By Jack St. Jack
We haunted the boring suburban neighborhoods we grew up in like ghosts in Victorian attics rattling chains and moaning. We probed the back streets restlessly, listless tongues poking a newly empty tooth socket. We were bottle rockets that seared a sky washed with night, and we moved across the mute country and arrived in the Bay Area by any means possible. We folded our hopes and dreams into tiny squares we promptly shoved in our gullets and consumed with noisy cartoon gulps.
Most of us traveled by Greyhound bus via our tickets bought with our last paychecks from our McJobs. One of us bought a ticket with an intentional layover in Dallas, TX. He had a desire to walk amongst the ghosts of Dealy Plaza in an attempt to absorb any leftover energy from the assassination of America’s last gunslinger. Another of us missed a bus in Nevada after falling in love with her first palm tree. Some of us hitchhiked, waiting hours on end near freeway on-ramps, holding our hand-lettered cardboard signs and praying we would not encounter unforgiving law enforcement officers, or the panel van types. We said our silent prayers and made our empty promises for rides in an uncertain age of caution.
Collectively, almost every one of us claimed the rails as our personal super-highways, often offering fraudulent, heretical stories about rail yard bulls in hot pursuit or searchlights against chain link fences like convicts in an old prison escape movie. And oh behold the eternal romance of the locomotive engines, whistling pounding chugging into endless nights full of the desolation and solitude that Jack Kerouac built a reputation and career around.
Those brave few of us that did actually hop the trains found our fantasies quickly deflated. How surprised we were to discover the filth of the cargo boxes or the unforgiving jostling of the carriages. An illicit passenger would quickly find themselves covered in a fine layer of rail filth and engine soot, all of their clothes and possessions devolving into a uniform gray color. Nonetheless, our collective minds were filled with scenes from movies and olden times. Who could forget the cartoons and silent movies featuring a hero tramp with worn shoes and a virtuous heart, possessions held in the classic spotted handkerchief tied up around a hickory stick? Or the train yard bull with a blood-stained truncheon and an almost-insane dedication to the job?
Still, there were memorably true stories. One of our number traveled the rails with a clever little sheep dog named Faust. This traveler could list cities, departure times, and schedules like a fiery southern minister shouting scripture. Another of us would pop into the Bay Area infrequently, spending more time on the rails than off, shooting the run between Seattle and Los Angeles in perpetuity. Another of us once attempted to hop the rails to Oregon after a particularly haunting jail sentence. Somewhere outside of Sacramento, he slipped and fell, having been thrown into a field after being partially crushed. He died many hours after the accident, bleeding and alone, his last thoughts on how nice it was to have the love of a mother that would tuck him in every night before bed.
We mostly dressed in black, ironically signaling our non-conformity by adopting outfits of our own design, submitted for surreptitious peer approval. When our clothing got worn, we sewed patches on them. Some of us sewed patches on our clothing to make them appear worn or older than they actually were. Only poseurs used safety pins on their patches; dental floss was the preferred thread of the hardcore. Most of our patches displayed slogans, philosophies, political leanings or bands. Some of us found corduroy to make for fashionable patches. A few of us wore leather, and highlighted our outfits with well-placed zippers, plaids, skulls, and various shiny implements. One guy named Smee, who ran an Oakland speed pad on MacArthur, wore an authentic WW2 infantry uniform complete with pack, gators, and helmet. Some of us cut a heavy meter-length chain and used it for a belt, utilizing a padlock for a belt buckle. This particular item was called a smiley, and was intended to be used as a weapon when the right situation called for one. A few of us even adopted bondage gear, complete with the requisite belts, chains, and collars.
We were street kids, we disaffected youths. We were not homeless; we were houseless and proud. The darkened streets at night were our sanctuary. We slept outside and scrounged for pocket change, food, and whatever drugs we could pour, inject, snort or otherwise ingest in any manner viable to bring about the desired effect. One of us even claimed to have mainlined liquid LSD in a BART restroom.
We were called many different things by others, but we only knew ourselves as gutter punks, and had the attendant attributes all the way down to the butt-flaps we sewed to the back of our pants. We hovered over the filthy sidewalks in loose social groups and reveled in the puke, filth, piss, shit, and trash lining the gratings of the gutters. It was not uncommon for two or more individuals to hold a filth competition to see who can build up a better “dirt tan”. A “dirt tan” is the layer of brown dry scum that builds on a street person that is not practicing any personal hygiene whatsoever.
There were others tolerated amongst our gutter tribe; these included the agro-hippies, candy ravers, and even the Caucasian rappers from San Jose that all look and dress like chubby lesbians. (Or do chubby lesbians dress like 12-year-old Caucasian rap fans? Am I really making this observation?) Others blended in mutely, clearly not punk, but garbed in blacks and olive drabs nonetheless. A few of us even dressed in prep clothes in order to blend in with the housed when the situation called for it.
Seldom would we go by our birth names. There were Animals, Cannibals, and Hannibals; a couple Jesters, a Queen, and self-proclaimed Wizards. There was a tired old punk called Jesse James. There were the kids named for their origin cities; a Dallas, a Chicago, perhaps a Eugene, perhaps not. There was always at least one Syd or Sid around, but with punks, when you get more than one Syd, then you probably have a fight on your hands. The Syd’s of the gutter punk world hated each other and waged nonstop war to be the only one to be called so, or at least to be the one that most fit our individual ideas of what the fuck a Sid was. Countless were the naïve Ravens, Stars, and. There was even a legendary schizophrenic man who called himself Lizard, speaking in cryptic Iron Maiden lyrics and insisting he had mutated from a lizard after a bizarre medical experiment in the Berkeley hills.
There were many different haircuts, many different styles. Most every one of us had sported a mohawk at one time or another, some of us holding allegiance to this cut indefinitely, while embracing a revolving door of color and length. Variations included the bihawk as well as the coveted but hard to maintain trihawk. A select few sported liberty spikes, named after the Statue of Liberty. Spiking a mohawk was known as taxing, and exclusively involved the use of Elmer’s school glue, which was deemed way more punk than fancy-shmancy hair gel. Bright hair colors were common. Some of us consistently shaved out heads and pretended it had nothing to do with the disturbing and irritating case of head lice from when we slept on that dubious cardboard under that dubious gas pipe.
The crazies, who we called wingnuts, adopted their own bizarre hair cults. A schizophrenic named Circle often shaved the back of his head into a strange and monkish-appearing skin yarmulke that had absolutely nothing to do with Judaism. Another shaved one vertical half of his head and face, and grew out the other half, bearded and bushy-headed. He amiably insisted he be called Face, and traveled in tandem with a large orange blue-tongued Chow dog. No one recalls the Chow as having a name.
Just as in our clothing choices and styles, a few of us kept more conventional, socially accepted haircuts. We were the chameleons of the bunch, and moved about the group without a certain label, perhaps wearing an ill-fitting suit one day, a dress on another. Prep clothes made for a great disguise when one wanted to pass unnoticed.
Amongst any large group of gutter punks, there will always be that one person who owns hair clippers and the self-proclaimed proficiency to wield them. Add in another punk with a large screwdriver or crowbar, known affectionately as a squat key, and you have a gang of filthy punk rockers in the park with pirated electricity and free haircuts for everybody.
Specifically this invokes images of the legendary People’s Park in Berkeley. Whether the University of California overlooked these transgressions in the spirit of the original free speech movement or just remained oblivious will always be debated, but the Park itself being a sore spot and headache for the campus has been firmly established. Most people claim that the Park itself is simply a demilitarized zone of sorts after the shame and embarrassment of UCB’s initial over-reaction concerning the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s.
We claimed many different heroes, and idolized outlaws, tramps, and pretty much anyone who fell outside of mainstream society and its lackadaisical norms. Most of us had been exposed to the Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and some of us wouldn’t even be in California if it weren’t for his influence. Some of us hid behind the politics of various bands like Crass and spoke of social revolution without a hint of irony. However, one of the greatest concepts that collectively inspired our art, dress and attitude was a near-unanimous passion and love for the dystopian and/or near-future apocalypse.
Road Warrior visions danced in our drug-addled brains, with the complete breakdown of society always being a welcome topic of discussion amongst our punk round table debates. Of course, we punks, we outsiders, would inherit this Armageddon like the filthy disenfranchised royalty we imagined ourselves to be. It was no coincidence that we dressed like extras from Mad Max, fashioning bizarre, mostly non-functional studded, spiked armor in which we would terrorize and menace an innocent peasant populace like Viking bikers on a meth binge.
Then there were the crazy GG Allen worshipers, with their penchant for cutting themselves and bleeding all over everything. These idiots were always arguing with the Iggy Pop fans over who had the bloodier idol. Meanwhile, all the Darby Crash fans sat in a loose circle and glowered at all of the mutilation talk, sullen in the knowledge that Darby, their chosen hero, fell far short of the mutilation bar that explained the idiom, the glamour and the attraction of Iggy and Allen.
Gutter tramps we were, and we lived life like a drunken 2AM Henry Rollins punch to the face.
In the Bay Area, it is commonly stated amongst the transients that only an idiot would starve to death. The side streets, parks, and front yards of houses in Berkeley are filled with various fruit trees, berry bushes, and vegetable patches. Numerous drop-in organizations were accessible to the local downtrodden, offering food, clothing, activities, and shelter referrals, with a few specializing in youths. Some distributed camping gear, sleeping bags, medical supplies, and advice on different advocacy groups for the disenfranchised, misrepresented, or socially ostracized individuals. Churches in the area often served free hot meals, with one local church offering a hot dinner every day for the exorbitant price of one quarter, affectionately known as the quarter meal.
Many were the times when a random van would pull over at the side of the road where we were hanging out on any given day, set up a table, and hand out soup, or sandwiches, or maybe even just a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Sometimes just the simple act of sharing a meal can have such profound consequences. The generosity of the ritual of breaking bread with others was alive and well in Berkeley. In that corner of the world, in that tiny republic, no stomach had to go to bed empty. Cold hunger was a dark back-alley stranger amongst the arcade of human warmth, a parabolic grotto of satiation.
We crouched weary where we stood, slept when we got tired, seldom following the diurnal patterns enforced upon our bodies and minds since childhood. The vast majority of us simply carried a hiking pack or large backpack, and attached a sleeping bag or blanket to either the top or bottom of the bag. Mummy cases were quite popular, with a North Face being the most coveted.
Shelters were sprinkled liberally over the city, but were seldom used by the young due to the array of restrictive rules meant to introduce stability into an unstructured life. Shelters and their seemingly draconian rules were the havens of old school home bums, the kind of anonymous faceless people you see in any large metropolitan area. These are usually older men with Jesus beards and a shopping cart full of returnable bottles, cans, and broken stereo parts.
Excepting the shelters, the best and by far the safest places to sleep were the outer bounds of the city parks, which are patrolled nightly by law enforcement. Building a friendly rapport with a local business owner could often lead to a cozy spot in the doorway of said business or shop. These shops and stores usually opened early though, and necessitated a hasty, daily removal of one’s self and property around dawn; one would often have to attempt to catch up on a sleep deficit later in the day. Indescribable the feeling of being young and basking in the leaf-filtered park sunlight, surrounded by a safety net of one’s friends, completely free of societal constraints.
Skrillah. Cheddar. Banknotes. Dough.
Many of us made money by simply asking passersby for it, known affectionately or irritatingly, (depending on who you ask), as spanging. Spare any change?
A cleverly-worded cardboard sign could draw quite a bit of cash, and a lot of time was spent designing slogans or gimmicks aimed at persuading pedestrians to dig deep and toss us their pocket change. Some of us dressed as outlandishly punk as possible and posed with tourists who would pay to have a picture taken surrounded by tough street hoods. Some of us offered to remain mute while being verbally abused for money, and one of us even made an elaborate aluminum foil/cardboard robot costume and robot-danced for change. Most of us, though, simply displayed our talents and skills with markers and a clever twist of words.
There were other ways for a street kid to make money, some being quite questionable morally, ethically, and/or legally. Illicit package runners for underground groups were more common than expected, while some of us sought more legitimate work as telemarketers, in which one’s appearance mattered little. Others still succumbed in our weaknesses to various addictions, and sold our mind, bodies, and souls on the meaner side of the city. One of us was found unceremoniously dumped in the Berkeley hills, rolled up in a rug after having been beaten to death. Another of us found his destiny at the bottom of the north Pacific after a mishap on an Alaskan fishing trawler.
Doors open and doors close, an infinite number of black holes that attract pull distort digest and expel in different times, different spaces, and maybe even different universes. We all lived then in a subjective slice of an opportune moment at the end of time, the closing of a millennium that had coalesced into an extraordinary window of just what it meant to be human, to be a creature that persisted and grew by the power of symbols, concepts and ideas alone.
Each of our reality tunnels at the close of the century either disembarked fully from the norm or was fashioned into something malleable and socially accepted amongst housed peers. Some of us went to college, collected our grant money, and subsequently blew it on drugs. Or love. Or whatever unnamed folly. A few of us actually graduated. Some of us found love, had children, and attempted to settle down with our own bastardized versions of the American Dream. Still others continued to reject those values and rebel continually, a meobis strip of perceived non-conformity.
A great number of us just disappeared like stars in the heavens at the coming of dawn, lost in the gloaming as if we had walked, flown, or sailed off the end of the known world.
Here there be monsters.
We were like matches flaring in our terminal velocity of a well lacking bottom and fathom, falling, dropping off into the inky gloom, that dark starry hobo night of wood smoke, cooked beans, unwashed bodies and the mystery of human potential unrealized, unwept, and unsung.
Jack St. Jack is an award-winning photographer and writer who lives and works in San Francisco. Jack was born in Appalachia in poverty. He has lived in the Bay Area for half of his life. Simply put, art lets Jack express who he is and who he hopes to be. His work captures people as they are and as they hope to be.