In January, I traveled to New Orleans to research the story that I’m asking you to support. It’s a story that is very dear to my heart because it concerns my daughter, Marissa. In April 2008, she dropped out of college midway through the second semester of her freshman year at a time when she was getting straight As, to hop trains with a group of tattooed and pierced musicians.
As her mother, I believed she was rejecting me and the middle class aspirations I’d held out for her: the college life, the career, the husband and then the children. She assured me that I wasn’t much of a factor in this. She was going toward something that was much bigger than that, even if she couldn’t describe it. I was terrified for her safety until she returned eighteen months later, unharmed. She’s living nearby, and I see her as much as possible and talk to her often. Yet I know at any moment she could chuck it all and be on the rails again. While she was on the road, I struggled with trying to find a way to write about her and the thousands of other kids who are doing the same. After she returned home, we found a way to talk about this when a terrible thing happened to her friends in New Orleans.
At the close of 2010, a series of tragedies hit the GutterPunks who ride the rails and spend the winter in the ragged edges of New Orleans. One of the most beloved of their crowd, a kid they called Flee, was murdered in the apartment he shared with a few others. Word of it spread rapidly over Facebook, text messages, and word-of-mouth passed in bars and freight cars. Kids from all over the country headed to rail yards hoping to catch a train that would take them to New Orleans in time to march through the French Quarter in the Second Line funeral procession for Flee.
The parade was huge, hundreds of kids, showing that the numbers of them living in New Orleans and around the country were a lot larger than anyone expected. For a few hours, a crowd that lives in the city’s shadows marched through its main streets. The Second Line was a high moment for this ragged crew, which calls itself a community even if only a few know each other’s real names.
Then the second, and bigger, tragedy happened.
That night temperatures dipped below 30 degrees. Eight kids, most of whom came to town just for Flee, 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, 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 kids — Gutter Punks is what they call themselves — are part of a growing 21st Century subculture that never has been properly described, and for good reason. Their tattoos and piercings, ragged clothes, and rude ways are calculated to shock and repel. Many dismiss them as the children of poverty or defiant rebels from the world of privilege. After two weeks in New Orleans, with my daughter as my guide, I have come to see them differently. They are at once a world unto themselves, a society, a culture, and, most importantly, a reaction to and result of the decline of the middle class.
The largest portion of the more than a dozen kids I spoke with lived through the collapse of the middle class. They described how their parents had lived responsible lives, conforming to the demands of their jobs, the pressure to increase production, the lengthening of their hours and shrinking of their wages. As one young woman said, “My parents did the whole 30-year plan: 30 years at the same job, 30-year mortgage and then like four years ago, the jobs disappeared, the pensions disappeared too and they couldn’t pay their mortgage. They’re living with roommates, just like me. Why would you want to sign up for that subservience when it could all be taken from you in a snap?” If one could say that the hippies were rejecting the hypocrisy of their parents’ success, these kids are rejecting the conditions of parents’ failures.
Clearly they have tribal markings, but the distinctions go much deeper than that. They are initiated into the society by the rite of hopping their first trains, always as apprentices. Then there’s the coming-of-age phase where the community tolerates their first six months when the initiate is drunk most of the time, “acting stupid”, and spends all day begging for spare change. They call these kids oogles and there is a website devoted to posting pictures of the initiates called http://lookatthisfuckingoogle.tumblr.com/. Once a kid has passed through that phase, he or she will know they have joined the elite when someone hands over the sacred document: the crew change manual, a photocopied text passed from hand to hand in the inner circle. The manual explains how to read the tracks and the train lights in all the major train yards so that you can tell which train is going where and which one is leaving soon, as well as the best places to hide, the “hop out spots.”
Despite the squalor in which they survive, Gutter Punks believe they are privileged, prescient and smarter than the rest of us, which is why they work so hard to keep this life secret. They have built surprisingly cheerful community around a dystopian worldview. They tend to cluster in America’s ruined industrial landscape, in cities like Buffalo and Detroit, but particularly New Orleans with its 30,000 abandoned houses. One woman in a squat I visited described how she and her friend had gone house hunting, visiting fifteen abandoned houses before they found one that suited their tastes, and picked up furniture from the streets around them. They pride themselves on earning and spending very little. She pointed to three dollars that she said had been sitting on the crate next to her mattress for three days. To get their essentials, they roam in packs like feral animals over the rutted Katrina flood plain, scavenging shelter, food from dumpsters and raw materials in a neighborhood crisscrossed by freeways and train tracks. “When it all goes to shit in five or six years,” one said, “the only creatures that will be able to survive are cockroaches and the Gutter Punks.”
To me, this was an important insight into what happens to the dreams of the children of the middle class as economic support for it disappears. We see it in terms of the erosion of wages and benefits, the extended retirement age, the disappearance of pensions, but we have not thus far looked at it from the eyes of the next generation and the disappearance of their dreams.
I wrote a pitch, trying to sell this story to the magazine editors in New York. I got the personal email addresses of powerful editors and began trying to sell the story, waiting for the pellet to drop. The freelancers’ habit of deference requires that the journalist wait to be rejected by one editor before pitching the next. I sent the pitch off to the most likely magazine and waited weeks for a response, sending chipper reminder notes even though I was seething that I couldn’t even get rejected. Finally I got rejected by one, then started afresh with the next, who never responded. The next one, lower down my list, also ignored me despite a personal contact forwarding the pitch.
Finally I sold the story to a The Boston Review, a magazine I very much respect. The editor was enthusiastic, as was I about working with him. After some happy back-and-forth, I found out that they were offering me $500 for it, less than I paid to go to New Orleans and research the pitch. I went into a panic. That wouldn’t even cover the expenses for my trip back to New Orleans to investigate the fire. I quickly got on email, casting around for other New York editors who might give me more money. By the time one of my friends wrote back, I’d accepted magazine’s offer because I found a whole new way of financing it.