Photo by Lael Hines
From left, Michael, Mary and Ernesto in Tompkins Square Park.
BY LAEL HINES | Nomadic homeless youth, often known as “crusties,” have typically congregated in the East Village’s Tompkins Square, particularly in the warmer months. However, due to police sweeps, crusties have in recent years been shunning Tompkins Square, traveling further out to Coney Island or other parts of Brooklyn.
Therefore, it was surprising to see a trio of crusties, Ernesto, Mary and Michael, lying on the grass in the center of Tompkins Square on a recent weekday afternoon. As they described their upbringings, each of their stories held a common theme: a difficult home situation that led to a life as a traveling “crusty punk.”
“I was born in Fresno, California,” said Ernesto, speaking first. “I was born in a sort of Mexican family, but we’re actually south El Salvadorian and native. Mexican culture is pretty dominant there, so I didn’t realize I was El Salvadorian until later.
“We later moved to Logan Heights in San Diego; I grew up in the ghetto. I thought I was going to be a gangster because that seemed like the main career track for most people. I would say, ‘Yo! I’m going to be a gangster!’ I was all tough, getting in fights all the time.
“Then we moved to Tennessee and that’s when I ran away,” he continued. “I told my mom I didn’t want to live there because the people were terrible to me. I hated it. They were really racist. So then, I kept moving to different family members’ houses in L.A., San Francisco and the Bay Area. They would all kick me out at different points, so I would be on the streets for a while, then I would get back to my mom’s.
“I don’t know, it was pretty weird,” Ernesto reflected. “Trains, punk rock, I don’t know how to explain my life to you. My life’s been very chaotic.”
Mary also endured an unstable upbringing.
“To be honest, I was born in foster care because I had to be, but I didn’t want to be, so I ran away,” she said.
Michael felt out of place and restricted in the Southwest where he grew up.
“I come from a small town called Morris, Oklahoma,” he said. “It’s one of those places if you blink once, you’ll miss the whole damn town. I guess I wanted something new, living in a small town there was nothing to do. Everyone knew everybody. You could literally sneeze and the whole town in an hour or two would know about it. I wanted something new. I had 400 in the bank from a job. I went and bought myself a pack and I said, ‘Screw it.’ I hopped on the first car out of there I could. I didn’t come to New York first. I went to California, and then New York, mostly big cities like L.A., Manhattan and Denver. Basically, my stepfather would have me arrested if I stepped anywhere on their property.”
The three said the “crusty life” consists of constant traveling and substance experimentation.
“I usually stay in a place — tops — a week, because then I start feeling really antsy and weird. Usually less than a week, like a few days is more likely,” Ernesto said. “All your friends leave; you know, you go back to California because you miss your California friends. Then you go to Cali and you realize how much you miss your Chicago friends. Then you go there and you realize it has been eight months since you’ve seen your Southern friends. Then you realize how much you want to see your New England friends. It’s stupid, it’s all just really stupid.”
For Mary, traveling is inevitable.
“I don’t have anywhere to go or anything else to do,” she said. “I don’t like where I’m from, being from Massachusetts. I’ve been traveling off and on for five years and I haven’t found a place I want to stay just yet. At this point, I’m actually really sick of it, the traveling thing. I just can’t stay anywhere. It’s frustrating to not belong anywhere.”
Michael chimed in, “I’ve been traveling for five years. Out of the five, I’ve been freight-hopping for three. Honestly, I prefer freight-hopping to hitchhiking because you can get somewhere a lot faster, it doesn’t take as much time. I hate traveling but I have yet to find a place I like. I just don’t fit in anywhere.”
Substance abuse is also rooted in the traveling culture.
“I’m a modern day alchemist,” admitted Michael. “I’ve OD’ed seven times and I’ve died two times out of that seven. But I’m still here for some weird, freaky reason.”
“We drink heavily,” Ernesto stated matter of factly. “We do drugs, all kinds of drugs. I drink a lot of alcohol but I take drugs moderately. I do try everything because I want to do everything for the sake of doing it.”
However, speaking to the dangers of using drugs, a young man — word has it, he was a crusty — was found dead of an overdose in the park this past week.
Despite an unpredictable, rootless life, Ernesto and Mary explained their reluctance to receive help from charities.
“So far here in New York, I have come to realize that I have to avoid shelters or drop-ins or places like that,” Ernesto said. “They’re all Christian-based. When they see my tattoos, they immediately say, ‘You need to be saved.’ I’ve come for food or for help, I don’t need you to give me this lecture on who I should be or what I should do.”
Mary agreed, saying, “They don’t treat you very nicely. I’ve had charities come up and tell me, ‘You know you’re going to hell.’ When I first started traveling I had someone from a charity come up to me and say, ‘You need to change your life right now. You will become a slut and you will go to hell.’ ”
Ernesto, Michael and Mary clearly have a strong commitment to the “crusty lifestyle” and a reluctance to receiving help. Yet, at the same time, these three crusties are also discontented with their current living situation, further proved as Ernesto and Michael described their ambitions for later life.
“I’m a nerd,” Ernesto said. “I really like chess and anthropology, [outer] space and reading. I’m an anarchist in the sense that I’m actually black and red. I actually care about the community, so I try to be really kind to other people. If I could get a house, I would. I have a plan: In a couple years time, I’ll hopefully have a house.”
Describing his own goals, Michael said, “I write anime, I do slashing [slash fiction], and I draw anime and things like that. I’ve always planned on settling down in Tokyo because I have family out there, and then starting my own anime thing.”
Despite the instability and challenges of living a homeless, nomadic existence, their lives are certainly full of experience.
“In my five years of traveling,” said Michael, “I have seen more than the average person will see in their entire life. We get to see the parts of the world and the city that other people don’t get to see.”