Meet the Crusties

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

A dozen other kids are already under the bridge--smoking pot or just staying out of sight and waiting for the food to arrive. The DK bunch hunkers down behind a pillar and starts roasting a bowl. Cisco keeps standing up and peering around the pylon. It's not clear whether he's checking for cops, or Hot Dog Jesus, or both.

At 6:43, two vans with "God's G.I.F.T. Ministries" decals pull into the parking lot. "Perfect timing," Taco comments. "I'm nice and stoned, and I've got the munchies." Shadowy figures--more than 40 of them--emerge from under the bridge and all corners of the park, shambling toward the vans as darkness falls. From a high vantage point, the overview is a scene from "Night of the Living Street Kids."

"Hey," Cisco says, "that's not Hot Dog Jesus."
"So what?" replies Spiderman. "They've got sandwiches."
Every kid gets a food bag, laden with some combination of the following: bologna sandwich, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cheese sandwich, fruit cup, animal crackers, fruit drink, box of Wheaties, cupcakes, small plastic tub of microwave macaroni and cheese. A few kids ask for condoms or needles, and strike out, but socks, tampons and toothbrushes are freely disbursed. Rabid trading ensues. Socks are the most valuable item, followed by animal crackers.

Once the dust of barter settles, the pack disperses to picnic tables around the park to chow down. Sitting at one is Taco, Cisco, Spidey, Marcy and a good-looking, blond-haired guy named Lewis. Dinner conversation centers on donating plasma.

"You can only do it twice a week," says Lewis. "But the money's good. You get 15 bucks the first time, and 20 the next." Marcy asks what about body piercings. "Just be cool," Lewis advises. "Remember to say you've had them for at least a year."

Taco asks Spiderman for a lighter and waves the flame across the bottom of his mac-and-cheese container, walking a tightrope between melting the plastic and warming the coagulated orange goo inside.

A man approaches with a cluster of teenagers in tow, and introduces himself as Scott Ogles, youth pastor for the Living World Bible Church in Mesa. Scott asks if anyone wants a Bible, and Lewis says sure, he'll take one. Scott hands Lewis a massive Bible the size of a hardback college dictionary. Lewis looks slightly aghast.

"Got anything smaller?"
Scott says sorry, no.
Then he goes around the table and asks everyone his name. When he gets to Taco, he says, "Where'd you get the name 'Taco?'"

Taco shrugs. "I like tacos."
Scott asks Spiderman where he's from.
"Usually I'm from Saturn, although I hear Mars is nice this time of year."

Scott forces a weak laugh, then asks Spiderman why he has a thick metal spike stuck through the brim of his baseball hat. Well, Spiderman says, "You can either put the spike between your fingers and punch with it, or just swing the hat around and fuck somebody up."

Scott moves on.
"So, has anyone ever talked to you about salvation and what it takes to get into heaven?"

"Yeah," Taco says, "quite a few times."
Scott says that's good, and goes to the next table. Two girls from his youth group stay behind. One of them is actually named Charity. "Mind if we pray for you?" the other asks.

"Mind if we fornicate on this table?" Marcia fires back.
"Hey," Taco says to Marcy, "chill out and show some respect. They gave us food. They can pray if they want."

The girl begins:
"Father, Lord, O God, we thank you for the opportunity to come tonight and minister to these people, and we ask that you watch over them, O Lord, and we ask that you not let people look down on them, because we're all people, and we're all made of you, Father God, so we ask that you send these people the help they need, whether it's shelter or food or jobs, we ask that you open the doors to them, Lord, and show them your love. Please send it their way. Amen."

The girls offer more sandwiches, more socks, then invite everyone to church and say goodbye. A few minutes later, the vans are gone, and the temperature is falling. Taco, Lewis and the rest gather up their garbage and throw it away. Lewis tests the heft of the Bible Scott gave him. "Man," he says. "I can't carry this around."

He goes back to the table, sets the good book down and walks away.

Two months ago, Jester's home was a tepee in the redwoods about 40 miles north of Arcata, California, where he lived with two guys who got drunk and beat him every day. Then Cherokee and Sharon came to the rescue.

"We basically said, 'You don't deserve Jester,' and kidnaped him," Sharon says. "They were too wasted to stop us."

Now Jester's lying on the sidewalk outside the Mill Avenue entrance to Coffee Plantation with a rope leash around his neck. Dogs make the stunt travel of riding trains an even dicier gambit, but lots of travelers have them anyway, for protection and loyal friendship. Plus, there's no better spange lure than dog-on-a-rope, especially one with a good, mournful look, like Jester.

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