Meet the Crusties

Spanging, squatting and looking for Hot Dog Jesus with Tempe's street kids

"Yo," Zach replies, "have you ever read 1984?"
"Dude, I think you've asked me that every day since I met you. Now give me that fucking space bag."

Spam takes a hardy schwill, then sniffs an armpit and says he needs a shower, bad. "It's not the funk," he says. "I don't mind the way I smell. It's that my arms are black." Spam pulls one sleeve of his hoodie up to reveal a forearm caked with dirt. "Man, I hate it when I get this dirty. I'm gonna have to soap that shit up three times to get it off."

Wind swirls through the yard, showering Bell, Lewis and Spam with sparks. They cover up and wait for it to pass. "Storm's coming," Glenn says.

Smokey grants a brief interview. He says he came here from Las Vegas. He says he makes money in drinking contests, and sometimes "jacks motherfuckers for their money." Smokey says a week before his 9th birthday, his mother shot him in the stomach over drugs. He had hers, and wouldn't give them up. Smokey says hell, no, he won't show his scar. He says it helps in life to be good-looking, and he wants to start a riot. "The Dank Krew will own Mill Avenue." End of interview.

Of everyone at the party, including Greg, blond-haired Lewis has lived in Tempe the longest. "I'm 22, I've been traveling since I was a kid, and I came here four years ago from Bend, Oregon." Like Taco, Lewis came to Arizona to find his real mom. Also like Taco, he didn't stay with her long once she was found.

"I'm homeless, but I stay everywhere," Lewis says. "I have lots of friends. I work day labor when I feel like it, I score pot for people who pay me, and I hang out on Mill every day." Lewis says he used to smoke and sell crack, and did heroin about 20 times, but now he's clean, except for beer and pot.

"I've seen a lot of kids come through Tempe in the last three years, and it seems like most of them have just given up on life," Lewis says. "That's why heroin is so popular. It lasts a long time, and it makes you real content, no matter what you're doing--sleeping under a bridge, asking people for money, whatever. I'm not like that. I know I'm only on the streets as long as I want to be on the streets. I'm trying to establish a relationship with God in my own way, and I want to figure out what I want to do in life, go to school, and do it. I just need some incentive, like the right girlfriend. For now, I'm still out here, meeting new people all the time."

He gestures around the fire. "Half these people, I don't know their names.
"People look at these kids every day on Mill, and they think of a stereotype--dirty junkies. And it's pretty darn accurate. Some of the kids here this winter, they'll steal from people they know, people they don't know. They just don't give a fuck."

Ominous clouds in the night sky tear open, and a hard rain starts to fall. Spam scrambles inside with the rest, whooping. "I'm one of the lucky ones tonight!"

Today is specials day at McDonald's--49-cent cheeseburgers and 70-cent six-piece Chicken McNuggets.

"Stoked," says Chris.
Chris isn't like most of the kids on Mill. He's homeless, and bangs dope, but he's also from the Valley. "My dad's a lawyer. I grew up in obscene wealth, went out to dinner every night, graduated from Shadow Mountain High," Chris says.

Now he's a street junkie, and likes it that way.
"I could be in college right now if I wanted. But I've played that game, and I realized that this Babylonian, societal paradigm of a sorry excuse for what we call civilization is a bunch of bullshit." Chris spreads his arms and circles them in the air. "These are the last days of Rome, man. The fiddle player's warming up, you know what I'm saying? And when all this shit comes crashing down, it's the street kids who will build a new world. We're the cockroaches."

Chris, 20, says he left home about a year ago. "I just appreciate life a lot more out here. Normal people take too many things for granted, like showers. When you haven't had a shower in three weeks, you appreciate it. And sitting outside watching people all day is a hell of a lot more interesting than sitting inside watching TV."

He says the number of kids on Mill doing heroin this winter has probably tripled. Last summer, Chris had a $60-per-day habit. Now he's down to $30. "Spanging 30 bucks is no problem when you have a pet monkey to feed."

The monkey's fun to play with, Chris says, but the damn thing shrieks when it's hungry. Just now, he can hear it start to jabber, and goes off to spange outside Hooters.

This afternoon's skies are foreboding another storm, courtesy of El Nino. The crusties on Mill today look more bedraggled than usual after last night's storm. Taco's lugging a garbage bag filled with his sopping bedroll and clothes. He says the camp where he stayed last night is under three inches of water. "My folder got soaked, and the job applications fell apart," he says. "I'm bumming."

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