"Gutter Punks": part 1
In a rush to feel down to earth -
In a rush to meet and connect with people, I went alone to the skate park in Logan Square, not really sure of what I should expect. I casually carried along my expensive camera, expensive phone, expensive apartment key, and expensive month-pass CTA ticket, while hoping I looked like I belonged in the streets with my cheap thrift clothes.
After shooting a few photos at the park - the skateboarders and bicyclists as well as meeting a few friends: high school kids offering me weed and letting me borrow their paint pens...
I felt I had enough cool photos of the skate punks, and left towards my way back home.
But standing at the bus stop I felt as empty as I had arrived. I felt like I had gone out in search of an adventure, and I hadn’t really found one to embark... that’s when shortly, I heard someone’s voice directed towards me, “I like your shirt.”
I swung around to see a guy my age wave past me. He was skinny, drabbed head to toe with city style - a modern mullet, all black clothes, ripped pants, tattoos – He liked my shirt? I liked HIS everything.
He was intoxicatingly appealing.
I hesitated to catch up with him out of cowardice, as he was already a block up, but something inside me knew I had to run after him.
I caught up to him, calling after him, and he turned around with a smile. I asked if I could interview him for his style, and gave him a contact card with my email on it. “Well do you have time now?” he said. “Wanna come with me? You can interview a whole group of us back at base camp. We’re train hoppers... I just got out of jail and I can’t find my dog.’
It’s funny. I ran after him because I liked what he wore. In my head I must have thought maybe he was an avid thrift shopper, maybe he played in a punk band, I dunno the usual type you get in Chicago. Never in a million years did I imagine he was actually a true representation of the style he dressed like.
“I have all the time in the world” I told him, fast pacing without asking further questions, just following him in direction back towards the skate park, under the highway.
He tells me he’s sorry that he’s so riled up and angsty, he just really needs to find his dog Jesse – full name Jesse James (named after the famous train robber) - who gets scared without him – they’ve both got separation anxiety.
He’s yelling “Oi!!” around the area, telling me his friend Scrappy would understand what “Oi” meant – a pigeon call for safety.
No one around us seems to have seen his friends, or the pup, and the local people he asks are jumpy and hostile towards him. That’s one of the first things I noticed being with him... the horrible glances we’re getting.
My new friend’s name is Jacobe [Ja-coh-bee]. He’s been hopping freight trains for 2.5 years. He’s been to over 30 states in the country, and Mexico, too.
“Do a lot of people act like that towards you? That one girl looked terrified you talked to her...”
- “Yea all the time... When I first started traveling it would bother me but now I’m really used to it. That’s how things are, how people react, they’re just scared because I look dirty. “
“How old are you?”
- “20... and you?”
We were both surprised that I was older - 22.
Although we both admit we have baby faces, he’s glad to meet someone smaller in size than he is. (He’s a mere 125 lbs). A sudden rush of emotions run through my veins – I felt so ALIVE all of the sudden. I felt this encounter couldn’t be a coincidence. He was going to show me everything I needed – everything I craved to know.
“Why were you in jail?”
There’s no hesitation. He smiles and explains, “Possession of Heroin. It was a bullshit charge though! They searched my pockets when I was down by Pulaski trying to pick up some dope. I had some residue from earlier –and they found it. I thought they were coming up to me because I had a pocketknife visible attached to my belt. But nah, it’s ‘cus I was a white guy in the Southside at night... there’s only one thing that means to cops.”
Searched his pockets stuck out to me. “But that’s illegal,” I claimed. I felt angry–
“Don’t they need a warrant to search you? You weren’t even doing anything.”
“To be fair I was there to pick up dope. But yeah it was illegal. They didn’t catch me exchanging anything....”
“That’s Fascist...” I mumble. I’ve always picked up that phrase from my dad – who would swell his voice and bump his fist on the table whenever he heard of the US government or police doing something against a citizen’s natural or human rights.
I was so angry with the police for putting this kid in jail just for prejudice of the way he looked and where he was walking, that it totally bypassed me, or, didn’t phase me that he was a Class A drug abuser.
Here’s this kid: a total stranger, a dirty junky, a bailed prisoner – all the warning signs flaring off, messages sponsored by the society I grew up, that here’s somebody who’s dangerous and somebody that should rot in hell or die... But in all honesty, I have never felt so safe, protected, and intrigued by somebody in my life.
He is probably the first person I’ve ever really talked to that did Heroin, and to me that was so cool and sooo0o0o0o refreshing. I’m always surrounded by people who joke about doing meth, heroin and all sorts of drugs to pretend to look hard or tough – hell I even joined the #SMHS (smoke meth hail satan) movement going around on Twitter. Why do we pretend to be gangster or junkies just for the fun of it? I felt disgusted with young society, and myself but didn’t have time to contemplate further -
We met someone who kindly suggested his friends might be at the corner flying signs on the highway, and to Jacobe’s, ecstasy – we found his friend Scrappy and his dog Jesse James, wagging his tail in delight to see his owner.
There are two others at the grassy corner with their backpacks: a guy I’d later get to know as ‘Piss’ and his girlfriend ‘Shark.’ But for the now I was not a kind face to them, in fact I was probably invading their agreement – nobody who wasn't an honest traveling kid, should be allowed to tag along with them.
Jacobe kept telling everyone, “No, she’s cool, trust me, she left the bus stop to come hang out with me” and then introduced me to the crew, and his dog.
First thing’s first, everyone’s glad to see Jacobe out of jail, but none of them were too worried. It seems like this was a common occurrence, and later I’d get to know that almost all of them had been to jail at least a few times - and they were so tight, like a family, that the rest of the crew would always take care of each other’s packs, and dogs whenever they’d get locked up.
He tells everyone, “I got out at like 4 o'clock, I got out on I-bond [a no-cash bond]... but I still have a felony warrant.... dude I didn't even cop any drugs.”
A felony warrant... Jacobe would later on explain to me how that would mess up the relationship with his parents... but it wasn’t until the end of the night that we’d have time for the full story.
He continued: “It’s so overcrowded in that jail that they let out 40 people this morning... one guy, who was charged with aggravated battery [an assault, most cases of domestic violence, in which someone is seriously injured with a deadly weapon]... which is way worse than any of our charges, was let out too... that’s how overcrowded it was”
I’m overwhelmed to hear first person stories of the Chicago jail. I can’t even begin to imagine what jail is like, let alone a Chicago based one. Later I asked Jacobe if the Chicago jail was nicer than most, “Not at all” he said. “It’s one of the worst... they didn’t even feed me, besides a shitty bologna sandwhich. But there’s also jails now that are privately owned... isn’t that messed up? You can purchase a jail as an investment.., and you can run it however you want...”
“What about human rights codes, wouldn't they have to follow them?”
- “They could bypass those, it’s private property after all.”
Shark looks at Jacobe, sharing the news that it’s all cool because they’ve got 2 bags of free Heroin... She’s exclaiming, “I’ve been clean for 3 years! But it’s like, so hard to say no when someone gives you free bags.”
Scrappy, the oldest of the crew, an ex-marine who at first I thought hated me, (but would later be a great teacher and friend, the focus study of a 2 year film-festival-awarded Vice documentary, and an absolute honor to meet) tells everyone that he’s taking Jacobe to base camp to grab a pack, the banjo, and to do the thing.
Jacobe looks at me with a worried look, “You still wanna hang out right?”
Of course... I didn't want to leave, no matter what.
“If you're not queasy you can come with us and watch... Wanna come with?” Jacobe looked at me, but Scrappy shakes his head – that’s absolutely not going to happen.
It takes me a second to understand they're going to shoot dope – I had been thrown into their world, which was so foreign to me, that I was a little bit slow, innocent and all-around naïve.
All I had to go by as far as lingo and as far as personalities and what drugs do to you were scenes from dramatic movies and TV shows. But I guess I felt mysteriously attached to Jacobe, and I would’ve come to watch if Scrappy would have let me - Jacobe reminded me of the young character Jared Leto played in Requiem for a Dream.
While Jacobe’s gone I talk to boyfriend Piss and girlfriend Shark.
I love your names... Did you choose them for yourself?
Shark: “Thanks... but no, usually you're given your name once you start traveling... and usually you end up hating the name they give you. Somebody usually calls you something and it ends up sticking. Like my boyfriend’s name is Piss... it’s fucking awful. (Well, it’s funny)... I haven't met many people who actually like their name.”
But your name is Shark! That’s cool as f***k!
“Thanks I mean... It doesn’t really fit me though... like people hear my name but then they’ll be like ... you’re not one of those aggro-kids always trying to pick fights! I’m like nope... So I don't really know, but I guess that’s the name that stuck.”
Other train-hoppers pass by but Piss and Shark don’t like them. I don't like them either... because they don't seem very genuine, and they aren't as friendly as the four-manned crew I've run into. Piss tells them to basically, piss off their spot.
Is it easy to run into a lot of other traveling kids?
Yeah totally, It’s kind of a small community and you end up meeting people all the time, sometimes you're like woah cus’ they'll mention the name of your best friend... or you’ll see people you've met years ago. There’s a lot of hippies out right now in the city though, a lot of ‘em are whack and it’s hard to keep away from them.
Piss is flying a sign, asking for money from a high-traffic speedway, while Shark is hanging with me, petting the pups. In the – 20 minutes max - I was alone with the couple, people offered lots of economic relief for my new friends – pocket cash, leftovers, even a woman who drove by and brought grocery food, dog food and pulled over to give it to them. Piss, in return would kiss or hug them for their empathy.
When Jacobe’s back he kindly offers me the leftover food as well – and I've never been a germ-o-phobic, so I thank them and grab a few French fries – I was actually starving.
I feel bad for taking your food though..
Jacobe is so warm and happy and kind. He says, “Are you kidding? You’re welcome to... We didn’t pay for it.... Are you impressed by us? We actually eat better than most people. I had sushi the other day.”
Shark: “I had sushi the other day too! From the trash... That’s like Russian roulette right there.”
Yes I am impressed. What they do is ask people walking by with leftovers if they’d care to spare it. Jacobe continued to say something that was right on point: “Most people take their leftovers home and just leave it in the fridge, or throw it away... If they spare it for us we’ll eat it – I mean no matter what.”
I’m one of those guilty of ordering too much, not being able to finish my food, and sometimes even throwing it away. Jacobe taught me a valuable lesson: how easily you can feed the hungry.
Jacobe pulls out his banjo, and by this time, I work up the courage to ask if I can film him. I'm so scared to cross any lines of privacy or distrust that I'm mortified to pull out my camera. The reason they intrigued me was, yes, for journalistic purposes, but above all, the end goal was for my own experience (no cameras needed) and for a long-term friendship. I've never met people more real than them, and I wanted to make sure they knew how much I appreciated them allowing me to tag along.
But he’s a natural on camera, and super easy going. “I'm the best, most attractive train banjo kid you'll ever meet,” he says and there’s no part of me that disagrees.
As Jacobe fiddles with his banjo some more, I ask Shark:
“Can you sing?”
"Oh god no! I mean... if punk rock taught me anything, is that if you can’t sing or do anything – do it anyway... but nah... I wanna learn the violin because a chick playing the violin could make so much money!"
Jacobe – "Everyone can sing."
Jacobe learned how to play the banjo within two years. He started off playing guitar, but is more capable with the banjo. When him and Scrappy play together (Scrappy plays percussion with 2 spoons... “meth spoons” he calls them) they “make magic together...” as in, they reap in a lot of dough.
I couldn’t help but drum along to a beat myself – it came out naturally. I had always longed to play the drums and I wondered if I let myself to it everyday... if I'd learn just like these two learned, in order to perform and earn money... if I’d finally play them well.
A couple on the street comes up to ask if they can take a picture of Scrappy’s dog Roscoe, whose trained in wearing sunglasses and a hat like a BOSS (they don’t fall off, and he’ll wear them comfortably). The couple gladly offers some cash in exchange for snapping an I-Phone photo of the funny dog.
“Your dog could make bank!”
Shark – “Yeah man, Dogs and girls dude? They're moneymakers.. When I used to have a rat too, people would pay so much money to take a photo with it ‘cus they were so freaked.”
“What? That’s so Cool! How big was it? It would just, like, follow you around?”
"Yeah man! It was huge... a giant. If you stomped your foot twice, it would come over, that was, like, his call. Rats are like small dogs; they’re really social if you play with them. If you don’t play with them, they’ll be wild and won’t listen or anything. But they’re awesome, they’re super smart. Anyone who wants a dog but can’t take care of a dog – get a rat.”
Jacobe – “Rats love traveling kids.“
Someone walks past us yelling profanity.
“What'd he say?”
Piss – “Yeah what'd he say? I think, ‘You Fucking Homeless!’”
“Whatttt? People are so shitty.”
Shark – “Yeah someone the other day was trying to tell us we’re pretending to be homeless... like I’m covered in dirt and I’m pretending I’m homeless? Alright dude... why would I just roll around in dirt. He said I could just put dirt on my body and fake it. I don’t know why I’d ever do something to fake it... people don’t get us.”
There’s some down time and some silence.
Piss – “What’s a funny sign?” [He’s writing sharpie on a new piece of cardboard]
Jacobe - ‘Spare change so I can get a frontal Lobotomy’
Scrappy goes to fly a sign a bit further off, and the cop lights go off. Uh-Oh. We pick up from the corner and start walking. I follow Jacobe and Piss to the skate park, to hide, while Shark goes to check if Scrappy needs us to take his pup.
Jacobe’s super excited to talk to me, as we wait for things to unfold (they’ll be fine, he assures me about Scrappy and Shark... “probably just searching him, but they won’t find anything... cops hate us.”)
We get back to the subject on his style, and he’s thrilled to answer my questions on his clothing. He says he’s got a lot of cool stuff to show me, and let’s me film a little style special on what’s inside his traveling pack.
He was super open about his sex and relationship life.
So I asked him what I could, as I was super intrigued to know what it would be like to date when you’ve got no cellphone to keep in contact – the fact that their relationships are far from fancy and fake dinner dates, Facebook statuses, and Instagram posts... is so inspirational. I’m not about conformist dating, and these guys seem to be doing it all-out-in the open and all natural.
Is it common for girls to get knocked up on the road?
“Well, sure... but I make sure to wear a condom. There’s no way I’d have a baby right now, and even if I did get a girl pregnant... well I don’t know how you feel about abortion, but that’s what I’d let my girlfriend know I’d have to do. And hell, when you’re traveling, privates can get dirty... you never know what someone has. Some people are bugged and don’t care to tell ya.”
His last relationship was in high school, a relationship with a girl who had “schizo-delusional” disorder. He was one of the punk kids at school, doing Xanax and drinking half bottles of alcohol almost everyday- He said he helped her throughout her phases of mental instability... but when he became addicted to heroin, she didn’t help him. Her parents later told her to break up with him, and on top of it she fucked one of his friends while he was in rehab. He was in rehab in the first place to get clean for her, but after that... well, he said he delved into heroin and alcoholism a lot more.
What does Heroin feel like?
It was a bad question to ask. He had just gotten high on dope today, but I could tell, he wanted to get clean soon. It was just hard for him to get clean. I really wanted to know first hand what and why he felt he needed to do it. This is the most of what he said, though understandably, he soon broke into a nerve and said he didn’t want to talk about it- he couldn’t even talk about it anymore, it gave him anxiety to think of wanting it.
“It feels... too good... for a human to experience.... It makes you not care about anything... I mean not in a bad way... in a good way. Like, you just don’t care about all the troubles or the bad things and you’re just mellow... I don’t know.... It feels too good.”
He’s been smoking rolled up cigarettes and I would love to get this all on camera, but I’m nervous.
He says, “When I was in jail I prayed to God. I prayed for him to let me out... so I could see my dog you know... and I promised him I wouldn’t do dope any longer. And its fucked man, because the first thing I did, getting off on my bail, is smoke dope. And usually, every time I go to jail is I’m either on dope or I’m trying to cop some. I don’t even do it as much anymore... and I finally have a good relationship with my parents... and they think I’m doing good and stuff... but now I have my first felony warrant, and I can’t even tell them. I can’t let them find out.... My dad wired me $150 for new travel gear... and all I spent it was on dope and food. I’ll have to come home and he’ll see me with the same tattered sleeping bag I’ve always had.“
That’s as much as we delve into the subject. I don’t want to get too touch-y. He even tells me he doesn’t want to talk about anything sad anymore. He wants to talk about happy things.
Jacobe: “What do you think of us so far?”
I tell him sincerely, “I think you're the happiest people, the realest people I’ve ever met.”
Jacobe: “Hell yeah!! I love showing cool ass people what it’s like for us traveling kids, they never expect us so nice.”
I've grown fond of all of them.
Shark and Scrappy are back... turns out the police just searched him because of the way he looked. The usual. We move towards Wicker Park.
It’s Piss’s birthday night, he’s turning 25 on midnight... and he’s been on the road for ten years... they've made 120 dollars. It’s time they celebrate.
They buy alcohol for all of us to share. I don't have any money on me, not even my bank card, or I would’ve contributed, but they tell me I'm one of them for the night...