Wayfaring Strangers

Image by Mike Brodie, a.k.a. the Polaroid Kidd.

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.”

Goddamn right.

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 receive 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 (previously featured on Coilhouse here) 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.

[Editor’s note: This piece of writing originally appeared on angeliska.com. Thank you for reposting it here, Angel.]

12 Responses to “Wayfaring Strangers”

  1. jennifer Says:

    i read about this & i don’t understand how anyone can say ‘so what?’.

    here in spain, kids who decide to take over an abandoned building and fix it up are differentiated from homeless people or ‘sin techos’.

    they are called ‘okupas’ & they are recognized as part of an urban political movement to take back abandoned buildings in response to the difficulty of finding affordable housing in an increasingly bleak economy.

    they look exactly like these kids, they often play music or do other odd jobs for money except that society’s perception of them here is different, thanks to them having a political affiliation & separate label.

    a older friend of ours has a daughter who is an okupa. she is not one because they have a bad relationship…everyone gets along great…but it is understood that this is her lifestyle of choice for now & a political decision. i don’t know if this is a very common situation, but it is an inspiring one.

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  3. BJ Thornton Says:

    The “concerned citizen” response to this tragedy is heartbreaking.

  4. Lolla Says:

    Those pictures are amazing.

    It always gets to me, how society always wants everybody to get in line and become the same…why is it a punishable thing to want to be different and free?!

  5. Wendy Withers Says:

    I moved here exactly one year ago, and I’ve never been happier. But, I’ve also noticed a few things about people in New Orleans.

    For the most part, they are happy, friendly, and even welcoming to tourists and newcomers. But, there is also an underlying tension, an us against them mentality that is strong and alive here. I think that gutter punks give New Orleanians an easy scapegoat because, for the most part, gutter punks are 1. newcomers and 2. outside of society. Even though I came here for school and to work in the public school system, I’ve had people sneer at me because I’m an outsider taking jobs away from New Orleanians. There is an influx of young urban professionals moving into the city, and it makes some nervous. Because gutter punks don’t live a 9-5 existence, people here see them as a drain on a society full of hardworking people just trying to get by. A lot of people I’ve talked to think they are a group of rich kids who decided to hop a train after having a fight with their parents and ended up in New Orleans to ride out the winter. All of this has combined into a caustic mixture that sets a harsh undertone for New Orleans’s “live and let live” vibe that permeates most of its culture.

  6. Kale Kip Says:

    Wow, those reactions from the hardworking people of New Orleans are pure horror. It makes me sick.

    I can understand it when people want their fellow members of society to work together and build a society that is better for everybody. I can understand that these people feel frustrated when they come across gutter punks that are happy enough just living on garbage. People who don’t seem to feel the need to express that they are a part of the big collective project that is society, maybe even claim that it is morally bankrupt. Sure, especially in a city like New Orleans I can understand that.

    But I really cannot comprehend that anybody can feel it is a good thing when a group of kids burn to death. Speaking of moral bankruptcy and all. I am going to hug the first crusty I meet, and tell him/her that I am really happy to share my world with him/her.

    *Puts on a Levellers record*

  7. Baruch Says:

    Goddess bless the crusty punks who went to NOLA after K and helped gut houses, provide health care, get people fed, and so much more. So sad to hear about the fire. Those who assume that squatters are not contributing to the world are just ignorant.

  8. Peggy Says:

    They are all someone’s child or brother or sister. It breaks my heart that people don’t care. Everyone brings something into our lives or the lives of people who knew them. Someday the ones who don’t care will be standing before God and they will have to explain to Him why they did not care. May all who knew them be comforted for they all are in a better place.

  9. Iris Says:

    I am struck by the creativity and beauty of the clothing, hair, and jewelry of the people in the photos. And the sadness in some the eyes of some of them.

  10. Jessica Says:

    This is an amazing article. I am a Nola resident. And you have hit it on the nose. Personally, i am truly bothered by the death of these people or any homeless person. I know “technically” they weren’t homeless, but it makes me wonder if New Orleans had more rooms at the Mission to sleep, if these young people would have stayed there verses the cold ground?
    The problem with New Orleans, is its a rich/poor city. The city of Orleans is very poor residentially, and even though you work your tail off, your still not making shit unless your a bartender. People who look rich and live in Orleans Parish, dont work in Orleans Parish. The quarter is a beautiful place full of unique faces all over. Its the melting pot of the south. And for the most part it welcomes all sorts of spirits.
    I think what bothers locals of these kids/squatters is that some will blatantly sit in circles in the middle of sidewalks, waisted, scarring people with their dogs and yell obscenities at people as they force the crowd to walk around them. They will also blatantly ask for money for booze or drugs- even make signs asking for the same. I think this offends the locals here. Nola has a high murder rate because of drug problems, so when these alternative kids come in for the winter, make a scene and expect us to give them money to get fucked up off our poor hard earned money, of course you can learn not to appreciate them here. Why not ask us to feed your dog(s) or yourself? you might get a bit more sympathy for cash. Now i understand not all are like this, their are also the ones that play some great music, and i will give some cash to hear talent, that what new orleans is known for, Not rude or abrasive, just doing what they enjoy, and letting us listen to their raw talent. Not asking for anything. Thats when we are inclined to give.
    So maybe this will clear up why some people disapprove of this alternative lifestyle. Some of the rude and selfish can ruin it for all others. Its really like that anywhere. Unfortunately they have a bad rap in a poor city, and have for many many years. I do wish their was better help for all of the poor in NOLA, but NOLA is poor and cant afford to give shelter to all. Till then, we donate our clothes to goodwills and salvation armys to hopefully keep the poor warm through our short but chilling winter.
    I send my love to all people and animals that choose or must sleep outside. Im sorry for their family and friends lose from this fire. But i love that they were able to give them a New Orleans Second Line. To me, that is a great thing to give anyone that has passed. A celebration of their lives through music and dance.

  11. amy Says:

    Jonathan Guerrero, 20, from Texas; Melissa Martinez, 17, from Scotts Valley, Calif.; Jeffrey Geerts, 22, from, Abbotsford, Wis.; and Katie Simianer, 21, from Alliance, Neb. Samuel “Sammy” Thompson 25, New Orleans
    names of folks who died in the fire in the 9th ward

  12. baeleeblack Says:

    the people in these pictures are so very beautiful !we are all so very beautiful!i have always thought so.i am from new o. and spent many years squatting in the french quarter being a rebellious teen.i later went home because i was tired of digging through bleach covered trash cans for food or sleeping with one eye open on the river.it didn;t take long before i was back out on the street struggling for no reason at all.my choice!because the friends i had made were so sincere so helpful and so welcoming compared to my boss,uncle,teachers..the world.the family we create out there and the things we struggle to achieve to make the earth a better place is so strong in our vagabond community..my family loves me and my friends didn’t understand why i would choose such a hard life growing up.really,it was easier.the friends i made i trusted enough to call family.the experiences i had may have been dangerous or dumb but they made me who i am today.a good,free,loving,sharing,caring human that welcomes all kinds and wishes the rest of the world felt the same.i meet very few people in our society outside of our “gutter punk””world that have the ability to survive on nothing and still smile at the stranger next to them.i can only hope that my kids will have the ability to travel the world doing whatever they want learning many skills and trades along the way with little or nothing.p.s.most of us do move out to the country and make “communes”and live off the earth and work hard to raise our familys and feed our fellow travelers when they pass through or need a break from the city.settling down comes with age or just isn’t for everyone!living free and dying young is much better than growing old and being miserable which is how we would be if we didn’t do what we wanted with our lives!i speak for my generation of 30 somethings when i say…most of us will grow old happy together.connected by memories of the past,trips around the world in the future, the ability to die with no regrets of what we wished we’d done in life and building a better more openminded place for our children!we are a huge family connected all over the world!