Mill Rats

If you've walked down the ever-expanding boulevard of bland that is Mill Avenue in Tempe, you've probably seen them. They stand out in sharp contrast to the tourists, retirees and well-groomed, jolly ASU students; they don't blend in with the giggling packs of teens or white-coated security forces.

Their look is a mixture of punk and Haight-Ashbury with a dash of Spahn Ranch: dreadlocks, piercings, tattoos and clothes with patches. They've usually got a dog or two with a scarf tied around its neck, and no one--pet or master--seems particularly well-scrubbed.

They are the young and the homeless, the current version of transients--self-styled, freewheelin' hoboes-by-choice with a list of needs that pretty much consists of:

1. a place to hang;
2. a place to crash; and
3. love.

They have a lot in common. If you ask them, many say they are from broken homes located "all over" and now live "everywhere." Now that winter is once again swallowing the country, Tempe is, apparently, one of the most attractive places on the map of Everywhere. This translates to more kids migrating southwest, more hanging and crashing and loving, more sidewalk drum and bongo performances, more of--well, what?

More of the bad element messing up the pristine cleanliness of Mill Avenue, that's what!

And, with a little thing called Super Bowl XXX coming to town, attracting thousands of visitors with wallets just brimming with money--the kind you can spend on Mill Avenue--you can bet that certain persons in power are thinking of better things for those visitors to see than a bunch of filthy neo-hippie kids demanding spare change.

In fact, rumor has it that the police are offering one-way bus tickets out of town. Some say there's an effort being made, an actual mission under way, even as we speak, to try to get these people out of here by kickoff time. If not sooner.

Drinking coffee is one thing you can really become good at with the kind of spare time homelessness allows. A cup can stretch a long time; you can talk to your friends, smoke a cigarette if you've got one, watch the straight people walk by on their way to jobs and appointments. Hence, a lot of the Mill Avenue transients hang out in front of the Coffee Plantation, where java is easy to come by.

That's where I found Pierro Wipperfurth last week, along with Butterfly, Peter Pan, Glow, Moondance, Violet, Magic and someone whose name I did not get, but looked to be--unlike everybody else--over 30. I will refer to him as Older Guy.

Pierro is a self-appointed rep for the transients, an intense, unshaven fellow who says he came here from Miami three years ago because he heard Tempe was "a good place to be homeless." At the moment, Pierro lives in his own apartment; he recently quit a job at Perkins and saved enough rent money to last a while. He opens up his place to friends in need of a shower and describes himself as "homeless in attitude."

Pierro talks like a natural politician, rarely stopping for breath, spewing passion, weaving subjects and causes togetherlikeeverysecondcounts. (When I tell him my name, he quickly points out that "Pierro" is "Peter" in German; "It means 'the rock,' man!" Instant bonding.)

As I walked up to the gang, Pierro was just finishing a heated debate with a police officer. I overheard the words "respect," "freedom" and "rationalize."

Turned out it was all about "whether or not wecould drum or not, whether or not we were a live band, or what," Pierro explains, hugging a tribal-looking drum under his arm. I wonder if this is linked to the alleged Super Bowl cleanup. "Oh, yeah, man, totally, that's what it had to do with. Check it out: It was a tangible approach. They had a legitimate reason to stop and talk to us; in a sense, [the cop] had a complaint. But that's a reflection of what's happening."

Which is?
"They're getting rid of all the transients, man. They don't want 'em here. ... They want people to get out of here, so they're buying 'em bus tickets." Aha! Then Older Guy joins in.

"I was standing right next to my friend while [a bus ticket] was offered. They've approached other people in our group; it's a standing officer--uh, standing offer. If you want to get out of this town, go talk to Officer Russell, and a bus ticket will be secured for you."

According to Older Guy, the bus tickets are to "Tucson, anywhere but Tempe. And they ain't buying no round-trip ticket." When I suggest that, based on the offer, they might request a ticket to Cabo San Lucas or Key West, no one laughs.

As to Officer Russell, he seems to be the Mill Avenue version of Officer Krupke, the beat cop who may or may not have a heart, whom some will acknowledge as being "respectful." Or, as Pierro puts it, he's "a cool guy in a system that's not set up for cool guys."

Pierro is not kidding around here. He's dedicated to his people and his cause, says he's even approached the mayor of Tempe.

"I had a meeting with Neil Giuliano, and I asked him, in this transient issue, what is the law that's being broken? And he said that people were panhandling and whatnot. And I said the Supreme Court overturned that and said if you need something, you had the right to ask for it. I said they're not breaking any laws, and he said, 'We can change that.' And I said--this was at a city council meeting--'Why don't you just get your chief of police and round 'em up and take 'em down to the river bottom and kill 'em if you don't like 'em so much?'

"And they all laughed, man. They thought it was hilarious."
It gets a little tough to hear Pierro, as Older Guy begins to wail out his own version of Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song," accompanied by solo tribal drum. Played by Magic, I think. "Daylight come and me wanna smoke dope..."

Yet Pierro continues, oblivious. "So we don't know what's up. I spent 16 hours in two days down there at City Hall, trying to get the city laws and ordinances and whatnot, and they bounced me around like a Ping-Pong [ball]. They tell me to talk to Russell, and he says he ain't got the time to talk to me, so who do I go to to find out what my rights are?"

Pierro estimates that there are about 100 homeless kids in Tempe right now, but in the next couple of months that number could swell to three or four times that. They arrive by thumb or rail or Deadhead-style caravan to kick back in the relative desert warmth.

Butterfly is clad in nouvelle hippie garb, the over-the-counter-culture look: big, floppy hat and tie-dyed purple dress. She is bright-eyed and cheerful--no tragic Hollywood teen runaway here. Butterfly and her mom came to the Valley from Pennsylvania two years ago. Now 17, she's been on the streets since then, she says, sleeping "in the park or at a friend's or wherever," and selling jewelry made from hemp to raise quick cash.

Isn't life in the great outdoors of downtown somewhat dangerous? "No, people take care of you, people are good," she tells me, glowing. "People love you."

She tells me she is married to Magic (still playing his drum), who came here from Boston six months ago. It took him six days to hitchhike across the country, during which time people were "very cool" to him.

But the cops are not always so cool, says Butterfly. Will they be able to get her and her pals off the streets in time for the Big Game?

"No," she says, her smile shooting rays of love. "Not unless they arrest us all."

It's a little hard for me to believe that life is such a picnic for these kids. I mean, aren't there any Archie Bunker types who grumble by, urging these damn longhairs to get a job?

"No! People enjoy us," exclaims Butterfly, amazed that I would even suggest such a thing. "They like having us play music and hang out."

Pierro jumps in with the detailed analysis. "They're really cool; see, lots of them used to be here 20 years ago, and now they're older, and they've got their hair cut or something. You'd be surprised how older people interpret this lifestyle. It's not looked at bad by anybody but the government.

"Older people just stop," he claims--and, as if on cue, a well-dressed older couple stops. They grin warmly and pet one of the dogs. "Look at 'em! Look at mom, look at the smile on her face; that's what I see all day long. This community brings a lot of joy to older people. They're saying, 'Do it while you're young!'

"Well, how do they expect us to do it while we're young when it's illegal?"

Peter Pan is on the small side, with dirty blond hair and a tee shirt with the planet Earth on it. He is a Michigan native, "16, almost 17," and he arrived in Arizona when his folks moved to Tucson. I ask him if they care about his chosen lifestyle.

"Not really."
Peter Pan and Butterfly offer to take me on an oral tour of a typical day in their lives.

"Well, we sleep in 'til whatever," Peter Pan says. "Wake up, smoke our morning cigarette, sit and talk with friends, bond."

"We all love each other very much," adds Butterfly. "It's family, total family. A lot of us come from bad places, bad houses, and we're better off this way. We're around people that love us, people that care."

If you're wondering just how much of this love and family bonding is centered on drugs, both Pan and Butterfly emphasize that chemicals are not part of their world, that "all is natural."

Peter continues: "We come down here, talk, play the drums. If we need to eat, we can go to the Salvation Army." Butterfly describes the folks at Coffee Plantation as "beautiful, beautiful people," and says that hitting up the Salvation Army is a rarity. Laughing with the memory, she says, "Last night, we got pizza. It was sooo good!"

"It's like a freedom thing, you know, we do whatever we feel we want to do," says Pan. "If we feel like walking to the park, we walk to the park. If we feel like going somewhere and crashing, we go and crash. If we feel like smoking a cigarette, we smoke a cigarette. If we feel like coming to the Coffee Plantation and drinking a whole bunch of coffee and getting hyper and staying up all night and talking--that's what we do."

I guess if you're 16 and things at home stink, there are worse ways to live. But no one, not even Peter Pan, can stay eternally young. How long does he see himself living on the streets of Tempe, bonding and drinking coffee?

"Hopefully forever, because I'm happy."

As I get up to leave, everyone gives me a big hug. Butterfly urges me to "stop by any time and talk about whatever." I join the current of normal people, head on down the street. At the corner, there's a police officer, though it's not kindly Officer Russell, who I searched for but couldn't find.

Are the cops offering one-way bus tickets out of town?
"No. No, we don't do that," says Officer Les Strickland. The guy is laughing, shaking his head, looking at me like I'm nuts. "If we have a loitering problem, we'll try and keep them from loitering and setting up camping spots, but no one's buying them a one-way ticket out of town for the Super Bowl."

Does he view the kids as a problem?
"In the evening, it gets to be a big problem," he says. "Some are just kind of street people that don't cause you any problem; some are panhandlers that are harassing people. The average citizen comes down here for a nice evening, and it's not that they don't want to face these people, it's that they don't want to be annoyed and bothered."

So, just for the record, there is no effort going on to clean up Mill Avenue before the game hits town?

"Well, if there is, it sure hasn't filtered down to the people on the bottom levels, 'cause we sure haven't heard anything about it." Well, I figure that's pretty much it and start to turn off the tape recorder, but Officer Les has more to say.

"If somebody's telling you that [we're offering bus tickets], then somebody's either joking with somebody or--somebody might actually make something like that up! Actually, I deal with a lot of press, so I'm used to dealing with the press, and I'm telling you we haven't offered anybody a bus ticket out of town."

Okay, okay.
Walking away, I see one of the homeless--Magic, I think--ride by Strickland on a skateboard. Then, as he tries to stop at the corner, the thing flips out from under him and Magic winds up on his ass. The skateboard rolls over to the police officer standing there with his arms folded. This could be a touching scene--maybe the cop'll break into a grin, pick up the board and bring it back to the kid, offer him a hand up.

But the officer just stares at the skateboard as it glides to a halt, and Magic sits there in the gutter.


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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap