Why Do You Do This? — The Raccoon Lifestyle

The ragged edges of New Orleans are dotted with abandoned houses, easily taken over by kids looking for a place to squat. One of the most well-established ones is Termite House, which is known in rail yards far and wide as Termite and Vine, The Artists’, Musicians’ and Homesteaders’ Collective.

Termite and Vine: The House for Lost Girls and Boys

The well worn couches on the main floor have hosted hundreds of kids who are passing through town, as well as members of the New Orleans Gutter Punk community who find themselves without a place to stay. That’s how the place earned its other name: The House For Lost Girls and Boys.

Unlike some squats, where the residents try to keep a low profile so as not to rouse the hostility of the neighbors, the people who live at Termite and Vine are well known in the neighborhood. They work every day trying to improve this once derelict house, a place that was covered in cat’s claw vines and riddled with termites when a few traveling kids took possession of it. In the three years since, they’ve asked those who stay at the place to work for their keep. First they pulled off the vines and replaced the rotted lumber. Now the work is to make the place more habitable.

When I was there in January, the residents had acquired a ball and claw foot bathtub and were putting in a second bathroom with purple and green tiles (Mardi Gras colors!) they’d scavenged from a construction site. While I was conducting this interview, the sounds in the background were another project: dismantling a dead tree in the backyard that threatened to fall over on the house.

I was there to interview Kozmo, who has lived at Termite House for several years. He told me I could only speak with him between 3 to 4 in the afternoon, when he took his break from working on the house. This was quite a contrast to the rest of the kids I met in NOLA, who had very little sense of time and didn’t want to commit to specific appointments.

In this edited version of my hour-long interview with Kozmo, I focused on his description of the group’s view of the world, which is an interesting mix of idealism and nihilism. Kozmo talks about how important his community is to him, and how good he feels supporting other kids when they haven’t got a place to stay or anything to eat. He also sounds joyful describing the bigger community of New Orleans where he can dance in a Second Line funeral procession with people from all segments of the economy and culture. The conflict between the idealism of community and the nihilistic view of the future comes near the end of the interview when I ask him where he sees himself in five years. He really wrestles with that, saying that to think that far into the future defeats the way he’s living he his life. Yet when he answers it a few moments later, he says he hopes his friends are well and that they’re all “living the dream.” The dream, he said early in our talk, was “the raccoon lifestyle” of fending for yourself and answering to no one.

At the same time, he expresses a certainty that this world he loves could end at any minute and he’s powerless to stop that. “I love the fact that I’m not reliant on technology,” he says. ” I’ll use it while it’s here.” Of all the kids I spoke with in New Orleans, he was the most articulate in describing their conviction that when our civilization falls apart, they will be the ones who have developed the skills that will allow them to survive.

Kozmo at his computer, which folds down from the ceiling over his bunk bed


Kozmo at Termite Haus by Danelle Morton