Why Can’t I Sell This Story?

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 memorial near the rail tracks where the warehouse burned

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.”

The Memorial for the Kids who died in the fire
Tribute left for the Kids Who Died in the Warehouse Fire

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.

 

Close up on the objects left in tribute to the dead.

11 Comments on “Why Can’t I Sell This Story?”

  1. I hope that if you publish this you also choose to explore the real backstory, what this chosen lifestyle does to the family, parents and siblings that are left with the very unromantic realities of extreme thrill seeking and dehumanizing anarchist cult behavior that is absolutely wallowing in drug and alcohol abuse. Glamorization of rebellion culture, supposedly rejecting “society” but creating its own rigidity that defeats the the emotional and spiritual life of the parent-child and sibling relationship. This “movement” should not be romanticized, it is the same old recycled fuck authority that has been reinvented since the sixties based on extreme double-think and fueled by lots of drugs, alcohol and disregard for consequences to self and others. As evidenced by the terrible fire that burned beyond recognition the undoubtedly loved children of heartbroken parents, this incident illustrates the self-indulgence of middle class (and many upper class) immature and selfish children that focus too much on trying to reinvent themselves as something unique. Many of these kids are incredibly intelligent, creative, insightful, and usually quite physically attractive and capable of contributing their gifts in a way that would be positive instead of the black and white thinking. Although I sympathize with the creative spirit that will hopefully evolve somehow within this “movement” I absolutely must object to the blame on “middle class society” blah-blah-blah rhetoric that continues escalating the human cost of the self-destructive idealism pervasive with this very unoriginal recycled hippie-punk extreme dronism. In the struggle to destroy society, the heart and soul of the family from which many of these kids originate is being damaged, the humanity stripped away from people by labeling them yuppies or whatever the current insult of adults and authority is. I have to say most of the behavior is really a mirror image irrevocably linked to what these kids are rebelling against. And the entitlement attitude of aggressive panhandling is absolutely awful. It is a lot of foolishness, I hope some of them can sober up and realize that making a spectacle of yourself and indulging in self righteous idealism is the same side of the coin as what is being rebelled against. Break away from the ongoing toddler temper tantrum, otherwise you are simply forming a subconscious alliance with those amazing free-thinkers in the Tea Party. Destruction propigates destruction. Hate feeds on itself and those who subscribe to its addictive sway.

    1. Danelle, I think this a great thing to ponder on. While not an accurate description of all travelers (or whatever you want to call them) It still applies to many. Just a thought.

    2. Thanks to everyone who commented that I was wrong when I wrote that Flee lived in a squat, not in a apartment. I’ve corrected it in the text here and that error won’t appear in the final article.

  2. Not all of us are drunks and drug addicts, btw, while you are on the subject. Yes, I will not deny its prevalence, but most of us are musicians, and we also work or do odd jobs or volunteer work, or go to school as well (at least most of the older ones or the more experienced do). Its not all about drinking, trashing everything, and running from cops. I have experienced both sides of it and I am sober now myself, though I am partially “retired” from train riding at the moment to work on writing. I am sorry that you don’t agree with our anti-government principles, but honestly, everyone has the right to their own opinion, and this is ours. I am not a hateful person, but I AM an activist and I believe in standing up for our rights as citizens and as human beings. While I agree that some of us make the rest of the “kids” look bad, (and I have been guilty of it myself!! ) the main purpose for us is to embrace our freedom and not confine ourselves, since life is so short.. and to stand up for the right to that choice. I am almost thirty-one years old, and though I am off the road at the moment, I would rather live on the road until I am dead, than confine myself to living in a house somewhere, miserable for the rest of my life.

    1. I’m fully aware that you and your friends are a complex group and that not all of you are drunks and drug addicts. Last night I was with my daughter’s friends in the 9th Ward for dinner on the stoop of a house they rent and I’d say most of the 15 people there had jobs. My goal is to give an accurate picture of this lifestyle, to bust the stereotype that you are all abandoned kids, homeless without families who love you. The lives of the 8 who died in the NOLA fire will show that if I can gather enough information to show that. Thanks for you comment. I am grateful for it.

  3. “One of the most beloved of their crowd, a kid they called Flee, was murdered in the squat he shared with a few others.”

    – This is incorrect. Flee was not squatting, him and his girlfriend paid rent at their house.

    This is also incorrect —

    “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.”

    I would say a majority of the kids in the warehouse weren’t here for Flee’s second line, they were just in town and the warehouse was a good place to stay. Granted, there were countless people in town for Flee’s second line, just not at the warehouse.

    If you’re looking to publish this nationally and make money off our lifestyle, research the story a little bit more.

  4. I agree with switcher. Alot of this article is incorrect. Your article has more holes in it than a piece of swiss cheese.

    1. Rocketmullet82, this is not the article. This is the story pitch. The article is yet to be written. If you want to be helpful, be specific about what you think I got wrong so those errors won’t show up in print. The point of publishing what I found so far on the web is to open up discussion, and to ensure that people who know more than I do prevent me from perpetuating errors in the final story.

  5. Hi. So I am 30 years old. I have been squating and traveling since I was a teenager. I am female. I live in New Orleans and knew Flee for about 10 years. I also dated Sammy who was in the fire. I have not responded to the press and even turned down an offer to talk to a major newspaper. I am no longer a kid. Infact I feel very,very tired. I am responding now because you seem to generaly care. I like your daughter she is funny as all hell and sweet.

    I am frusterated with every article that has been written. None has been acurate, for example Flee was not living in a squat when he was murdered.He was living in an apartment.He was not a rich kid or even middle class, neither was Sammy. Sammy and Flee were on the streets when they were teenagers.The other punk kids who died in the time frame we are discussing I did not know and can not speak for them.The other people who were murdered and raped by Cedrick I didnt know either but my concaved heart reaches out to them.

    Your article was written from a place of concern and care.I appreciate that compared to some articles written from from a place of utter hostility.

    When speaking about our community “Punks” for lack of a better word,some say are taking advantage of the New Orleans,working poor and pradominantly black community.Yet I would like to point out that another group of people throughout the centuries that has been discrimanated against and they are the homeless.Work camps, diabities inducing food in overcrowded shelters. Charged with crimes of poverty and police harrasment are only a few examples along with lacking a voice in politics and media that visiably and non visably homeless have to endure.Homeless youth especialy, are without a voice.Many queer teens are kicked out of their homes because well lets face it some parents are abusive, biggoted shits.

    I have seen a grown man bleed to death in a shelter attached to a hospital. I noted how long the paramedics and police took to come to his fucking rescue.SAD BUT TRUE.Like Kanya West said “The president doesn’t care about black people.” He sure as hell doesnt care about black people in a homeless shelter,the man who died was black but the shelter had many ethnicities. The linking bind being everyone was poor and no one wanted to be there.This was in Baltimore although not New Orleans it bares very simular demographics.

    I am not saying privledged and under privledged kids dont come to this city or come from this city and make some preety disrespectful mistakes like panhandaling in the poorest areas. Why not go uptown to magazine guys? I know poor people tend to lend a helping hand three times as fast as wealthier but come on,this city just got hit with the largest natural disaster in the U.S! (Natural is debatable).

    This infuriates and saddens me but you can not lump a group of people together and say we are all the same.You can not say that we are not friends with our neighbors because many of us are. You can not say that we deserve to die because we live in a black neighborhood like some articles I have read implied. What would this author prefer; that we live in segragated communities? FUCK THAT! I love my neighbors and where I live and when someone in the area dies from interpersonalized violence, a repercussion of instatutionalized violence it is a tragety that hits us all.Regardless of our ethnicity or if we are from the South.

    There is no need to romantize “punks” which is such a blanketing statement and no need to demonize.We are fucking human. We are somebodys children.We are nobodys children and many of us are parents.Some come from wealth many do not.The mistakes that we make are nothing in comparrison to what those with acess to a a million times more resources inflict apon the city of New Orleans and the world.

    The racist shit Ive heard from places Ive worked here makes me want to puke. The sexual harrasment Ive put up with just to keep my job is shameful but this is not Olympia or any other wealthy, leftist town. I would never trade New Orleans troubles and all for anywhere else.

    Their is more heart here more warmth from folks sitting on their porch and playing music,greeting each other as you walk down the street than anywhere Ive been and Ive been to just about every state in this country.

    So maby I should write an article if I dont like what I am reading about us but it would probubly get misunderstood,misconstrued and misinterpreted anyways…

    Thankyou for giving a shit. P.S I am sorry I can not spell. Blame the school system.HAHA! I’ll leave you with one last fun fact. New Orleans has a 60 percent ilitericty rate. So even though in 1955 the civil rights movement took pff and fought for and gained leaps and bounds of civil liberties it is still clear as day that those with money dont give a damn about a chocolate city or any punk kid who came here from out of town and fell in love with the place Flee was one of the biggest lovers and advacates of this city I knew. Even when one of his bestfriends and roomates died sixth months to the day Flee was shot, he called this home and yes Flee the stray cat you used to feed is still on Frenchman along with Steph and Lean.

    Let them drown,is all the propieters can say under their breath standing on a podeum. The crowd applause, sounds like the break of water.

  6. I only heard about this tonight when I met an old american friend. Flee helped me when I traveled from abroad. He was a lovely guy. I am so sorry to hear about these other friends. Thanks for the wise words Corrina, Who ever you are. With love and solidarity… WW

  7. Also if anyone knows where I can find out more accurately what happened that would be greatly appreciated. With love…

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