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.