Friday, March 8, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Young Anger Is Gathering On The Streets -- Gutter Punks Reject Mainstream In U.S. As Inane, Hypocritical

Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS - As evening falls, the tribe gathers by the river, to forage for smoke and drink and food. There is safety in numbers. Members of the tribe are rarely seen alone.

Wearing studded dog collars, their Mohawks dyed orange and green, their lips and nipples pierced, the tribe lives a hard-core life on the streets, an existence largely unknown in the mainstream America they have rejected as inane, materialist and hypocritical.

They call themselves gutter punks, and they are a new kind of homeless: white, middle-class, often bright, politically militant and homeless by choice. They come from homes they call good and bad. Not many of them are older than 21.

Their appearance and their lifestyle seem like a nightmare to many of their parents and much of society, as if all the promise of youth in America had been turned inside out, producing these nihilistic, angry, ironic spawn all dressed in black, the end result of decades of family disintegration, suburban boredom and national cynicism.

America has always had its rebels. But where hippies may have espoused peace and love and a return to the land, with drugs viewed as a path to enlightenment, today's punks seem different.

Their world is dark, urban, dangerous, and many of the ones who drink and use drugs do not want visions. They want to black out.

"They're just kids. But they're kids who stick safety pins through their eyebrows and sniff paint and live in squats and scare

the tourists, because most people don't understand what the hell these kids are talking about," said Tommy Ross, who runs New Orleans' Drop-In Center, where the gutter punks come to wash and stash their bundles. "They'll tell you, `Hey man, I'm living off the waste of America. I don't need your money. And I don't need you.' I hear that one all the time."

Bleak philosophy

"I only live for three reasons," said Eric, 20, slurring and stumbling around the French Quarter: drinking, fighting and sex. "That's what I am, an escape artist, man."

Yet earlier, in the cold winter sunshine near Jackson Square, Becca, 18 and sober and sweet-faced and carrying a sleepy puppy in her arms, said, "People are afraid of us, but we're not the ones who are scary."

None of the advocates for the homeless or the gutter punks themselves know the size of the tribe, and tribe is how many of them describe the subculture, complete with ritualistic piercing, tattooing and adornment.

Og's entire body is pierced; Filth has stitched an anarchist patch into the palm of his hand. Was he high when he did it? "No man, look at the stitch work," Filth said. "You can't do that stoned."

Og and Filth, like many, use only their traveling or street names.

A winter haven

New Orleans, a winter haven for the tribe, probably supported about 500 gutter punks during Mardi Gras. There are probably thousands on the road at any one time. Ross says last year more than 2,000 kids came through the Drop-In Center, and the population seems to be increasing.

"But numbers are real hard to guess," said Paul Rigsby, a private detective who tracks down under-age, runaway punks for their families. "These kids are as migratory as Canada geese."

The punks hitchhike or share a ride or hop freight trains. Others cadge rides from Greyhound lines, taking advantage of free or reduced fares offered to runaways heading home. But they do not go home. It is just a scam to get someplace else.

The circuit includes Seattle; Berkeley, Calif.; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Athens, Ga.; Key West, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; New York and Boston. There is a cave outside Tempe, Ariz.; a farm in Kentucky; a creek bed in Austin, Texas.

New Orleans, especially, has what punks want: abandoned buildings to squat in; Dumpsters to dive in; and a Bohemian, party atmosphere with plenty of half-full cups of beer and booze to be picked up off of the curb or trash cans or table tops - a practice known as "ground scoring."

The tribe itself is subdivided. There are the truly hard-core punks, the kids with shaved skulls and orange hair and pierced eyebrows. A few go further - the "crusty punks" refuse to bathe and say they can identify each other by body odor.

There are retro-hippies, and Dead Heads and gays. There are also "Gothics," those who dress all in black, with black lipstick and eyeliner and white faces. A few do not like to venture out in daylight, and some, like Viper, 19, wear plastic fangs.

The number of punks in New Orleans has grown so that merchants and politicians from the French Quarter complain loudly about their panhandling, public urination, drunkenness and fights. The merchants circulated a picture of punks titled: "Don't Feed the Animals."

So why?

Homeless advocates suggest that many punks left home because they were abused.

"That's maybe true," said Ross. "But what is abuse? What is a good home and a bad home? Some kids come from completely awful situations. Dad's drunk and mom's a hooker, that sort of thing. But others tell me, `My parents never really loved me.' Or, `They were too busy with the careers to care about me.' "

Rigsby, the private investigator, said he believes most punks come from well-to-do homes. "They're the smart kids in school, high IQs, scholarships. But at some point along the line, our educational system failed them. For some reason, they just pack up and leave."

"The world of the yuppies means nothing to me," said Stone, 18 and covered in patches, itching from scabies. "I live on the streets. I'm a survivor and a warrior. And I drink to have visions, and to escape the nightmare of my life."

What was the nightmare of his life? Stone stared ahead and then said, "My parents are rich people who have never performed a noble gesture in their lives." To prove himself noble, Stone took the 72 cents he had and handed it to a befuddled tourist. "I'm free," he said. "That proves it."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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