Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Just Kids

I am reading Patti Smith's award winning book, Just Kids. Borrowed from a friend, it has made my "immediately buy" list. Everyone who knows me well knows she's a hero of mine: we inhabited the same environment, read the same books, had the same heroes, grew up believing ourselves to be artists. Whatever that meant. Granted she was a few years older than I, but when she talks of places like the Electric Circus, now defunct, I remember my first visit to that place. When she talks of living in the Chelsea Hotel, I am jealous. It's where my first husband and I aspired to live but never quite made it. She talks of poetry readings, off off off Broadway plays, the unknown bands playing the downstairs of the Village Gate and I remember bitching about the cold as I loaded in amps and guitars out of a beat up van in the alley behind that place. But for his band to play there was the big time. My god, one of our idols might be in the audience.

We held intermittent jobs, had a friend who was a printer who would work just long enough to collect unemployment so he could travel, then return and do it again. Made sense to us. We were regularly evicted from our apartments for being in arrears on the rent. No credit checks back then. Just grab your paltry belongings and move to another. We lived in huge houses with ten other people, until the Health Department told us we were in violation of some bizarre law stating that no more than three unrelated people could inhabit a 7 bedroom house. We all had dogs. We all had drawings or chord charts taped to our walls, and books on the occult or Eastern religions near our copious candles in second hand holders. We had tons of books, all also bought second hand, all passed around, all discussed at length. We dreamed not so much of fame, but of achievement, accomplishing something in whatever art was our forte that had never been done before while holding true to the grand romanticism of Rimbaud and Beaudelaire and Van Gogh. Patti followed Rimbaud's footsteps to his hometown, saw omens in things that happened on his birthday. I get her.

One scene of her pocketing two steaks, one in each pocket, made me laugh. I remembered my first husband putting a London Broil down his jeans and the rest of us saying he could have found a better place to put it as we all chowed down on it. Patti had a job at the point that she grabbed those steaks, just as we had jobs when the London Broil became dinner. As I recall I was working at an employment agency, one of those private ones long before the word head-hunter entered our lexicon, he was delivering auto parts. Where did our money go? We'd dutifully put a little in the community coffee mug designated for rent and utilities. Yeah, yeah, we bought some recreational drugs, but the rest went for art supplies and guitar strings and a payment on the wah wah pedal down at the Main Street music store. The owner was kind and understood it would take us forever to pay it off.

We were young. Eighteen to twenty. We were just kids. We believed in the purity of art in and of itself and in terms of our lives. Uh huh. I know. Incredibly naive, incredibly selfish in its way, incredibly irresponsible by most standards, and incredibly beautiful. But I'm a long way from that place now. Many decades past it. I have owned cars, houses, raised a child, worried about college funds, come up with stories for the light company when times were tough. Other than the child, I wasn't wild about any of it. In fact, my moving to New Orleans was an attempt at divestment, a return to a more art-focused than stuff-focused life. My bones are too old for constant moving now, and I don't do the cold as well as I used to, so a place with a bed in it has become a necessity. No more can I sleep on someone's floor with my jacket for a pillow and a samaritan's blanket not long enough to cover my toes.

Last night a second line for John Flee, as he was known, passed my house. I knew it was scheduled and I heard it coming. Bundled up in my robe I went out to the front gate catching it just as it turned off Architect Alley. People, lots of them, turned the corner onto Port. Guys on two story bikes Flee had probably helped weld together at Plan B towered above the mourners and the motley collection of musicians playing. It certainly wasn't a standard second line with an organized brass band giving them a beat. It was a "hey, doesn't Tommy Socks play tuba?" kind of music. It was lovely. And very very sad. John Flee was shot in his home and the thieves, from reports I've read, only took a couple of computers. Friends in the second line group stopped by the gate and we hugged. Two young women asked if they could hug us, offered us whiskey, cried on my shoulder. I told them to dance their little feet off for him. They said they would.

Among that group marching somberly in front of my house were eight kids who had no idea that this would be one of the last things they'd ever do. Eight kids, squatters, gutter punks, nuisances, non-contributors to society, died in a fire in a warehouse last night trying to keep warm, their bones still young enough to sleep on a hard floor. Most probably still clinging to the sorrow of the loss of their friend and many of them still believing in the romantic freedom of an unencumbered life, offering whiskey generously to two old people who had a roof over their heads.

In my day, there were certainly plenty of folks who thought we were nuisances too. They definitely reminded us of our lack of responsibility. They told us we were dirty, un-American, un-patriotic. They told us we needed a back up plan "in case we didn't make it as artists." They told us there were rules of society that we needed to follow. We didn't understand why. We were making our own. I never expected that my generation would wind up spouting some of the same vitriol that was hurled at us. I, naively it would seem, expected that our generation would somehow be more tolerant, more understanding, would remember the couch surfing and the purloined dinners. I expected that we'd understand when we looked at the young ones among us that they were just going through the same paces we did at their age. Yeah, yeah, the issues and manifestations would be different: Iraq instead of Vietnam, two story bikes instead of mocassins and beads, guerilla art installations instead of portfolios, Fringe Fest instead of off off off Broadway, pitbulls instead of labradors. And while we were certainly not all saints, hardly, neither are they. To lump them all in the vagrant category does them a disservice: some of them deliver your food to you on bikes, some of them run community bookstores, many of them helped gut houses after the storm. They are not all good. Nor are they all bad. They are not all artists trying to live the life of pure art, nor are they all aggressive junkie panhandlers.

And no matter what, we need to remember, those of us with some of the alleged wisdom that comes with age, that compassion is ageless and timeless. There will always be kids who do not choose to throw themselves headlong into what grownups think is the societal norm.

That young woman with the whiskey may turn out to be the Patti Smith of her generation. That kid on the two story bike might toss it away and decide that Bernie Madoff had the right idea. We don't know and neither do they. Yet.

Because they are very simply, just kids. Nine of them dead in a week. Perhaps those two among them.

It breaks my heart.
EDIT 1/29/11
Some wonderful photos of the Second Line Memorial to these people can be found HERE.


Glenn said...

It's good to be hearing from you again. It's hard, though, isn't it - life - sometimes. When I heard the news first thing early this morning, my first thought was, My God, don't let this turn out to be a pack of gutter punks. No matter what I may say about them when they block the sidewalk or panhandle me for loose change or a cigarette, those are parts we play, nothing more. Wild dreams and endless opportunities belong to the young. They're the ones meant to tame the wild horses. So all things turn, and seasons pass.

Kimberly said...

Perfectly written and I hope read by many that will take this deeper message to heart and tolerate if not help or just be kind to the travelers. They ARE just kids making their way. The ones that died trying to stay warm is such a tragedy. Kindness goes a long way.

Æ said...


Anonymous said...

thank you.

Paddy said...

well said. thank you

Anonymous said...

This is very well written and I hope that what has occurred recently in N. Orleans will be a catalyst for change that the entire country needs. The consumerism, disregard for the environment and lack of respect for human life must end or we will all suffer the consequences of selfish behavior. We are all connected and people must hold all human beings with respect and dignity. I didn't know Jon Flee, but my son did and I weep as I write this for the loss of his life and the lives of the young men and women in that burnt house with their beloved dogs. Let us pause for a moment in their memory and vow to speak out for change in 2011.

jo robin said...

My name is Jo Robin, and I was one of the two girls that stopped to hug you during the second line. I am profoundly grateful for what you have written. Thank you for your hugs. I will share this with a great many of my friends because I am quite sure that it bring some peace to those of us who feel sidelined by our parents' generation. Please keep in touch. poetjo@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

I was one of those two girls who offered you whisky.

Thank you for being there.


Lord David said...

Thanks for that.

Your words offer little to console & much to think about, much to own up to, for all of us.

For me, they finally bring the tears I thought were all used up, lost on the many deaths of last year, and on the violence that saw the closing of this one.

Those poor kids, simply trying to live life as they saw it, & who could blame anybody for wanting something different than the madhouse they were born into?

Thanks for the tears, then.
Maybe they will keep my heart from breaking...

david said...

Simple but beautiful words. A friend sent me a link to this blg after I posted about the mindless hatred flowing around on NOLA.com about this. I was angry and your article made me feel better about people. Thank you


Anonymous said...

I was a very close friend with one of the people killed in that fire. We both got into town at the same time, a few weeks ago. I was fortunate enough to have a close friend here with lovely and understanding roommates that are putting my broke ass up. She wasn't. It could have just as easily been me there that night.

She worked intermittently: At a wonderful diner in Pittsburgh to be able to cover whatever expenses she had. She left behind a devastated family... and an infant son.

Her death has torn me, and hundreds of others, apart.

These kids had nothing to their names, but they would share whatever came their way. Remember that, when you're asked for change or a spare cigarette. It only amplifies the pain I feel to see clueless people talk dispassionately about the "gutter punk problem" here, as if it was an infestation. These were wonderful people. With families and friends. Some of whom may never even know for sure whether they were lost two nights ago.

Thank you for this. It is making the rounds amongst friends on Facebook, and it is good to know that there are people in this town who don't view us as mere detritus.

I love you Nikki, and I have barely stopped crying in the last two days.

Bridget said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your well written post. Sending love from San Francisco. Praying for these kids and that one of the names I know isn't my buddy.

kb said...

beautifully said.
And ,please, to those who might be reading this- and living on the street- call a parent, friend, family member. Let someone who loves you know you are OK. Even if you haven't spoken in awhile, and it seems difficult. Someone is thinking about you somewhere.

Sam said...

I am truly humbled by your responses and so very grateful to have heard from my "whiskey girls." To all of you who commented here, I thank you for your sensitivity and insights. To those who lost friends that night, my heart goes out to you. There are more of us grieving with you than you know.

Angeliska said...

Thank you for this. I'm reading Just Kids right now too, and have been making similar connections. I just edited the post I wrote last night to include a link to what you've written here. It moved me very much.

Wayfaring Strangers - http://www.angeliska.com/2010/12/wayfaring-strangers/

Anonymous said...

thank you for this. jon flee was my brother, and he was an incredible human being. he touched a million lives, starting with mine. as for being a "gutter punk", jon made his own living. he did a lot of different things, but he was always working. he lived the way he wanted to, which is a comfort now. thank you for thinking of him.

Charlotte said...

Thank you for sharing this. So beautifully put. I couldn't believe you mentioned the Village Gate. Art D'lugoff, the owner, was my grandfather. I grew up in that place, but even though I'm from New York City I feel as though New Orleans is my home,it's the first place I've gone and felt absolutely accepted right off the bat.The feeling I get there is what I imagine NYC was like when my grandfather opened up the gate. The fact that I'm not there right now makes it so much harder. To watch my friends die from afar and not be able to dance at the second line, or just sit and cry and hug all my beautiful friends. Thank you for reminding me of the tradition that we carry on, by loving life, art, and freedom and by doing it a little bit differently.

Tim said...

My heart goes out to the survivors, they need their friends more than ever now, and none of them needs any lectures at this point.

I thought the article on nola.com today was not representative at all, I am a local and know some traveller kids and many of them are not drunks and junkies but vegan teetotalers.

On the other hand, the panhandling does get on my nerves and many of them do not understand this city. It isn't a playground and panhandling in the upper ninth or on St Claude is beyond ignorant. Do you really think people coming home to or from the bus top from their crappy jobs want to see perfectly able bodied kids panhandling in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country? It's very invasive and hanging out in large groups, as some do, means something in New Orleans - you're saying "we own this space" A lot of people view it as threatening. This is a very rough town and it will chew you up and spit you out if you make no effort to understand it.

I very much appreciate the squatters, actually, because they are giving something back (some of them). The panhandling has to stop, though. Especially in poor hoods. Just don't freaking do that.

Anonymous said...

thank you for seeing the truth. thank you for keeping your eyes and heart open.