December 26 was a cold night in New Orleans, with temperatures below freezing. Eight kids bedded down in a well-established squat in the 9th Ward: a hulking, abandoned warehouse 300 yards from the train tracks. They built a fire in a barrel and fell asleep with the blaze still burning, succumbing to smoke inhalation before the warehouse burned to the ground. It took seventeen fire department units to put out the blaze and the coroner spent two weeks identifying the remains and tracking down the kids’ families. The dead – aged from 17 to 25 — were from Wisconsin, Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Iowa, two from Nebraska, and only one from New Orleans.
The fire, the biggest in thirty years, generated a swift reaction in a city that has gotten tired of these tattooed and pierced panhandlers with their mangy dogs and slovenly clothes who haunt the streets of the French Quarter begging for spare change. There were calls to toughen the vagrancy laws, come down hard on them for the way they care for their dogs, bulldoze the squats where they subsist and close down the minimal services the city provides for homeless youth. The word around town is that many of these children come from prosperous families and are dallying in the demi-monde before they return to their privileged lives. There’s no reason for the city of New Orleans to support them.
I gasped when my daughter Marissa told me how the kids had died. It was the same way I imagined she would go for the year and a half she rode the rails with her friends, scamming food, begging for change, sleeping in places where they often got charged with trespassing. When she lit out of town midway through her Freshman year at college, I thought she was rejecting me. She assured me that she wasn’t. I didn’t even figure into her decision, she said. Marissa was going toward something else and it was a kind of life I could not understand, she said. She was right about that. Why would she leave the comfortable situation she had and her scholarship to an excellent college for this dangerous life?
Even when she returned, about a year ago, I never fully understood why she’d left.
Those kids, I kept thinking after Marissa and I hung up the phone, they had parents much like me who also didn’t understand. I’ve always wanted to write about that world, but Marissa resisted describing it to me. I thought that if I wrote about the kids, I’d find a way to comprehend what set my daughter on the road.
Last month, I hired my daughter as my research assistant and we flew to New Orleans. I was nervous. I had a pretty good idea of the way she lived those years she was away, but looking at it first hand, I thought, was sure to rouse up all my worries from the past. And there was a possibility, a probability even, that it would worse be than I imagined.