I go to a show. Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? at the St. Roch Tavern. Big Ship is the latest in a medium-sized line of bands made up of punk kids playing horn-heavy, Eastern Europe-tinged stomp-alongs. The St. Roch Tavern is an old-man neighborhood bar, the kind that has weekly shrimp boils and dice-game betting pools. In recent years, the place has doubled as a home base for the latest batch of local punks, the type who wear black Carhartts, ride around on mutant bikes of dubious construct and all have their own techniques for breaking up pit bull fights. Perhaps there is a contingent like this in your town, too. Here in New Orleans they are reasonably harmless, completely insular, and won't attack unless provoked.
But now it is Carnival Season, which means that navigating the urban (or is it post-urban?) landscape of the city means contending not just with resident scumbags, but also every scumbag across the United States who has pulled his or herself out of a blackout long enough to realize that it is Mardi Gras. It's like there's some tractor beam, buried deep below the city that draws them here, pulling them along by the metal rivets on their Carhartt overalls. Or maybe it's a batman-esque symbol projected across the sky in the shape of a Miller 40oz or a big staph infection. Whatever it is, it works. They come here.
Since the storm, there's been more of them than ever before. A lot came down to get work during the rebuild, but upon getting here realized that they still didn't know how to do anything. Others, it seems, just came to party in the rubble, getting off on the post-apocalyptic vibe. They line the streets, crowded into doorways or in front of corner stores, trying to figure out how to split a po-boy nine ways. Over on Decatur Street they line the sidewalks in front of flyer-covered walls and chi-chi boutiques, belting out old-time and gypsy folk tunes on fiddles, banjos, and accordions.
Some of them have yet to hop on the neo-old-time-gypsy-Klezmer thing. These are the old-school punks who do nothing and ask for change ("spanging" used to be the annoying punk colloquialism for it), which, in a city with an estimated 12,000 homeless, a city full of people who've lost everything, is a pretty goddamned rude thing to do if you ask me.
The traveling kids/crusties/gutterpunks or whatever you want to call them never bothered me too much before. I learned years ago not to let them stay on my couch (or bathe in my tub) and since then have successfully separated myself from them at a distance wide enough to not get involved, but close enough to enjoy their occasionally hilarious drunken antics (like when a friend of mine jokingly told a punk girl that she could have the dregs of his Old Milwaukee tall can if she punched her boyfriend in the face, which she did without hesitation). Besides explaining to them that they can't just have the bikes at the bike co-op or stepping over them to get into the anarchist bookstore, I didn't have much interaction.
But this year there have been some issues ? some chinks in the crusty-proof exoskeleton that I've built around my life. At a show in a coffee shop in Asheville, I stood on the sidelines while my friends' band played and a bunch of traveling kids of the super-drunk, super-annoying variety known as "oogles" jumped around and threw their elbows and fists. They were shoving everyone else who was trying to dance, including ladies way smaller than them. I was off to the side of the dance floor, leaning on the condiments table, nursing a cup of free coffee. After the band, Reagan's Bones, had their equipment slammed into for the nth time, their guitarist, Josh, said something about it. But his lesson in punk etiquette fell on ears too drunk and adrenalized to understand what was being said. After a few more songs, without the oogles showing any noticeable improvement, I got pissed. I felt old, standing on the periphery of the show in my work clothes: button down shirt and jeans. Screw this, I thought, lunging into the mass of drunken, dancing bodies.
A convenient aspect of gutter-punk fashion is that the clothes are covered in lots of dangly, handle-like accoutrements like wallet chains, bondage pant straps, suspenders and big old stretched out earlobe piercings, any of which can be grabbed and used to fling them away. This I did. One of the kids was scrawny and looked to be about 17. I'd seen him on Lexington Avenue for the last week. He had random lines tattooed all over his face. It looked like he'd handed a four-year-old a tattoo gun and asked the kid to draw him a map to China. I grabbed the guy by the straps of his Carhartt overalls and whipped him out of the crowd. Thinking that this was just someone's dance move, the kid shook his head like a dazed Scooby-Doo character and leapt back into the melee. A second later, though, he found himself flung out of the crowd again. And again and again.
The kid, his mind bogged down by Steel Reserve, cheapest of the malt liquors available at the Shell station up the street, took a while before realizing that these repeat ejections weren't random. His colleague, a scraggly, bearded, kind of hippy-looking dude, was a little less beer-battered and saw what was going on. "Hey what's your problem dude?" he barked, putting his face so close to mine that his beard tickled my nose. His whole body shook with tension, like a wound up bungee cord about to pop. He was ready to throw a punch at the slightest provocation.
"You guys are dancing like assholes!" I hollered over a wailing Reagan's Bones guitar solo. Then I quickly excused myself back to my old-guy-at-the-punk-show position next to the cream and sugar.
Bearded gutter-hippy dude wasn't going to leave it at that, and followed right behind me, getting in my face. "Look, dude, it's not our fault if you can't hang in the pit. I never expected this place to have such a tame scene." In his wide, burning eyes, I saw myself reflected the way that he saw me: Slightly rumpled jeans, blue plaid shirt, poofy bowl cut, big thick Elvis Costello glasses. He probably took me for a college student, which, until recently, I had been. For two whole semesters.
If I could've impressed upon the kid all the experiences in my life that would give me some sort of punk points in his eyes ? all the fights, the near riots at shows, the doorways, bridges, and cardboard dumpsters where I've slept, the ill-fated freight train rides I'd taken, and all of the maniacal freaks I've known, like "Jizz," the agro Philly guy with a penchant for stabbing his enemies with a fork ? then I might have done it. But all of those experiences, which I used to value so highly, don't add up to much in my mind these days. So I stood staring at the guy, saying nothing.
Then my girlfriend, Nicole, singer of the band playing after Reagan's Bones, came up and laid down a bunch of hippy-dippy stuff about how we're all just little babies trying to take care of each other and love on one another. That freaked the guy out and he and his crew cleared out soon after, probably off to find the real, less tame Asheville scene.
My second crusty issue came when I moved to New Orleans. I was DJing at the St. Roch Tavern. Around 11, the booze was hitting the brains of the fifty or so people there and everyone was starting to dance. I was debating whether to play "Egyptian Lover" or "Ring My Bell" when someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey!" said a voice kind of like Robert De Niro in that "You talkin' to me?" scene in Taxi Driver. I found myself looking into the face of Mark, a crusty circus-gypsy-punk-fiddler guy who used to date my next-door neighbor in Asheville. For a few months he had lived outside our houses in his school bus. That had been about the extent of our relationship.
"Hey," he said when I'd gotten the headphones off, hoping that he just wanted to request his favorite Salt-N-Pepa song. "Why'd you egg my bus?" he asked.
"You egged my bus," he said, putting his arm around me in faux-friendship.
When I tried to explain that no, in fact, I hadn't egged his bus and I would never waste calories like that, he wasn't buying it. Not only did he spend the rest of the night getting drunker and drunker and threatening me for egging his bus, he went on to spend the next several weeks doing the same thing. It felt like every time I went out I was running into Mark and he was getting in my face, putting on his best tough guy voice and accusing me of egging the stupid bus.
Strangers would come up to me and say, "Yo, why you egging Mark's bus?"
A couple times I began to wonder if I really had egged the damn thing.
Then one night it came to a head. It was a Friday night. Nicole, Taylor and I had been dancing to funk music complements of DJ Brice Nice and decided to stop by Mimi's bar on our way home. Outside we found a camp of old-timey-crusty punks sitting on the stoop, plucking at banjos and fiddles, passing bottles. I was relieved that Mark was not in their number, then immediately disappointed to find him inside the bar. He wasted no time in beginning to talk crap, and, drunk, I returned the favor. Foolishly.
A little while later, Nicole and I were sitting outside, leaning on the building, when Mark came up and more expletives were exchanged. And then he spit on me.
Have you ever been spit on? Really, think about it. I always felt like I must have, at some point, been spit upon, perhaps by an employer while I was storming out mid-shift or by a frustrated cop who was arresting me. But, actually, I don't think I ever had been spit on before that night at Mimi's. I'd also never felt the rush of anger and disgust that followed it, welling up from some base, and primordial place inside me.
I lost it.
A few minutes later I was pulled away after trying to slug Mark with my bike lock. Instead I succeeded in slamming my friend Moss in the hand. Most everyone in the bar had poured out into the street to break it up/cheer it on, and my glasses had gotten trampled. While I probably got the most blows in, my team definitely walked away the losers, with me having to glue the shrapnel of my glasses back together and Moss walking around with a swollen hand that lasted for three days. Sorry, Moss.
A few nights later, Nicole and I were driving in Mid-City. As we turned off Esplanade toward my house, I was in a daze, still thinking about the stupid fight with Mark and about how drunken street brawls are not the direction that I want my life to be taking. (Though ten years ago I probably would've thought it was pretty cool.) As I was stewing on this, the disco song that had been playing on the radio ended and a woman, the DJ, came on. I missed the first part of what she was saying, tuning back in right as she said, "And, man, it really seems like there are more street kids in town than I ever remember before. All I'm saying is, we all have our wild years, but hopefully these kids can find something for themselves in this world."
"Man," I said to Nicole. "Everyone's feeling the crusty grind, huh?"
"That reminds me. Guess who I saw the other day?"
"Who?" I asked.
"That kid that was shoving everyone at my show in Asheville and tried to fight you."
"That little scrawny dude with beard?"
My mood sank even further. "Oh, man, no! God, where do we have to move to get away from these people?"
"Well certainly not here."
But now, the more I think about it, I don't really want to move away from the crusties. They're annoying, sure, but they're only annoying in a minor, annoying incident on the street type of way. That's pretty small compared to the hardships being brought on this city by all of the fat cat developers who are trying to turn New Orleans into a commercial la-la land. And while having hundreds of street kids with weird fashion sense roll into your town may feel like an invasion, wandering scumbags have always been a part of New Orleans culture, all the way back to the very first days of the city's existence. In Herbert Asbury's book The French Quarter (a book which is, apparently, of questionable factuality, but who would want a New Orleans history to be any other way?) the author describes how the city's first settlers went about rounding up colonists:
The government went boldly to the task of ransacking the jails and hospitals. Disorderly soldiers, black sheep of distinguished families, paupers, prostitutes, political suspects, friendless strangers, unsophisticated peasants straying into Paris, all were kidnapped, herded, and shipped under guard to fill the emptiness of Louisiana.
And when these roustabouts got here, they of course didn't contribute to the raising of the city. They got wasted and fought and partied. So how could any good New Orleanian possibly want to go against such an ingrained tradition? At least now the government doesn't have to import them. Now they come quite willingly.