Meet the Crusties

Page 7 of 19

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.

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.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse