Meet the Crusties

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

A woman in a business suit hands Cherokee an Uno's pizza box. "I want you to share this with the dog, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am," Cherokee says.
He met Sharon last summer, when both were following Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's Furthur Festival around the country. Cherokee is 25, and grew up in Seneca Falls, New York. He started traveling when he was 15. "I just got bored and started hitchhiking." Sharon is 18, and started living on the streets after she flunked out of Finger Lakes Community College. The two arrived in Tempe in mid-January.

"I didn't think we'd be here this long, but right now I think it's too good to leave," Sharon says. "The spanging is great here. People are sweethearts. They keep us fed, they keep our tobacco supply going. It's nice."

Sharon's only major complaint is that Tempe doesn't have a needle exchange. "They don't even give out bleach kits here. In San Francisco, people walk up and down Haight Street giving out kits to clean your point."

Cherokee and Sharon share a needle with each other, and no one else. He began using heroin when he was 20. She started eight months ago. Today, they're both feeling the early symptoms of withdrawal.

"Dope sick is like this," Sharon says. "Your bones ache, your muscles hurt, you're draggy, and your nose drips. It's not, like, horrible or anything, but it's bad enough to make you want more heroin."

This kid named Briggs comes up and bums two pennies from Cherokee, then walks into Coffee Plantation.

It's a popular trick, Cherokee says: Coffee refills are self-serve, and cost 50 cents on the honor system, so you fill your cup and drop two pennies in the box like they're quarters.

Briggs comes out with his coffee a minute later and tells Cherokee and Sharon he got a job at the Renaissance Festival as a litter bearer.

Coming into spange range is a man with dark hair in his late 20s wearing new jeans and a Guess shirt. Cherokee's about to hit him up when the guy stops, stuffs his hands in his pockets and says, "You seen Pat today?" Cherokee says no, he hasn't. The guy leaves, searching both sides of the street with his eyes. Cherokee says he doesn't know the dude.

"Probably some custy looking to score."
Freedom, who was in the park last night, runs up and throws her arms around Sharon. "We're leaving, we're leaving, we're leaving," she yells. "I'm finally going to California." Cherokee also hugs her goodbye.

"Where you headed?" he asks.
"I don't care. Santa Monica, I think."
Freedom pats Jester on the head--"Bye, Jester"--then piles into a beat-to-shit IROC with Texas plates and five other passengers. She leans her head out the window. "See you on down the road!"

"Every day a few leave," says Cherokee, "every day a few arrive."
Take Brooke, 18. She just got to Mill a few hours ago. Hitched a ride from Albuquerque to Phoenix last Saturday, then spent a couple days wandering around South Mountain Park. "It was beautiful and everything, but it got cold at night," she says.

She came out of the park this morning, and a vato in South Phoenix told her she should find Mill Avenue. "He said that's where all the street punks hang out."

Brooke says she's 16, but looks about 12. Maybe it's the braces. Maybe it's her size--five feet, 85 pounds. Her head's shaved. "I used to have multicolored dreds, and when I got tired of them, it all had to go." Brooke says she ran away from home in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, last March.

"My mom's a county commissioner and a big-shot lawyer and all that bullshit, and I used to fight with my parents a lot, and she made me go to a Catholic middle school. I just couldn't handle it anymore. I haven't talked to them since I left, but I've sent them a couple postcards. I don't want them to think I'm dead or anything."

Brooke's sharing a black metal table in Centerpoint plaza with Taco, Cisco and Bell, a 15-year-old DK member who also has a shaved head--except for a shock of black hair in the front--and looks about 12 years old. Bell pulls out a bag of Vitamin C candies she got from the Salvation Army and passes them out. Taco tells Brooke if she needs anything or anyone hassles her, to find him or Cisco or anyone else in the Dank Krew. Brooke gives him a thumbs up. "I'm gonna go walk around. Figure this street out," she says, and leaves.

The other three just keep chilling on the terrace.
The nucleus of Mill Avenue crusty culture is the open-air Centerpoint plaza on the southwest corner of Sixth Street and Mill. It's centrally located, there's room to hacky-sack, a couple dozen tables with chairs, and a constant cross-flow of people to watch. The plaza is their favorite place to exchange information, set up drug deals, and kick it when there's nothing else to do, which is often.

It's also private property. "The whole Centerpoint area is what's known as a super block," says Rod Keeling, executive director of Downtown Tempe Community, Inc. "It's a public space, but it's not public property. It was turned over to the developer by the city."

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