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."