At first, the beat-to-hell Tempe tract home doesn't look like the epicenter of anything. Except, maybe, the white-trash universe.
The neglected desert landscaping has long since returned to the Earth, leaving behind an unsightly collage of gravel, dirt and tar-paper shards. In the center of the lawn stands a greasy Weber barbecue grill, apparently the residents' sole concession to domesticity. Under the carport, a festive Christmas popcorn tin now holds the brackish residue of some long-ago oil change. And what's left of the backyard fence twists in the breeze, threatening to collapse entirely every time a car whizzes past.
Driving past this eyesore just off a major Tempe thoroughfare, a passerby could easily surmise that the occupants here aren't actively involved in anything other than driving down surrounding-property values.
In reality, there's a lot more to this unsightly domicile than meets the eye. A cross between a skate-punk frathouse and an underage social club, the East Valley homestead has, in recent months, hosted events ranging from punk concerts and martini soirees to boxing matches and a drag pageant.
Its youthful denizens call it the Nth Street Cartel. And while that may be its physical address (to minimize party-crashing, the actual street name has been changed), this live-in Lollapalooza is really located light-years from Tempe, in some wacked-out vortex somewhere between Peter Pan's Neverland and a Beastie Boys video.
It's an atypically quiet night inside the Nth Street Cartel.
No one's skateboarding off the roof. There's not an amplifier on the premises. Nobody's breakdancing in the driveway. And because Bubba, the Cartel's answer to Mayberry's Otis Campbell, is out this evening, there are no drunken escapades to contend with. Yet.
Tonight's big activity? A beer 'n' pizza bull session highlighted by an impromptu game of "topping tossing"; despite ordering four different pies, nearly a dozen Nth Street regulars still can't agree on mutually acceptable ingredients. Skillfully lobbing unwanted condiments into an empty pizza box on the living-room floor, the guys guzzle brew, belch and shoot the breeze about life inside this real-world Real World.
Unlike the MTV-show roomies, no one's picking up the tab for the young minimum-wage slaves who make up the heart and soul of the Cartel.
"What we have here is a big family of kids, almost all of whom are younger than me," explains BJ (not his real name), 23-year-old lord, master and lease-holder of the $600-a-month pad.
"We take care of each other, we look out for each other, we're here," says BJ, a local freelance music writer whose work has appeared in New Times. "Just because some people don't pay rent here doesn't mean that they don't have the same rights as the people who live here do."
While it'd take a team of live-in census takers to accurately monitor the Cartel's transient population, only three people officially live in the house--BJ and two twentysomething roommates. But factor in a rotating cast of visiting bands, incapacitated guests and unemployed couch surfers--and the overnight-occupancy rate has been known to quadruple.
At the core of the Cartel are a dozen of BJ's friends, most of them middle-class white kids just getting their feet wet in the world. Dressed in today's uniform of youth (baggy tee shirts, baggier shorts), this board-toting brigade valiantly skates through a slacker soap opera that might be called Off-Duty Clerks.
A brief recap of recurring characters and recent events:
* Fed up with living in brother BJ's shadow, 19-year-old Devo recently moved out of the Nth Street pad and into his own apartment; he hopes to form an alternative faction called the Little Brothers Revolution. Although the revolution has had no visible impact on the Cartel, Devo's departure did provide a good excuse for a rad going-away party featuring four live bands. When not plotting sibling rebellion, Devo mans the cash register at a gas-station minimart.
* 20-year-old Tommy, whose older brother turned the house over to BJ a year ago, recently moved into his own place, too. Like the Nth Street place, his apartment has a name--"Lucy." A pizza delivery boy, Tommy aspires to a filmmaking career. Using elementary video equipment, he's already produced a number of accomplished shorts about Cartel life, including a remarkable featurette in which a girl drinks herself sick at her 18th-birthday party.
* A telephone operator whose political cartoons adorn the Cartel's walls, 20-year-old Marky is still basking in the glow of being named "Miss Nth Street" during a July 4 drag contest at the house. Winning judges over during the talent competition--he wrestled with a chair--Marky was awarded $4 in change, a Jesus candle and a shot of Remy Martin cognac someone snagged for the occasion.
* At 17, Chuckie is the "baby" of the group--and the only Cartel regular who still attends high school. Although he technically still lives with his mother, the lanky wise-acre spends most of his time sprawled on a couch at the Nth Street pad. Pondering life after graduation from high school next year, Chuckie shrugs. "I'll rule the world. You will be my slave."
* 19-year-old Les, the group's only college student, doesn't let school interfere with a good time at the Cartel. Les' most recent claim to fame? He reconfigured the phrase "tight ass" into "Tideass! Tideass!," a rejoinder that now echoes through the Cartel whenever a woman's derriere appears on TV.
Dramatic as these events may sound, none of them can hold a Zippo to the truly shocking news Cartel members receive via a long-distance phone call midway through the pizza party.
"Man, this blows a hole in my whole night," says an obviously shaken BJ. Following the phone conversation with a Cartel housemate vacationing on the East Coast, he breaks the bad news to the boys--a comrade has defected.
Echoing the sentiments of everyone, a stunned Devo puts it best.
"This fuckin' sucks," he mutters.
At the other end of the suck scale is the Nth Street Cartel, which totally rules.
Smoke cigarettes, drink beer, party with your friends. What kid wouldn't dig hanging out at a place that's got all the comforts of home--sans Mom and Dad?
By contrast, what adult would want to play 24-hour chaperone to a scene that frequently resembles a suburban Lord of the Flies?
"I'm still a kid myself," rationalizes BJ, a buzz-cut Bacchus who looks like he might still be in high school. "When I was their age, I never hung out with people my own age; I hung out with people who were 24 or 25. I know how much that meant to me, so now I get to be in that position myself."
That position--a job that's den mother, social director and sergeant-at-arms all rolled into one--also entitles him to call the shots.
"My name's on the lease, so it's my ass on the line," contends the rad pad dad. "I make all the rules around here." Rule #1? "No one under 16 is allowed in my house," says BJ, explaining that offenders are "kicked out nicely"--like the 12-year-old girl he recently asked to leave.
Corollary to Rule #1? Even if you are 16, you can't come into the house unless someone knows you.
Want to drink beer? Be prepared to prove that you're . . . 18? "If you're old enough to go die for your country or be thrown in jail for the rest of your life, you're old enough to drink in my house," says BJ of his liberal policy. "I might get a ticket because of that, but you know what? Fuck 'em!"
Hard drugs are strictly verboten, although there's a considerably more lenient attitude toward pot smoking. In the year BJ's been renting the house, Cartel members report no problems with either police or parents. "Like, this is the cheap part of Tempe," explains one regular. "When the cops show up here, they're usually asking us whether we know anything about some domestic-violence stuff down the street."
By all accounts, BJ runs a tight--if frequently rudderless--ship. But despite occasional complaints of power-tripping ("BJ can be a real dick," grouses one subversive), there appears to be little threat of mutiny.
"It's really weird," says one Cartel observer. "You can go over there one night, and there'll be tons of kids doing bongs in the back bedroom, cheap beer all over the place, hard-core ass-fucking videos on the rented VCR and people passed out all over the place. Then you come back the next Saturday, and here are the same kids seriously scrubbing the house. BJ cracks the whip--and for some reason, these kids listen."
If the walls of the Nth Street Cartel could only talk, they'd probably scream "Paint me."
Home to dozens of punks of various stripes, the three-bedroom house has passed through at least four different "administrations"--and at least that many punk-rock permutations--since the early '90s. Although each regime has had its own particular flavor (immediately prior to the Cartel, a group of tattoo artists held the lease), all residents apparently shared something besides a love of alternative music and a deep commitment to cheap rent.
Like, dude, a very lax attitude toward housekeeping.
"The landlord is, like, really lenient," explains Tommy, somewhat needlessly, as he points to various dings in the wall. "Like when BJ moved in, the landlord didn't even come over to do a walk-through to see what was broken. As long as you pay the rent on time, he's cool."
Tommy has been hanging out at the joint off and on since he was 15, when his older brother (a former tenant) first introduced him to the pad. "I've slept with the couch on every side of the room," he boasts. The unofficial house historian, Tommy can rattle off chapter and verse on the pad's legendary past--like the night a female transient broke into the kitchen, drank all the beer in the refrigerator and was discovered the next morning passed out on the floor.
A living museum, the house mirrors alternative counterculture trends of the '90s. With their intricately painted mosaics of naked bodies, a bookcase and coffee table reflect a former tenant's preoccupation with Psychedelic Revival. Mounted flat on the living-room ceiling is a testament to another bygone occupant's handiwork--a large, air-brushed painting of Salvador Dali. Armed with multicolored felt markers, some poet of yore committed his thoughts to the upholstery of the mustard-yellow Mediterranean couch.
Carrying on in that grand tradition, the current regime has also left for posterity its mark on the house. Roswell "gray" stickers and skateboard decals adorn the kitchen's Early American trim. Warm 'n' fuzzy photos on a Wal-Mart calendar have been doctored up with obscene captions, and a Hoover vacuum sign now reads "Hooker." A demolished skateboard hanging from the wall is a reminder of one member's 10-week layoff from the sport.
Like a proud parent posting kindergarten doodles on a refrigerator, BJ even devotes a family-room wall to Cartel art and poetry.
"We feed on each other creatively," says BJ, admiring one drawing--the devil barbecuing a chicken. "We're all politicians and artists and fuckin' whatevers just waitin' to happen."
And whenever whatever happens, happens, Cartel members could be so busy partying they won't even notice.
Who can forget last year's Christmas party? Gathering under an artificial tree adorned with beer cans and condoms, holiday revelers and their dates swapped gifts like flavored love gel, douches and dog food.
Or the bloody boxing matches--staged in the middle of the living room--pitting brother against brother? "Now that was fun," recalls one participant. "Everyone was totally drunk. Bubba fought a kickboxer; he wound up with a bloody nose, and the other guy chipped his tooth."
Irrepressible Bubba also figures prominently in another legendary Cartel bash. Midway through last winter's Cocktail Party (a lounge-themed bash where guests wore '60s eveningwear and quaffed hard liquor instead of beer), Bubba freaked out on acid and attacked a female guest. Several windows were broken before friends could beat the marauding tripper into submission and shove him out the front door.
"The next morning, he came over with a black eye and a fat lip," says Devo, who lost his shirt during the melee. "It was the worst feeling I ever had; it bummed me out that I had to do that to my best friend."
Spanky and Alfalfa had the "He-Man Woman-Haters' Club"; BJ and his friends, the Nth Street pad.
And while members claim to enjoy the company of the opposite sex, females are to the Cartel what Mafia wives are to the mob.
"Unless there's a big party or something, the girlfriends are afraid to come over here," reports Tommy. "They'll hide in the bedroom. What girl wants to listen to a bunch of guys saying gross shit about her 'shelf' and stuff?"
Neatly illustrating the point, Les interjects "Tideass! Tideass!"
"The Cartel is a boy thing," concedes BJ. "I mean, until I find a girl I like as much as my friends, what's the point? I'd rather hang out with my friends and jerk off every night than hang out with a girl I don't like just so I can get laid."
And forget about co-ed living. The guys are still fuming about Raven, the 20-year-old topless dancer who moved into the house for a few months last fall.
"The house smelled funny when we'd get home," complains Chuckie. "It'd smell all girly and shit. We'd be like, 'What?!' This house is supposed to smell like beer and cigarettes and piss, not like fuckin' perfume."
Raven, meanwhile, claims she didn't have any problems with the guys until after she'd left the Cartel.
"I'm not that much older than them, but I still thought of them as little skateboard kids," says the dancer. A chatty, bright-eyed young woman who looks like she'd be more at home in a mall than a strip joint, Raven says her main gripe was finding strangers passed out in her bed on several occasions. "Everything was fine--until I moved out."
Raven now realizes it was a big mistake leaving her disabled 1989 Honda in the Cartel's driveway for four months. When a potential buyer went over to look at the car, Raven learned the kids had been using the vehicle as a skateboard ramp--jumping off the roof of the house onto the top of the Honda, then riding down the windshield and over the hood.
"Sure, the car was a piece of shit," says Raven. "But it was worth something--and they totally trashed it!" Outraged, she filed a vandalism report, a charge that was eventually dropped.
"We should have filed charges against her," counters BJ. "That bitch was using Cartel property for a fuckin' car lot!"
It's against this ironic tableau of misogyny that Cartel members receive the news that wipes everyone out. During a long-distance phone call from New Jersey, beloved Cartel member John Donut announces his days at the Nth Street are over. A former Dunkin' Donuts employee and liquor-store clerk, the 28-year-old Donut reports that he's getting together with an old girlfriend, going to work for her father--and can someone send him his stuff?
"I feel like fuckin' cryin'," says one of the guys. "John Donut was, like, a totally vital part of this house."
Playing grief counselor, BJ tries to put a positive spin on things, pointing out that Donut's departure is just a part of the natural evolution of things.
"You can't let how much you want to hang out with your friends dictate your life," BJ tells his buds. "We're all very aware that these are the best years of our lives and we're trying to make the most of them. We'll never forget the time we spent in this house. But if you've got better things to do, then you better fuckin' go do 'em. We're all going to be disappointed in each other if we don't do that."
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Still, like everyone else, BJ can't help feeling a little betrayed.
"If John's going to really fuckin' do it, I'm all for it," he continues. "But if he fails this time, I'm going to be really pissed. You don't fuckin' bitch out on your boys unless you're going to really fuckin' do it."
But as long as he's doing it anyway, one Cartel member is willing to look on the bright side.
"Did John say whether we could keep his bong?"
Prowl Webb Page Confidential--Dewey Webb's aesthetically questionable video collection, quasi-meretricious literary finds, gallery of objets du fromage and other nonstandard Americana--at www.phoenixnewtimes.com