Mill Rats

"It's like a freedom thing, you know, we do whatever we feel we want to do," says Pan. "If we feel like walking to the park, we walk to the park. If we feel like going somewhere and crashing, we go and crash. If we feel like smoking a cigarette, we smoke a cigarette. If we feel like coming to the Coffee Plantation and drinking a whole bunch of coffee and getting hyper and staying up all night and talking--that's what we do."

I guess if you're 16 and things at home stink, there are worse ways to live. But no one, not even Peter Pan, can stay eternally young. How long does he see himself living on the streets of Tempe, bonding and drinking coffee?

"Hopefully forever, because I'm happy."

As I get up to leave, everyone gives me a big hug. Butterfly urges me to "stop by any time and talk about whatever." I join the current of normal people, head on down the street. At the corner, there's a police officer, though it's not kindly Officer Russell, who I searched for but couldn't find.

Are the cops offering one-way bus tickets out of town?
"No. No, we don't do that," says Officer Les Strickland. The guy is laughing, shaking his head, looking at me like I'm nuts. "If we have a loitering problem, we'll try and keep them from loitering and setting up camping spots, but no one's buying them a one-way ticket out of town for the Super Bowl."

Does he view the kids as a problem?
"In the evening, it gets to be a big problem," he says. "Some are just kind of street people that don't cause you any problem; some are panhandlers that are harassing people. The average citizen comes down here for a nice evening, and it's not that they don't want to face these people, it's that they don't want to be annoyed and bothered."

So, just for the record, there is no effort going on to clean up Mill Avenue before the game hits town?

"Well, if there is, it sure hasn't filtered down to the people on the bottom levels, 'cause we sure haven't heard anything about it." Well, I figure that's pretty much it and start to turn off the tape recorder, but Officer Les has more to say.

"If somebody's telling you that [we're offering bus tickets], then somebody's either joking with somebody or--somebody might actually make something like that up! Actually, I deal with a lot of press, so I'm used to dealing with the press, and I'm telling you we haven't offered anybody a bus ticket out of town."

Okay, okay.
Walking away, I see one of the homeless--Magic, I think--ride by Strickland on a skateboard. Then, as he tries to stop at the corner, the thing flips out from under him and Magic winds up on his ass. The skateboard rolls over to the police officer standing there with his arms folded. This could be a touching scene--maybe the cop'll break into a grin, pick up the board and bring it back to the kid, offer him a hand up.

But the officer just stares at the skateboard as it glides to a halt, and Magic sits there in the gutter.

--Gilstrap

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