The audio clip below is an edited version of an interview with two young women, M and A, each of whom have been living the Gutter Punk life for more than five years. I did many interviews while I was in New Orleans and I’ll be posting some of them in the weeks to come, allowing the kids to speak in their own voices.
I met up with M & A in the squat they shared in the 9th Ward, a desolate block where it was safer for your feet if you walked in the middle of the streets; the shards of the sidewalk, uprooted years back by Hurricane Katrina, jutted up from the ground in sharp angles with rough edges. Many of the houses on the block were abandoned, as are approximately 30,000 houses in the city since the hurricane. M and A had gone house hunting a few weeks earlier, visiting more than ten abandoned houses before they chose to settle down in the one where I interviewed them. The place was in such great shape, all they had to do to make it habitable was to sweep it clean. Then they collected furniture from the streets and the houses around them.
The first priority for continuing to live there safely was not to be detected by the cops, or anyone else. The cops might arrest them for trespassing if the neighbors informed on them, and other friends of theirs’ who live in squats had been robbed, and Flee was murdered. As a result, to enter their home, we didn’t use the front door. We walked down a narrow alleyway strewn with trash and entered through the back door. The kitchen looked like it was the day after a big birthday party. The counters held several birthday cakes, still in their plastic domes. “When we went dumpstering, the bakery had just thrown away a bunch of stuff,” M explained. “You can get pretty sick of birthday cake after a while.”
The house was neater than any of the squats I’d visited in the two weeks I was in New Orleans. The floors were clean and, with only a few pieces of furniture, the place was tidy, well organized. Over the threshold of the door between the bedrooms were a pair of elegant open-toed high heels M got from the thrift store. With the toes facing each other and the wicked angle of the heels, they looked like decorations.
I decided to start with this interview because M’s story, which takes up most of this interview, as it is a harrowing tale beautifully told. She describes hopping her first train, the dangers she faced, being beaten up and tagging. Yet she also describes what it is about this life that attracts her and holds her to it: beauty, freedom, adventure and a unique idea of community My voice is in there as well, asking the questions that outsiders do: Why would you choose this life? Why would you choose to get your food out of dumpsters? Why would you put yourself in such danger?
I couldn’t really picture what M meant when she described “riding suicide.” I found this YouTube piece that shows the eye-popping risk M took on. The segment that has footage of riding suicide begins at the 1:11 mark.
At one point in the interview is a passage where M & A talk about how happy they are to at last have a home and a community where they can put down roots, and collect more than one pair of shoes. This human sentiment is all the much more poignant to hear knowing, as my daughter Marissa recently informed me that someone burned the squat down.