Mill Rats

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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.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap