My Own Parade

Serving the food is a blast. We roll the cauldrons of food to the serving spot in Golden Gate Park at Haight Street in shopping carts, set them in a sort of wagon train, and the gutterpunks and gutterhippies, who sit there all day every day (it's called "punker hill" -- elsewhere is "hippie hill") begin to stir when they see us coming. They exchange scowls which somehow communicate that dinner has arrived and one by one they stumble over to us and begrudgingly accept a meal. It feels like we're selling the food, actually yelling solicitations at people. "Hey, you want some soup?" (Please?) And when people take a bowl they act more like they're doing us a favor. One day the Needle Exchange was serving food about a hundred yards away and it really felt like we were in competition. They were giving out cans of soda, which just about put us out of business.

Standing there serving the food brings a parade of freaks right in front of me, single file and slow. Nearly every face is pierced and/or tattooed, and passing out the bagels I don't put a single one into a clean hand, and many of the hands are caked with dirt, shaking and have scabs on the knuckles, something all junkies get for some reason. Many eyes are yellowed, which I'm told is a symptom of hepatitis.

The sweatshirt hood seems to be the central fashion accessory, while some actually opt for full facial masks, and the general color scheme of their clothes subtly riffs on the theme of black and army green. Some still sport the original punk fashion of the plaid handkerchief safety pinned to the jacket above the ass for protection while sitting on things all day. They generally own no more clothing than what they're wearing; when you see someone in a different outfit it's as startling as if they radically changed their hairstyle.

They love to scratch themselves theatrically while talking to you, drawing attention to their body lice and what they imagine others will perceive as hardship. They're way caught up in the mythical archetype of the down on his luck American hitting the road to find greener pastures but at every turn finding only more of the same. They will not smile, so by way of thanking us they might tip their head and plate in our direction and snarl off in a cloud of nihilistic bliss. Some are obviously emotionally if not psychologically damaged either permanently or at least as long as the drugs last. Some are nodding out and trying to be charming as all junkies will, and we have to push them back so they don't drool on the food. And in and among the clusters of sprawling munching gutterpunks lots of little shouting matches flare up.

There was one little shouting outburst where someone starting yelling "Yo, don't give him no food, yo," pointing to someone we were serving, "He lives in a house, yo, and eats steak every night." The worst thing you could say about somebody.

Another interesting outburst came when one of the "kids" (as they call themselves) complained about the local "mall kids" who are "loopy. Just a bunch of acid mall rats and they ain't got no brains, talkin bout how they been homeless for a year. I'm like, oh yeah, where? And he says Eugene, Oregon, dude. I'm like, Eugene? Man, it's easy to be homeless in Eugene."

After the meal is served there's much satisfaction in getting another good product out the door. All go back to the camper and roll cigarettes, maybe smoke a bowl, crank up the music, and smile deep and serene.

True to the rule that the party always ends up in the kitchen, most nights someone will stop by the RV to "smoke us out". I'll usually scramble to put together enough change for a 40. From the perspective of one who's been living for a while on no money, that $1.75 seems like all you'd need in the world.

Generally not much happens at night. The sun will set, rendering the woody brown camper interior soft and mellow, and all will sit hardly talking, maybe listening to college or pirate radio. When darkness is complete someone will juice up the oil lantern. There are no electric lights.

Then one by one each person will find their sleeping bag and file out to their private sleeping spot on the beach or in the park. All are generally asleep by 10:30, exhausted from the workday. But it doesn't take much rain to send everyone scrambling back to the R.V. for shelter, where two people will sleep on the floor, two on the folded down table, one on the narrow counter and one on the couch-bed in the back. Which is to say things get crowded.

One endearing moment came when a kid named Beagle stopped by, sleeping bag in tow. If it's after dark, all gutterpunks carry their sleeping bags. He's all the way gutterpunk, with the multiple dirty layers topped by a jacket with the word "Neanderthal" scrawled across the bottom of the back, and he's got the up-to-the-moment nihilistic attitude. He sits in the Winnebago tuning the radio, paying attention to no one. He arrives at a station playing Led Zeppelin and says, "Man, this is the music I grew up to." Everyone says yeah me too but Beagle says no I grew up in the 80s. Beagle is now 17 (young even for a gutterpunk), which means he was 9 years old in 1989 when he describes himself as "growing up". In my opinion, you don't begin "growing up" until you're at least 15, which means Beagle is just starting to "grow up". But in his mind that all happened before he was ten. And this kid has some crazy stories, like how a "couple of years ago" he was hitchhiking around Louisiana and couldn't get a ride out and couldn't find any freight trains to hop and had to work doing "crazy jobs". Underneath his well worn dirty cap he's got this little head which clearly hasn't finished growing yet, and on his face he has the bad kid teenage mustache. And he talks about his "physical addiction to alcohol".

There's another character that comes by the R.V. from time to time and just sleeps on things. He sleeps the sleep of the chemically enhanced, going 18+ hours at a stretch, sometimes while sitting upright at the diner-style table. When he wakes and is asked how he's doing he'll answer something like "Dealing with being awake." He's one of the many many people in San Francisco and the west coast in general who for some reason enjoy crystal methadrine. The drug is everywhere out here: it can be synthesized in any kitchen and costs under $5 for a 24-hour high. The experience looks unpleasant -- a "tweaker" (as they're called) will wring their hands and jaws all day until the 12 hour mark at which point they'll have unpleasant hallucinations. But still, people actually manage to get addicted to this drug.

turn the page