Mill Rats

If you've walked down the ever-expanding boulevard of bland that is Mill Avenue in Tempe, you've probably seen them. They stand out in sharp contrast to the tourists, retirees and well-groomed, jolly ASU students; they don't blend in with the giggling packs of teens or white-coated security forces.

Their look is a mixture of punk and Haight-Ashbury with a dash of Spahn Ranch: dreadlocks, piercings, tattoos and clothes with patches. They've usually got a dog or two with a scarf tied around its neck, and no one--pet or master--seems particularly well-scrubbed.

They are the young and the homeless, the current version of transients--self-styled, freewheelin' hoboes-by-choice with a list of needs that pretty much consists of:

1. a place to hang;
2. a place to crash; and
3. love.

They have a lot in common. If you ask them, many say they are from broken homes located "all over" and now live "everywhere." Now that winter is once again swallowing the country, Tempe is, apparently, one of the most attractive places on the map of Everywhere. This translates to more kids migrating southwest, more hanging and crashing and loving, more sidewalk drum and bongo performances, more of--well, what?

More of the bad element messing up the pristine cleanliness of Mill Avenue, that's what!

And, with a little thing called Super Bowl XXX coming to town, attracting thousands of visitors with wallets just brimming with money--the kind you can spend on Mill Avenue--you can bet that certain persons in power are thinking of better things for those visitors to see than a bunch of filthy neo-hippie kids demanding spare change.

In fact, rumor has it that the police are offering one-way bus tickets out of town. Some say there's an effort being made, an actual mission under way, even as we speak, to try to get these people out of here by kickoff time. If not sooner.

Drinking coffee is one thing you can really become good at with the kind of spare time homelessness allows. A cup can stretch a long time; you can talk to your friends, smoke a cigarette if you've got one, watch the straight people walk by on their way to jobs and appointments. Hence, a lot of the Mill Avenue transients hang out in front of the Coffee Plantation, where java is easy to come by.

That's where I found Pierro Wipperfurth last week, along with Butterfly, Peter Pan, Glow, Moondance, Violet, Magic and someone whose name I did not get, but looked to be--unlike everybody else--over 30. I will refer to him as Older Guy.

Pierro is a self-appointed rep for the transients, an intense, unshaven fellow who says he came here from Miami three years ago because he heard Tempe was "a good place to be homeless." At the moment, Pierro lives in his own apartment; he recently quit a job at Perkins and saved enough rent money to last a while. He opens up his place to friends in need of a shower and describes himself as "homeless in attitude."

Pierro talks like a natural politician, rarely stopping for breath, spewing passion, weaving subjects and causes togetherlikeeverysecondcounts. (When I tell him my name, he quickly points out that "Pierro" is "Peter" in German; "It means 'the rock,' man!" Instant bonding.)

As I walked up to the gang, Pierro was just finishing a heated debate with a police officer. I overheard the words "respect," "freedom" and "rationalize."

Turned out it was all about "whether or not wecould drum or not, whether or not we were a live band, or what," Pierro explains, hugging a tribal-looking drum under his arm. I wonder if this is linked to the alleged Super Bowl cleanup. "Oh, yeah, man, totally, that's what it had to do with. Check it out: It was a tangible approach. They had a legitimate reason to stop and talk to us; in a sense, [the cop] had a complaint. But that's a reflection of what's happening."

Which is?
"They're getting rid of all the transients, man. They don't want 'em here. ... They want people to get out of here, so they're buying 'em bus tickets." Aha! Then Older Guy joins in.

"I was standing right next to my friend while [a bus ticket] was offered. They've approached other people in our group; it's a standing officer--uh, standing offer. If you want to get out of this town, go talk to Officer Russell, and a bus ticket will be secured for you."

According to Older Guy, the bus tickets are to "Tucson, anywhere but Tempe. And they ain't buying no round-trip ticket." When I suggest that, based on the offer, they might request a ticket to Cabo San Lucas or Key West, no one laughs.

As to Officer Russell, he seems to be the Mill Avenue version of Officer Krupke, the beat cop who may or may not have a heart, whom some will acknowledge as being "respectful." Or, as Pierro puts it, he's "a cool guy in a system that's not set up for cool guys."

Pierro is not kidding around here. He's dedicated to his people and his cause, says he's even approached the mayor of Tempe.

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