

Sean said...

@nolatarot - Wow! Thanks for your heartfelt and reasonable comment!

Anonymous said...

Our sons friends died in this fire. Our son is homeless by choice. We are middle class family and he is an amazing young man who is lost in the world. He came to NOLA to work rebuilding. He has done amazing things for many families and people and is a hard worker. He got wrapped up in this sub culture and believes this is the life for him. We would love to shake him and tell him to come home, shower and this isn't the way to live. He is apparently happiest living this way and no matter which family members steps in with plane tickets to somewhere else, he always ends up back at the same place each time. We don't know that he will ever change but he is certainly not lazy/uneducated or homeless at all. And he definitely doesn't have any financial support from us to live this way. We want our son to be happy we just wish he could be happy living in our world. We are sad for him and his friends and the families who lost children. This was a terrible tradgedy.
It is our greatest nightmare that we get a call in the middle of the night telling us our son is dead. This is a reality that we live with as he lost NINE friends this week to senseless death.

Imapepper said...
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Imapepper said...
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Sean said...

@imapepper - I wish you hadn't removed your comments. You make some excellent descriptions of life among this particular crowd. Regardless of whatever nomenclature is preferred, "traveling kids," gutter punks," "squatters," and the various castes of this population, "oogles," "weekend warriors," etc., it is apparent that we are all talking about the same demographic. To an outsider, all one sees is a bunch of dirty people. No doubt their reasons for living the way they do are unique to each one, but the overall pattern persists. As you and several other commenters pointed out, the vast majority come from caring families, have traveled here from other places, and choose to live homeless (or "houseless" as @hannah put it). Also regardless of personal or family wealth, the families of our gutter punks have made it abundantly clear in these very comments that none of them have to live on the streets. All this verifies most of the points I make in the article.
In your deleted comment, you told your own tale and referred to others' reasons for choosing the gutter punk lifestyle. I don't fault y'all for anything you do, and I can't vouch for others' experiences with the culture. But it stymies me that several seem to take umbrage that outsiders' opinions of the gutter punk lifestyle differs from gutter punks' opinion of themselves. One cannot voluntarily choose to live homeless, dress filthily and beg for handouts and not expect some sort of prejudice. As Hannah, and you, to a degree, make clear, there is a certain degree of "snobbishness" from both sides of the sidewalk; gutter punk and non-gutter punk both don't want to live the way the other side lives, and may take exception to the others' doing so.
Personally, I like most of the ones I have met. I find most fascinating, intelligent, creative and resourceful, with some exceptions. One of the qualities I admire is shown when I walk down the streets of the Quarter and a gutter punk asks me for a drink. Many times I've handed them my own cocktail or beer! Why? Because they're honest.
If you still have contact with your group of friends, or family as you say, let them know they're not universally looked down on. Encourage honesty and respect for others and I think you'll find a lot less harshness in others' judgement. Then return the favor. (And for the dirty ones, find 'em a hose! LOL)

Imapepper said...

I didn't want to delete them but for some reason it was only posting parts of my comment. If you can figure out how to post all of it feel free. But yeah no doubt there is snobbery and judgment on both sides. It always baffled me when when friends would get pissed when people would look at us sideways because we were not like them, but to me don't get pissed when you get the comments and stares because you knew it would happen when you chose this life. Either suck it up and be you or conform to what society expects. It's funny though how many of my friends from back then are now mommies and daddies and have the normal life with carpools and houses and 9-5 jobs. The only difference now is we have great adventures to tell and we all pretty much still dress like punks and have the tattoos and crazy hair if we can get away with it, well because that's who we are. You can turn us into house punks but we still long for the life we left behind.

linda said...

Why cant L randell express himself without calling other people stupid . Calling people on idiots. There is room for more than one oppinion.Its called being a adult. he is so well spoken then he takes away all his credability with insults.
Why so much anger? How childish.

linda said...

I was stupid. I ment Sean when I refered to insults.

Sean said...

@linda - Your self-deprecation is not lost on me! LOL. Thanks.

Sean said...

By the way, if you think my comments on here sound angry, you should read my book! "Found Wanting," link at the top right of the blog.

Byrdie Prey said...

Here here!! This "lifestyle choice" is offensive and infuriating. If these kids are so opposed to "the establishment" then they should figure out how to live completely off the land. They don't seem to have any qualms about asking for other people's hard earned cash as long as they aren't the ones that have to work hard. It's not a political statement, it's just laziness.