The street was his turf so was City Hall
Seattle Times staff reporter
It was early morning, June 26, 2000, and the teens had just graduated from high school in their hometown on the Indiana flats, population 3,600. Two stoplights. A few fast-food joints. Hang out at the carwash, get a mill job, maybe start a family.
Things they do look awful c-c-cold ... (Talkin' 'bout my generation) ... I hope I die before I get old.
"I have to get out of here," his friend Ty Schrock recalled Helhowski saying for what had to be the dozenth time. "There isn't anything for me here anymore. I have to get out and do different things. I've got to get out of Hebron."
He did, and in the next two years the small-town boy chased adventure 2,000 miles to the streets of Seattle. He went from drawing cheers and cheerleaders in the basketball gyms of suburban Indiana to drug-charged nights dancing naked to punk rock in litter-strewn squats on Seattle's Capitol Hill.
But then he thought again and remade himself into someone with purpose — counseling street kids, encouraging them to ease up on drugs and standing up for them at City Hall.
In that last, brief incarnation, Helhowski became an unusual hero of the streets, so beloved and influential that at his memorial service, the mayor and police stood with punkers and junkies to eulogize him.
"Nick made an impact," Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels told the crowd last month. "He was a young man with a very deep passion, and he was determined to make a difference, and he did make a difference."
Police haven't identified the two young men who fatally attacked Helhowski on April 11 after they all got off a Metro bus at North 85th Street and Wallingford Avenue North. When Helhowski's head hit the pavement, he was steps from the transitional boardinghouse where he had lived for about six months.
He died three days later.
"If there's ever an argument for the senselessness of violence, this is it," said his father, Jim Helhowski. "I only hope that people will step up and continue where he was going."
'When I grow up, I want to be a rock star'
Kids end up on the street for a lot of reasons — drugs, abuse, poverty, rebellion. But there seemed no explanation — outside of a sense of exploration — for why Helhowski wound up on Seattle's streets.
When Nick was 8, the family moved to Hebron, about an hour southeast of Chicago. It's white, middle-class, safe, conservative and boring — a great place to be a young kid and a lousy place to be a teenager, say Helhowski's school friends.
Helhowski's father coached youth bowling, was a scoutmaster and serves on the town zoning board. His mother was a bit of a thorn in the side of the school board, once running unsuccessfully against an incumbent with deep local roots.
By high school, Helhowski was 6 feet 4, a C student and mostly a jock. He was endearingly loyal and quick to stick up for others. He had a flash temper that cooled off fast. At times, he was just a goof.
For a laugh, he once tumbled out of a moving car. On the basketball team, he insisted on blue shoes, even though the rest of the Hebron Hawks wore red-and-white ones.
"As long as we were hanging out with him, nothing was boring," said Greg Quiroz, one of his best friends and basketball teammate. "Without Nick living there, I don't know what I would have done."
His high-school coach, Mike DeFries, said Helhowski was flamboyant on the court. Nearby Valparaiso University expressed interest early on, but Helhowski stopped improving by his senior year, the college's head coach said.
By then, it seemed Helhowski had finally had it with Hebron. He told his coach, "I don't know if this is for me anymore."
He had been working fast-food jobs. His $900 Pontiac with a duct-taped sunroof was on its last legs. He was senior-class treasurer but preferred hanging out with friends and learning the bass guitar. His friends called him "Smooth" because he attracted girls so easily.
But local girls, like Hebron itself, bored him. In his senior yearbook, he wrote, "When I grow up, I want to be a rock star."
He started talking about drifting west with nothing but a duffel bag. At least line up a job or apply for college, Jim Helhowski told his son.
That August, Helhowski met a young woman on the Internet who agreed to come to Hebron and take him with her to Vancouver, B.C. His father was too upset to hug him goodbye. His mom slipped him some cash and insisted that he take a bag of food.
"I never felt like he was running away," his mother said. "I felt like he was running to whatever he had to do."
Helhowski arrived in Vancouver about a week later. One night, police caught him spray-painting a building downtown. They weren't amused. They put him on a bus to Seattle. That night, Helhowski slept on a park bench for the first time.
By morning, he was finding a home on Seattle's streets.
'Everybody has to find their way'
Street life in Seattle is "like a prison without bars," says 49-year-old "Mama Sara," a Broadway fixture who has been homeless much of her life. "It's lonely, and it's empowering. It's tragic, and it's joyful. If you can hang on, you can really find out who you are."
Like many, Helhowski survived by forming fiercely loyal alliances.
And he came to look the part of a Capitol Hill stray. He got his nose pierced and dyed his mohawk into a fire red cockscomb. The kids in his newfound crew dubbed him "Rooster."
There were Tony and Bugg, Filth and Dirty, Jinx and Snowflake, among others. They skateboarded and panhandled, drank and got high, and got into fights.
"Rooster could brawl," boasted Bugg, 23.
"We did everything together, everything and anything a family would do," said Dirty.
Drugs are a constant part of the Capitol Hill street scene. And Helhowski's friends and parents say he was eager to try most of them.
Heroin, though, terrified Helhowski. He used to tell his addict friends they were stupid for doing it.
"If it wasn't for him, I'd still be strung out on drugs," Dirty said.
The crew crashed wherever it could. They spent many nights at what they called "the Condo," a set of abandoned condominiums on Lakeview Boulevard East. They spray-painted the walls and trashed the place. Dirty remembered with glee the night Rooster stripped naked and danced, smashing bottles and anything else that would break.
"I'm not a bad kid; I just like to be a little wild sometimes," he would later write to his old friend Schrock. "Everybody has to find their way. I found mine squatting and hopping trains, reading books by candle, experimenting with drugs and living poor."
But Helhowski had underestimated the toll the streets could take. After less than three months, in October 2000, he picked up a pay phone on Broadway and called his mother.
"When he heard my voice, he started crying," Cathy Helhowski said. "He said: 'I've seen a lot of things, Mom. I've seen people die.' "
A week or two later, he bought a bus ticket home.
Helhowski's parents met him at the station as he stepped off the bus with a nose ring, mohawk and an upper-respiratory infection. "God, he smelled like rotten cabbage," Jim Helhowski recalled.
After a week, Helhowski started work at the local Radio Shack store. He regaled his friends with tall tales of Seattle. A favorite was that he fronted a punk band called Nick Rooster and the Satellites.
"He seemed to act like he was enjoying it, but it wasn't him," his father said. "He really wanted to get back to Seattle. Then he started rebelling. It got to the point where Nick and I couldn't be in the same house, we were clashing so bad."
On New Year's Day 2001, Helhowski left Hebron for good.
"He kept saying, 'I know there's something I need to do,' " his mother said. "He said, 'I need to go back and help the kids out there.' "
'He really wanted to be somebody'
When Helhowski returned to Seattle, he had no trouble fitting back onto the street. But this time, he seemed to have a mission.
Even as he was reveling in rebellion again, he also started helping fellow street kids.
A young woman who goes by Starr, now a 16-year-old high-school student in Tennessee, credits Helhowski for inspiring her escape from the streets last year.
He met her outside the Broadway Jack In The Box and took her in as a sort of kid sister, protecting her from people who might try to push heroin on her or worse.
"He made you feel like the most important person in the world," Starr said. She remembers a well-groomed, pretty-boy punk who "didn't seem like the type of person to be on the street."
At the same time, an emerging political feistiness increasingly drew Helhowski to a homeless-youth organization, Peace for the Streets by Kids for the Streets.
He had met the director, Elaine Simons, the year before. She approached him to take part in a project selling art created by homeless kids.
It took a while for Helhowski to be sure that Simons wasn't just another do-gooder trying to foist some bogus morality on him.
"He didn't trust the system, so he wanted to make sure we were straight up," Simons said.
Pretty soon, he was a voting member of the advocacy group and a fixture at the tiny office on Olive Way.
"I found out people were making decisions about me and my family out there, and I didn't like that," he would later say. "I wanted to be the one making the decisions."
Helhowski leapt at every opportunity to get involved and charmed Simons with his smarts.
"Very few kids cross that line where they become a friend and a mentor," she said.
By that spring, Helhowski was wowing city leaders, at meetings and other events, with his blunt eloquence about homelessness.
"He just had a really good sense of humor, and when things got really tense, he'd pipe up with some ... remark that would make everybody crack up," said Jordan Royer, manager of Neighborhood Action Team Seattle. "He just had a devil-may-care attitude that was very appealing, and he basically addressed everybody the same way, whether you were a mayor or a city official or a kid on the street."
As summer approached, Helhowski knew it was time to move on — and up.
"I'd prefer to play music and live a half-assed life, but something is telling me to get motivated more and take action," he later wrote home to Schrock.
In May 2001, Helhowski, with a Seattle policewoman he had befriended, helped create "Donut Dialogues," a series of sit-downs among cops, street kids and business owners.
"It's to show the community and the police that we're not going away, but at the same time we can be peaceful and not cause a lot of fighting," Helhowski said in a video documentary about the sessions.
He was still homeless, sleeping at the Condo or a park, when he met Marina Babic, a 20-year-old Croatian immigrant who lived with her mother and volunteered at Peace for the Streets.
"At first, I hated his guts because he was so cocky, but it was because he was just like myself," she said. "He was always standing up for his beliefs. He wasn't like the rest. He really wanted to do something. He really wanted to be somebody."
Babic said she dumped a wealthy boyfriend to date Helhowski, much to her mother's dismay.
In August, Simons at Peace for the Streets helped Helhowski get a job with AmeriCorps. He got $800 a month, plus medical benefits, for tutoring homeless kids and attending community meetings to speak for homeless youths.
He recruited legal advocates to come to the center and teach street kids about their rights. And he helped start a program to bring New York artists to Seattle to tap the kids' creativity.
But a series of traumatic events seemed to spur him to consider his own future.
That summer, Babic suddenly dumped him. "I said I didn't want to be with a homeless person," she recalled.
In August, Helhowski was pushed through a display window of a store on Broadway. It took doctors four days to repair his shredded arm.
Two weeks later, after Sept. 11, he called home and told his mom he was thinking of joining the military.
There was still the same old Rooster, of course. In October, he and four other Broadway street kids were arrested for smashing car windows. Police let them go for lack of evidence.
But Helhowski had already started talking seriously of going to college and running his own business. Some of his ideas were eccentric. In one scheme, he spoke of a fruit-smoothie stand in which the blenders would be powered by someone riding a stationary bicycle.
He finally settled on opening a Chicago-style pizza joint, though he hadn't the faintest idea how to make pizza. He met Barry Rogel, owner of the Deluxe Bar and Grill on Broadway, at a community meeting, and bugged him until he agreed to meet Helhowski occasionally to give him advice on the restaurant business.
"He had this vision for himself," Rogel said. "When you sat down and talked with him, you knew he was serious."
By late November, Helhowski had shaved off his mohawk, plucked the ring from his nose and started wearing suits.
'It was almost like he knew'
As the winter waned, Helhowski said he was tired of being the "poster boy," as he called it, for Peace for the Streets. He transferred to a different AmeriCorps job tutoring elementary-school kids, working with a local Boys & Girls Club and helping elderly people learn to use computers.
At B.F. Day Elementary School in Fremont, students flocked around Helhowski when he showed up on Thursdays in a suit, overcoat and fedora to help around the school and tutor a third-grade boy. In the afternoon, he loosened his tie and shot baskets in the gym with the kids.
Two months ago, he had become so well-known to city leaders that he was named to the City Council's Music and Youth Task Force.
"He was doing so much better," Babic said. "I was still in love with him, and when I saw him again, how much he'd done, I was so proud."
Babic was going to move to California next year for college, and Helhowski decided to go along. He would get $4,700 for school when he finished AmeriCorps in July, and he wanted to major in business.
He told his parents he was going to propose to Babic. She says she would have gladly accepted.
Then March 20, one of Helhowski's closest street friends, Steven Greenberg, 28, who everyone called "Filth," died of a heroin overdose in his room in Harder House, the boardinghouse where he and Helhowski lived.
Filth, too, had been trying to get off the streets, and his death stung Helhowski.
At an impromptu wake at Freeway Park downtown, Helhowski got so drunk that he toppled off a wall, bouncing off the pavement and tearing a deep gash in his leg. His friends carried him up the hill to Harborview.
After Filth's death, Harder House "was a ghost house for him," Babic said. "It seemed like it was even a bigger motivation for him to get away and move on."
So Helhowski and Babic started talking eagerly about moving sooner than planned.
In the week before Helhowski was killed, he called his mother to tell her about his plans. "I told him that was the greatest idea," she recalled.
He called his sister at her college dormitory at 4 in the morning. They talked for two hours as he unloaded piles of advice.
"It was almost like he knew he wouldn't have a chance to tell me that again," she said.
And he called his dad, asking whether to go to California or stay in Seattle. "I let him know he had to make those decisions for himself," his dad said.
"He said, 'I love you, Dad.' "
"And I said, 'I love you, too.' "
Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.