I’m conflicted. I find myself re-examining a matter upon which I was quite certain my mind was made up with no chance of equivocation.
At issue here are the gutter punks, that vast, unbeloved subculture run roughshod over the French Quarter.
For those unfamiliar with the term, I’ll defer to Wikipedia to describe this millenial genre:
“Attributes may include unkempt dreadlocks, nose rings, Mohawk hairstyles, and tattooed faces. Sometimes referred to as crusties, or crust punks, traveler kids or punk hobos.
“Scumf***” may be used to refer to certain members of the subculture who are perceived as selfish, apathetic, violent, aggressive, overly nihilistic, or overly hedonistic.”
If you’ve ever been to the French Quarter, you know them. I call them the brown people. Not in any ethnic sense – because they are predominantly white — but because their skin, faces, hair, torn overalls, tattered Doc Martens, various packs, satchels and bed rolls – and even their omnipresent canine companions – are all brown.
They bum quarters and smokes and block the sidewalk and smell really bad and say innapropriate things and bring out the pretunatural cranky old fartness in a guy like me who just wants to scream – against every prevailing notion in my soul: GET A JOB YOU LAZY SOT!
Owen Courreges, a correspondent for the Uptown Messenger, put it this way: “Gutter punks have few defenders. A recognized nuisance with few redeeming qualities, they have created an undeniable groundswell of loathing.”
I find it hard to disagree. I encounter these noxious creatures on a daily basis as I go about my businesses of giving tours or painting in the French Quarter. They make me loathe.
But nobody wants to loathe.
And then this happened, the smallest of gestures to give me pause, to try and understand. To empathize.
I was walking back to my car after a tour and paused on the sidewalk to catch my breath and take a sip of my beer. To my immediate right were two of the aforementioned species, leaning against a wall, chomping on what appeared to be scavanged crawfish in a Styrofoam container, requisite tattoos and piercings in place, an irrepressible aura of grunge upon them.
And a brown dog.
One of the guys was coaxing brown dog to try a crawfish. Being my own irrepressible species of cranky old busybody fart, I cautioned that might not be a good idea; the “crust” of the crustaceans (not the crust punks) availing for, shall we say, difficult digestion.
If you’ve ever had a dog and a crawfish boil at the same time, you know what I’m talking about.
And so began a casual conversation. About dogs. About crawfish. One of them was born in Ontario so we talked about Canadian trains; my dream to traverse the country in a sleeper coach on the national railway. Pretty expensive, I said.
Not if you jump the freights, they said.
Not sure that would work with the girlfriend or kids, I point out. True, they said.
We chat amiably for a while. Dogs, trains, wanderlust. It was a country song. We talked about a lot of stuff, me in my collared shirt and dad pants, they in their brown ensembles. During which all the while I am waiting for the inevitable. You know it’s coming. The panhandle. The beg. The grift.
But after twenty minutes or so, as I take my leave, it never happened. No ask at all. Not even an intuit.
And as I walked away, one said to me: “Hey man, thanks for talking to us. Y’know, just talking to us. Noticing that we were here. Nobody does that. We really appreciate that.”
For some reason, that crushed me. Really crushed me.
It’s weird, if you’re of a certain age, it’s impossible to see these guys and not think of Pig Pen from the old Peanuts cartoons.
And if you remember, Pig Pen was actually a pretty cool dude. A good heart. Quick with a smile, a witty retort or a kind gesture. Smarter than he let on. And, as evidenced in the classic “Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” one seriously natty dancer, busting some funky grooves and moves.
But inside, and even out – if you can see through the dust — a good person. A person with a beating heart and a yearning soul. Maybe even big dreams.
And yes, filthy.
Therein lies the mystery of the human condition, I suppose.