by Angeliska on December 30, 2010
The dark days are here to stay, it would seem – at least for all my friends in New Orleans.
It feels wrong to even try to write about it at this point, but I really don’t know what else to
do, and this heartbreak has to go somewhere. The night of Flee’s memorial Second Line
parade, eight of his friends and their dogs burned to death when their squat, an abandoned
warehouse, caught on fire from the barrel they were burning scrap in to stay warm. A few
names have been sussed out, but I’m still not sure who was in that place when it went
down, or if I knew them. Three women and five men between the ages of 19 and 30 died in the
inferno, all described as “accomplished musicians or artists – jolly, happy people.”
Apparently one of the girls who died had been jumped by a guy on her way back to the squat
recently, and had her face and arms slashed by his knife. She had been considering filing a
report, but never got the chance. This insane rash of random violence with little motive brings
to mind the shadow-play I saw performed at the Mudlark Public Theatre on Halloween, about
the Axeman of New Orleans, who terrorized the city from May 1918 to October 1919. My friends
are in a similar panic right now, though there’s no speculation that the assailants are possibly the
devil in disguise. Monsters, maybe. Disenfranchised young men, raised in poverty, abused, angry
and numbed to the violence and death that surrounds them, that they wreak. There is a bleak
miasma, a rotten swamp-funk of despair and fear that seems to be seeping up through the
banquettes and curling around every corner down there right now. This fire wasn’t part of
that crime-wave, no – but all this bad shit happening at once, without even giving people
a chance to catch their breath… It’s just brutal. What’s really fucking with me is the response
of “concerned citizens” who callously voiced their opinions about the kids who died
with nasty comments on a local news site. I should know better than to ever read that shit,
because it’s usually horrifying, and makes me feel very sad for humanity.
It got under my skin, though – these people basically saying “good riddance to gutterpunks”
and that they got what they deserved for choosing to live the way they lived. Unbelievable,
and so sad, that people would respond to the accidental deaths of eight young people with
such vitriol. Even the more compassionate news stories refer to them as “homeless” or “transients”,
and lead in to discussions about the pitiful lack of resources and shelters in New Orleans,
which is of course important, but not actually very relevant to who these kids were.
Here’s a couple comments from the thread which address it better than I can:
“You just assume that because they were squatting they don’t have jobs, but a lot of these kids do work.
They do bike delivery in the quarter or wash dishes or tend bar. They travel a lot, so often they don’t tie
themselves down to a lease. They sleep on the couches of friends or in abandoned buildings. It may not
be your choice of lifestyle, but it’s not malicious and it’s not lazy. It’s just different. Their lives matter
just as much as yours or mine. Grow a heart and some perspective.”
“Every human deserves a warm place to sleep and healthy food. I didn’t know those kids well, but I knew
that they were working on that building, that they had built lofts and had made more improvements to that
structure then who ever owned had in years. They weren’t homeless – that was their home and it burned down
and its a goddamn tragedy anyway you write it down, and if you think otherwise you are a cruel person who
needs to go back to whatever godforsaken suburb you crawled out of and stay there.”
I was one of those kids once, actually. I was an obnoxious spare-changing, dumpster-diving,
sidewalk beer-swilling gutterpunk brat. I was homeless because I refused to live with my parents,
in the middle of nowhere, in a situation where I was utterly miserable. I couch-surfed, and slept on
floors in houses where roaches crawled on my face at night. I met a lot of the friends I still love and
cherish at Project Phase, a free service for homeless kids where you could get tested for STDs and
clothes and food. Most of my friends were travelers, and some of them still are – though many grew
out of riding the rails, and came to appreciate a different kind of freedom, that of having a place to truly
call home. I respect and admire all my train-hopping friends, my hard-working, hard-partying, beet
harvesting, harmonica-playing, spray-painted butt-flap sporting friends. It fucks with me to see them
fucked with, treated as less than human. It makes me wonder what it is about their wildness, their
feral freedom that make them so threatening to people who have settled. Settled for banality, I mean.
All this reminds me of reading about my mom’s experiences in the 60′s and 70′s, when she and
her friends were treated like filth for having long hair and beards and for not wearing makeup.
It was a regular thing to see signs warning “NO DOGS OR HIPPIES” in restaurants, or to have
people not want to rent to you. It’s a weird hysteria – the loathing of the caged for the free.
Since I don’t have pictures or names to properly mourn the eight unlucky kids who died,
I’m posting instead these polaroids taken by Mike Brodie that have long captivated me.
Some of them are of friends, or friends of friends. All of these faces are familiar, beloved
somehow. Mike is one of them, and you can see the love and trust between him and the
people he photographs reflected in their eyes.
Farewell, farewell – Fairport Convention:
Farewell, farewell to you who’d hear
You lonely travellers all.
The cold North wind will blow again
The winding road does call.
And will you never return to see your
Bruised and beaten sons?
Oh, I would, I would if welcome I were
For they loathe me ev’ryone.
And will you never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be?
And can you never swear a year
To anyone but we?
No I will never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be,
But I’ll swear a year to one who lies
Asleep alongside of me.
✶ Also, this piece from New Orleans Slate – Just Kids moved me.