Volume 75, Number 20 | October 05 - 11, 2005

Villager photo by Talisman Brolin

Some of the crusties of Tompkins Square. They have renamed themselves the gutter pirates.

Hobo punks said to have wandered from their roots

By Daniel Wallace

There were two overdoses last weekend in the bathroom of Odessa Café and Bar on Avenue A just west of Tompkins Square. One incident occurred late Friday night, Sept. 30, and the other at approximately 9:30 p.m. the following evening.

An Odessa waiter named Leo said he was working at the time of the Saturday incident.

“A young guy came in — looked like he was 25,” Leo said. “He asked the bartender to use the bathroom, but was told it was for customers only.”

Leo said the man promptly bought a beer and went straight to the back. Ten minutes later, when the man had not yet emerged, the bartender told Leo to check the bathroom because other customers were waiting to use it. The door was locked, and the young man did not respond to Leo’s knocking.

The bartender unlocked the door and found the man unconscious. An ambulance took him away approximately 10 minutes later.

Leo had no additional information about the Friday incident and Odessa would not provide the bartender’s number. Police at the Ninth Precinct and police spokespersons at Police Headquarters said they knew nothing of the occurrences.

But with a lack of concrete information, community residents are forming their own opinions.

“I think the crusties in Tompkins Square sold the kids dope,” said one resident who wished to remain anonymous, referring to the homeless youth of the punk subculture who squat in the park like gypsies, black clad and heavily tattooed.

The self-appointed spokesman for the Tompkins Square crusties, L.E.S. Jewels, who has been quoted in local newspapers for his own overdose experience, said the crusties had nothing to do with the Odessa incidents.

“I would know,” he said.

But the community’s assumption is a reminder of the growing tension between East Village residents and street kids.

John Penley, a community activist, said there is an increasing trend of violence and aggression in the crusty subculture.

“Last week I saw one of the kids follow a woman out of the park and up St. Mark’s Pl.,” Penley said. “He was screaming and cursing at her.”

The woman went into a store on St. Mark’s Pl. between First Ave. and Avenue A and, Penley said, a large man who was likely the woman’s boyfriend came out and punched the screaming youth in the face.

In a strange paradox of entitlement, the wounded young man, who had dropped out of the system because of his scorn for it, then sought the system’s protection. He called the cops.

“But when the police learned what happened,” Penley said, “they drove away.”

The Tompkins Square crusties are part of a larger hobo-punk subculture of runaways, social misfits and self-proclaimed anarchists that grew out of the club scene in the ’80s and moved into the streets. Sarah Ferguson, an East Village reporter who wrote about street kids for Esquire magazine in the mid-’90s, said they migrate through a loose network of ever-changing squats, collective houses and parks in New York, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco.

“But there seems to be a difference in the movement these days,” said Ferguson. “When I wrote about them, there seemed to be more of a sense of purpose and political idealism. There was creative energy.”

Jewels, whose face is tattooed with a thunderbolt, pentagram and a mysterious row of blue circles under his left eye, and who leaned on a cane near a park bench for the interview, wearing a black sports jacket over a “Heil Bush” T-shirt and smoking an endless chain of self-rolled cigarettes, agreed with Ferguson that among the new wave of punk migrants some lack political idealism.

“These kids, some of them don’t even know what day it is,” he said. “Some of them are just lazy.”

Jewels also agreed that some of the kids are becoming more aggressive.

“They leave bottles and trash lying around, drink and brawl — and they wonder why they’re getting hassled,” he said.

But he was quick to add that all street kids, regardless of motivation or political affiliation, are accepted within the family, of which he refers to himself as “Grandpa;” and that the aggression is in large part a response to increased pressure from the police.

“Everyone’s fed up,” he said. “We’re getting arrested for sitting on the lawn, having bags on park benches. If you’re going to get arrested one way or another, you might as well go out with a swing.”

One of Jewels’s friends, a shy middle-aged man holding a dog on a leash, nodded vigorously. “The rich are moving into East Village,” he said. “Squeezing out the poor. But where can we go?”

“We’re surrounded,” Jewels said ominously, his hand sweeping up toward the trees.

A young man in an army hat and a loose black T-shirt came ambling up, asking for a cigarette. He introduced himself as Johnny Thunders. Aliases are big with the crusties: Jewels said everyone adopted a new name, pointing towards a huge bearded man doing calisthenics on the path.

“We just named him Levi,” he said.

Jewels said the crusties had, moreover, adopted a new name collectively: the gutter pirates.

Thunders, a young man with an affable smile whose parents live in the Bronx, shrugged when asked why he chose this lifestyle.
“Less work, more fun. Less paperwork,” he chuckled. “I just got back from a wild, drunk punk party in Richmond. I’m not even a punk rocker,” he confided. “I’m a metal head. But I love drunk punk parties.”

Thunders broke off into a detailed description of his amorous exploits at the party.

A loud scuffle arose near the chess tables. A thunderous smack was heard, after which the young man whom Penley had said followed the woman up St. Mark’s Pl. — an olive-skinned youth with shaggy black hair — lay sprawled on his back on a concrete bench. An angry man stood over him with a clenched fist, yelling.

“Nature of the beast,” someone murmured, and everyone turned away.

According to Ferguson, the crusty movement is reminiscent of the beatnik culture of the ’50s and the hippie movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

“It’s what kids do,” she said.

But those movements were shaped by a fairly coherent cultural narrative that seems to be lacking among today’s street kids.

One crusty named Kenneth, a tall, dark-skinned youth with wavy black hair, who wore doctor’s scrubs and said his mother lived in Indonesia, looked puzzled when asked to describe the crusty philosophy.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I enjoy it for the time being.”

When asked if he planned to reenter society, he looked off into the distance.

“Well, it all depends,” he said. “I think…I think it’s a problem with the government.”

Kenneth said he didn’t have problems taking care of himself. Like Jewels, he believes one can live comfortably off what other people discard. But a look of concern came into his face.

“I just keep thinking about the winter,” he said. “Because it’s going to get cold.”

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