Meet the Crusties

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

Pat appears and tells Marina to get her stuff together and come drink beer with some dude who just came in from Austin. She does. Zach saunters across Sixth Street to the Centerpoint plaza outside Coffee Plantation, where he says hey to a kid named Taco, who's 18 and recently spent 70 hours in the Madison Street Jail "horseshoe" holding pen.

"That place bites," Taco says.
According to crumpled charging papers Taco pulls from his pocket, his legal name is Robert Marion Bates. Early in the morning of January 23, Bates--Taco--was arrested for violating a park curfew. Taco says he and his friend Wayne were sleeping on "A" Mountain and got busted by two bike cops. According to the court papers, Taco spent three days and nights in Madison, then appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to time served and cut loose.

Taco says he's been on Mill four months. He says his mom abandoned him when he was 5, and he spent his childhood in foster homes and on the streets. "Mostly on the streets." He says he came to Arizona because his Uncle Glenn, who lives in Canada, told him his real mom lived in Quartzsite. He was in Seattle at the time, and hitchhiked with some friends to California, caught a freight train to Needles, then caught another to Tempe. He says the friends he came here with hitchhiked to Amsterdam last week.

They hitchhiked to Amsterdam?
Taco thinks for a minute.
"Maybe they said Albuquerque."

Taco says he caught a ride to Quartzsite and tracked down his mom about six weeks ago. "She said she was sorry for leaving me," he says. "She said she had a lot of problems, and I couldn't stay with her."

So he came back to Tempe for the primo spanging. "I made 15 bucks last night in less than an hour. Saturday night on Mill means hella people, and hella money."

Taco says he smokes pot but doesn't do hard drugs, and doesn't steal unless he's really, really hungry, and then only candy bars. "For a street kid who raised himself on the streets, I'm well-behaved," he says.

Street life is good, Taco says, but he started looking for a job today. He produces a folder and takes out half-completed job applications from Cold Stone Creamery, a Mill Avenue ice cream shop, and Coffee Plantation.

The folder also contains a poem Taco wrote last night. "I write a lot," he says.

Here's the poem. It's untitled.

The darkness sweeps across the land
The war has begun
We've lived our lives quite differently
But now we are one
We've got strength, spirit, and attitude
We fight side by side and offer
Our hand in help
So if you're down and feeling out
Give us a yell
We're always on Mill
We're the Dank Krew, man
But keep it low
The pigs are on patrol
That's this war I'm talking about
Between the squatters and the cops
And it's on.

Who's the Dank Krew? Taco won't say, exactly. "We're just a bunch of kids who've got each other's backs," he says.

For example, Taco says, a few nights ago, this short, buff black dude people called Preacher raped a 15-year-old girl under DK's protection while three of his friends held her down. Taco says "some people" tracked down Preacher's friends, one by one, and "had a boot party on their heads." Preacher has yet to be found. "Either he'll show up or we'll find his squat," Taco says. "Then we'll kill him."

To punctuate that threat, Taco pulls a strand of hemp cord from the pocket of his denim jacket. One end is a loop. On the other is a small, sharp, double-edged knife blade, securely attached with black electrician's tape. "You swing it," Taco explains. "It's my weapon."

Taco won't say if the "DK" graffiti tags that began appearing on walls and sidewalks around Mill Avenue last month are the Krew's handiwork. He also won't say how many kids are in the Dank Krew. Asked how you join, Taco takes a slug of his latte and smiles slyly. "You just gotta be dank."

The name's a double-entendre: "Dank" is drug slang for a moist, earthy-scented strain of high-grade marijuana. It also describes the personal appearance of many street kids. Taco, however, is fairly well-scrubbed for a guy who says he slept under the Mill Avenue bridge last night. "I keep myself clean. I wash up in bathrooms, whatever. It's a self-respect thing."

The last time he ate, Taco says, was IHOP pancakes late last night.
"I don't eat much on Sundays to save room for Hot Dog Jesus," he says.
Hot Dog Jesus?

"Yeah, he's this religious guy who feeds us hot dogs on Sundays in the park. There's usually two feedings--one at 2, and one at 6."

It's a quarter past five.
One hour later, Taco rolls into Tempe Beach Park with a posse of five--Fuzzy Bear, Cisco, Spiderman, Marcia and Freedom. Three boys and two girls, all under 18. They walk through the park and up a dirt path that leads to the slanted slabs of concrete and massive pylons that hold up the Mill Avenue bridge over Rio Salado's dry bed.

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