This is longer than a blog post, so grab a refreshment and kick your feet up. I’ve been stuck inside for days with a migraine, but I am feeling well enough to look at a screen and write, so I’m going to tell you a story. My current life is nice and peaceful, a quiet little family life. But man, things used to be different.
Once upon a time, I was a street kid in pre-Katrina New Orleans. I landed in town early January, 1996. I had been homeless for about six months due to a failure to see eye to eye with my grandparents when it came to religion, and because I lived with them, it reached a breaking point.
My reverence of nature, science, and evolution has reached spiritual levels, and I see myself as Pagan because of it. Grandma is Catholic. I had no problem with her religion, but she took issue with mine. I willingly left, but my housekeys were already gone from my keyring. Later, she opened up to it and realized I was neither Satanic nor being rebellious. But that wouldn’t happen for a couple of years. So, for about a year and a half, I went on various adventures in a few cities.
I was not fond of New Orleans. Maybe if I had a safe place to sleep, my opinion would be different. Probably not, because crowds kind of freak me out. A combination of loud noises, darkness, and a crowd is likely to cause panic attacks. That will come up later, I promise.
I got stranded in New Orleans trying to get to a Rainbow Gathering in Florida. This is basically an acre of hippies living it up on someone’s land, as sustainably as they can with everyone pitching in. This sounded like where I wanted to be, I was hoping my ability to work well with my hands would mean I could get someone to let me join them on one of those crafty tribal nomad type things, travelling the country selling handmade goods at fairs.
I managed to get myself to the French Quarter where a friend of mine had arranged a ride to come and pick me up, but they never showed. I heard a rumor they were busted with pot in their van. I tried to find another ride, but it was right before Mardi Gras, so everyone was going into the city, and no one would be leaving until the whole thing was done. Nothing to do but go along with it.
Adventures happened, a few weeks passed, and I found myself invited to a protest march for street kid’s rights. Now, I don’t know exactly what was truth and what was rumor, but it was said that cops were picking up street kids under “Napoleonic Law” (I was told it was summed up as “anything to keep the peace”). Personally, I’ve always had positive experiences with cops, even in New Orleans, but I understand the problem.
Kids were being arrested for ridiculous infringements. One girl was “impersonating an airplane” (just walking along the sidewalk making plane noises in the sunshine). One kid committed “assault on a cheeseburger” (took off the pickles and threw them away). A common one was “leaning with intent to fall” (sitting against a wall intending to fall over and go to sleep on the sidewalk, even if the person was fully alert and in conversation with their friends). The city’s method for keeping nasty street children out of the eye of tourists was to arrest them.
To make it even more concerning, these street kids were going to be held until after the next festival (this one being Mardi Gras, but they have festivals all year long and this was routine). Then, when the crowds were gone and the streets were trashed, the kids would be shuffled along in orange jumpsuits sweeping the vomit out of the gutters.
Now, we knew we weren’t the most beloved part of city life, but it all struck us as rather unfair as we were Americans too, so a group of the more politically inclined among us decided to speak up and perform a march. We would all meet in a warehouse that had been converted into apartments, they had a giant community room that they rented out to us.
The huge space was mostly open, except for a few office sized rooms at one end to live in. Residents bathed in the shared kitchen’s industrial sink, sponge baths behind a curtain on wheels. Clothing lines dripped dry near the common area, a wide-open space with scattered couches and a few coffee tables.
The march was to start at midnight, and until then we just hung out. In this crowd of people, that meant there was someone present, a legend I had not yet seen with my own eyes as I was only a casual visitor to drug cultures. A mad doser. Someone who tells you to open your mouth, and if you do, they put a generous dose of LSD onto your tongue.
There was only one sober street kid in the room, and due to the bitter rivalry between street hippies and gutter punks, the room was more populated by flowing scarves and ankle bells than it was spikes and anarchy signs. As a goth with only the soul of a hippie from a midwestern suburb reminiscent of Donna Reed, this was an unfamiliar atmosphere all around.
I was in a room full of kids who wished with all their hearts it was still the sixties, and we were all high as kites. They had drums, guitars, a didgeridoo, tambourines, and finger chimes. Most of them knew how to belly dance from practicing around bonfires. Some of them knew how to juggle fire, but in the warehouse they could only throw their unlit toys in the air. They sure did put on a good show regardless.
You know that scene in the third Matrix movie, the one inside a giant cave where they’re all dancing? Take away the fire, make the music some acoustic world style music, and picture it inside a warehouse with thrift store decor. That’s the party I was at. Similar to a bonfire at the beach, but with a grungy ultra-urban decay feel, almost post-apocalyptic in it’s coolness.
It was amazing, but it was also a crowd in an enclosed space. I needed some air, so my moronic teenage self decided to find some peace and quiet by stepping outside for a little walk. Did I mention I was on acid? By the way, it was the weekend before Mardi Gras, two blocks from Bourbon street.
So, I wandered along, morbidly curious about what the fuss looked like, and I got a little too close to the edge of the crowd. I found myself shoved into it, and I was having difficulty fighting my way back out of it again.
Then, something just fucking perfect happened and some girl on a balcony twenty feet away from me lifted up her shirt. All the young men directly under the balcony looked up, causing a chain reaction that was terrifying to watch approach me. People started tilting backward to the point that they all fell down. Everyone laughed except me, because they all managed to get to their feet before I could.
They closed above me. It was shoulder to shoulder people and I was on my back on the ground, on a couple of hits of some quite spectacular LSD, and I’m prone to panic attacks.
I was no longer in control. I opened up my mouth and helplessly started screaming a wordless note with the very best of my ability. My ability is good. Anxiety makes me loud. Panic had me frozen in place.
Four beautiful, glorious young men came to my rescue, and I’m so sorry, young athletic frat boys glistening in your beautiful auras reminiscent of a paladin’s shining armor, I am so very sorry I could not stop screaming, I assure you I was mortified by my behavior the entire time. Yes, I heard your pleas to stop, and I tried. I promise. Thank you so much for delivering me to safety, despite my ragged appearance and probably not the freshest of scents. You are fucking heroes.
So, I got the fuck out of there as soon as the dizziness passed, and went back to the safety of the freakiest party I’ve ever been too. Well, until I made my way to bonfires later, but that’s not this story.
I settled into a couch where my future ex husband was saving me a seat. Not long after that, our mutual friend stepped outside to have a cigarette, and was immediately arrested. He was high as a kite, but he had no chance to misbehave or make a nuisance of himself before he was in cuffs.
Policemen started pouring into the room. There was complete silence for about five minutes. The young man who organized the event spoke with the police, the more experienced protestors passed around the word to be quiet, we had done nothing illegal (that the cops knew of) and they would not hurt us, be still and do not speak. We held hands.
Still reeling from my previous misadventure, I sat in the most tension filled room in my life. A small forever passed.
Then the one sober hippie did something amazing. He started quietly playing his guitar, something that’s been one of my favorites ever since, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware.”
We all started singing. We sat still, we didn’t talk to each other, we didn’t touch our things, and we all sang the parts we knew, one protest song after another. Some of the cops were smiling and dancing a little bit as they stood in place. Some of the other cops were giving them dirty looks.
So then, the fucking mayor and chief of police walk in. I’m in a movie or something for sure by now, right? I mean, this could not possibly get more surreal.
They quietly talk to our fearless leader while he trips his balls off. Josh apparently forgot to file a permit for his march, or he didn’t do it on purpose I’m not quite sure. I only knew him a little, and only got to talk to him for five minutes after this was all said and done.
Turns out the city of New Orleans did not want a large group of stinky hippies marching down Bourbon street yelling about the things they’ve been arrested for on the weekend before Mardi Gras. Bad for tourism. Therefore, when our friend stepped outside they decided to interpret it as starting a march he didn’t have a permit for.
We never saw our arrested friend again. I kept his teddy bear for him, hoping to return it because I know it meant a lot to him, but a couple of days after Mardi Gras we managed to find a ride out of town, and we took it. I didn’t have a safe place for his stuff.
No point to that. Just a couple of homeless teenagers carrying around a teddy bear. I can’t remember what happened to Toe Bear, I kind of miss him too. Probably one of the things I lost in the few times I myself got separated from my own bags.
Anyway, Josh the fearless leader negotiated with the two city bigwigs for quite some time. The guy who owned the building got in on it, as he was evicting us at midnight because that’s when our lease was up, and the cops were saying they would interpret that as the march starting, we would all go to jail. After several minutes of discussion, he offered to extend the lease for free to allow us time to work things out. Thanks, dude.
Eventually, Josh came back in a daze, and the cops quietly left. His eyes were all huge with shock as he said, “I got us a meeting where they will hear me out on Monday.”
No idea how it went, we left before the aftermath had settled enough for the rumors to make sense. Likely it didn’t accomplish too much, but possibly it got us a little more respect. Whatever the outcome, good job, Josh. You got heard, and everyone involved has a story to last a lifetime. I hope you’re doing well.
Crowds. Mother fucking crowds. Ah, New York City, you’re going to be another one of those magnificent times of both joy and rampant overwhelming anxiety, aren’t you?