Images courtesy of the author
This is how it happens now: you're sitting at your desk or scrolling through your phone on the train or the toilet and something about the sincerity of a caption or the vintage of a photo makes you slow down. Could it be? The posts multiply. Soon enough there is a telltale "RIP." But the sheer volume of images and the raw sincerity is how you first know.
He died. She died. They're dead.
So begins the unseemly calculus of time off work, travel costs, days on the calendar, forcing you to put a yes/no value on how much a person meant to you. And so too begins the investigation, the sifting through the outpouring, seeking some sliver of information about how it happened. If you want to break the spell, you'll call somebody. But it's easier to keep thumbing through the photos, the stories, the reminders of who they stood next to.
“That Carnival season, I was living in a squatted shotgun house with seven roommates, no walls, and 20 house guests.”
There was a time when it felt like everyone I knew was learning to play accordion or under investigation by the FBI.
I exaggerate. Some folks were trying to pick up the mandolin.
I was 21, a college dropout living in post-Katrina New Orleans. The city has been a magnet for drunks and dreamers roughly since its colonial beginning. It pulled in a certain brand of itinerant weirdo after the storm. If pressed, we might have called ourselves punks. But studded leather jackets and three-chord progressions on electric guitars weren't the thing at the time.
This was the late 2000s, but up and down Decatur Street, it was someone's idea of the early 20th century. In the insular, mostly white, often queer scene, banjos, klezmer, and washboards predominated. Old-timey sounds. The community I'm describing was also overwhelmingly from outside the city, but some folks did live there before the storm. This being New Orleans, people picked up trumpets and trombones, too. There were even a few tubas and French horns.
As far removed as all this warbling and jangling was sonically and aesthetically from, say, Black Flag, we were all drawing on a do-it-yourself and nihilist-if-not-anarchist tradition that runs through punk rock and even further back to the Depression-era provocations of Woody Guthrie and Boxcar Bertha. And don't get me wrong. We rocked out too.
In New York, a grindcore enthusiast can go her whole life without willingly hearing a washtub bass. In gentrifying New Orleans, someone with abiding passions for Dolly Parton, bounce music, and drag might feel perfectly at home spending a Saturday night with her face pressed against a set of Marshall stacks. One amplified standby of late aughts New Orleans was Mars, the stoner metal band whose dread mullets and facial tattoos made them look a bit like birds of prey (an effect made more pronounced the more you hit the massive joint they passed around to start their sets).
And then there was Crackbox. Once described in Maximum Rocknroll as "crust pop," Crackbox’s members clearly grew up on the saccharine stylings of pop punk, then switched things up a bit as their lives got grimier. They played power chords, but super distorted, and frontwoman Corrina sang her indelible hooks in a from-the-gut growl that could peel the paint off a fire hydrant.
Working within the small universe of New Orleans bands with weird haircuts, promoters often had to get creative to round out a night's bill. This meant counting on the audience to be musically adventurous. Crackbox made perfect sense opening for the gutter punk royalty of New York's Leftover Crack when they passed through New Orleans. But they also somehow fit into a lineup with the sad Minneapolis folkies of Dark Dark Dark and the shambling New Orleans brass ensemble Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship.
That latter bunch was the lineup one night in 2009, the week before Mardi Gras, in a big abandoned factory at the intersection of Arts and Industry streets. My band played too, but I'll spare you how great we were. We set out trying to sound like Black Sabbath, but my wife tells me she always thought of us as noise music.
No, the draw here was the show, period. We all had a lot of time on our hands, and circulated through the same few dozen bars, bookstores, and cafes, constantly encountering friends and accumulating plans. This event would have been "that Big Ship show," as in:
"Doing anything tonight?"
"Ah, I dunno. I was thinking about trying to make it out to that Big Ship show. I know it's a generator show. Do you know where it's gonna be?"
"Some warehouse, I heard. Crackbox is playing."
"Sick, were you planning to go?"
Looking back, this was an inflection point. A few years before, I had been a student at a liberal arts college in New England. Now I’m married, a dad, with a job that provides health insurance, and even before coronavirus it was a big deal if I was out after the local Key Food closed.
But that Carnival season, I was living in a squatted shotgun house with seven roommates, no walls, and 20 house guests. At night our visitors were stuffed in the shed, sprawled across our living room floor, and balanced on a piece of plywood laid across beams that once held up the attic but now showed through to the roof, rising like the hull of an overturned schooner. Anywhere that could fit a body, did.
I don't consider myself particularly social, but the night of that generator show there was nowhere else I could have imagined being. Only now does it seem noteworthy that you had to crawl through holes in fences to reach our can't-miss functions. Or that once there you'd encounter familiar faces with names like Burnout, Calamity, Rotten Milk (what's up, Milk?), and Trashley (you're still on my shit list, Trashley).
Nor did I question how it came to be that I knew more than one circus arts enthusiast with rudimentary clown makeup tattooed on his face in black ink. This didn't have anything to do with Insane Clown Posse. Clearly this was just the remnants of a great punk clowning movement I'd missed.
Crackbox had been around longer than I had, too. That night I would sing along to their anthem, a song called "Dead Friends." The chorus starts off, "All my friends keep dyin', and it's killin' me."
At that show in 2009 I didn't yet feel in my gut what the song was about. By the end of the next year I would, and I would be on my way out of New Orleans.
I was at my job editing a real estate website when I found out about Jascha. Posting an article to Facebook for work, I was confronted by someone's post memorializing him, and I fell into the vortex of online communal grief. I found myself poring over comments, looking for more information. How? Where? When?
I called a friend. He said it was an overdose. It had been years coming. I hadn't known Jascha to use heroin. Then again, I realized, I hadn't known him that well.
Another feature of life as a young punk was that you could see dozens of the same people multiple times a week in all sorts of different social settings. This could go on for years, and you could genuinely be excited to see each other at the show, the coffee shop, the parade, in line at the beer store.
And then something like this would happen and you'd realize that even though the scene was your entire world, you and the person had never hung out one on one. You'd start to pick up on the theatrical connotation of that word, "scene." You'd start to suspect we were all set pieces in each other's lives, and that now the show was coming to an end.
Jascha was at that Crackbox show in the warehouse. There were big murals by the graffiti artists Read and You Go Girl, including one of a giant pigeon with jewels in its wings, spanning an entire 30-foot-tall wall. They'd spent weeks getting the space ready, but the machinery of fame and legitimacy was far away. Ambition was absent, like a skin we’d shed and left wherever it was we were from. And there, behind a makeshift bar on sawhorses, the big pigeon soaring behind him, was Jascha. He was barrel-chested and hairy, beard and mustache vaudevillian, suspenders snapping.
That's how I remember him, because that's how I saw him so often. If he wasn't on his bike with the rubber squeeze-horn and the custom handlebars bent like Kate Middleton's fascinator, he was behind the bar. He would crack beers and pour cups of wine if the occasion demanded it, but he was proudest tapping batches of his home-made concoctions, most famous among them an ephedrine-infused alcoholic soda he called Dizzap. His charm, vintage-photo look, and alchemical questing would later land him a job as the face of a small-batch distillery. But for the time being he was ours.
My band played in the factory's workshop-turned-performance-space, a pressurized pocket of noise and motion off the cavernous main hall. We watched Big Ship through diamond-shaped holes in the workshop's false ceiling, tallboys in hand, our legs dangling over the action. The air filled with dust kicked up from that ceiling crawl space, and we realized at some point that the stuff flying around was probably asbestos. We didn't move.
Someone spotted a car with a siren rack on patrol outside and yelled to kill the generator. Hundreds of us sat in total darkness, not budging. For five minutes there were only low murmurs and shushings. Then cheers as the lights sputtered back to life. Evidently the mess of bikes parked outside, the flickering lights in the windows, the electric guitars and horns, the low rumble of a crowd emanating from this usually vacant building in a desolate corner of the Eighth Ward was enough to kill the curiosity of the lone officer or security guard. The show went on.
We all awoke the next morning coughing up black stuff, but we didn't care. It was the type of night to make your heart sing. Between that and the hangover, there was plenty to deal with without going all hypochondriac about some phlegm.
Later, some of my friends from the squat would move out and spend a few seasons living in tents on an old landfill nearby. The overgrown expanse is a federal Superfund site, the water and soil rife with heavy metals. Big deal. So what? It's not like they were eating the dirt.
In "Dead Friends," Corrina rattles off all the forces picking off the people around her:
This one is for HIV
This one is for Hepatitis C
And this one is for over-dosin'
This one is for suicide
And this one is for hom-i-ci-ide
Each of our fallen friends lived and died in their own ways. But as the losses have piled up, it's been hard not to reduce their stories to their shared fate. And it's hard to shake the sense that somehow punk is to blame.
The song rumbles ahead. There's not much to the main chorus lyrically, but Corrina's voice packs a punch:
Woah woah woah woah woah woah!
Flee died less than a month after I moved to New York. It was the week of Christmas. Flee had big doe eyes and wore a newsboy cap and gauges in his ears. I'd wave when I passed him biking, or outside the coffee shop. He was shot dead in his house on St. Roch. He was 27.
The next week, eight people burned to death steps from my old place. They had been squatting in an open shell of a warehouse by the train yard. To fight the December cold, they'd lit a fire in a barrel. The flames caught the oil-soaked beams of the floor and devoured the people inside. Several of them, the Times-Picayune reported, had marched in Flee's funeral parade four days earlier.
A guest at our house, Kirsten, was biking back from a brass band show uptown when she was abducted, raped, and shot dead. Church volunteers found her burnt body in the street on a block of the Ninth Ward by the Florida canal that has all but returned to wilderness. She was 25.
I was at my parents' new house in Oregon when I heard about Kirsten. I was nursing a hand I broke while skateboarding in Chicago, where a big group of us had evacuated from Hurricane Gustav. Life had been so intense, so vivid, and yet it was so easy to break the spell.
When I made it back to New Orleans a month after I'd left, all my housemates were haunted, gripped by a sense that perhaps they were somehow responsible. Their bubble had been pierced by cops, reporters, the grieving family and partner of the woman they barely knew. She'd only been in town for a day and a half when she disappeared.
She was traveling the country when she came to us, touring bike co-ops and urban farms and art spaces in economically depressed cities. We'd all made those laps around the US, relying on luck and a loose network of travelers, musicians, and activists for stuff to do and places to stay. But she possessed the earnestness and clarity of purpose to want to document her trip as a proof of the concept for this new world we were building. New Orleans was supposed to be the last stop before heading home to San Francisco.
The way she'd died, biking at night, was how we lived all the time. At once carefree and courting risk, blasé and troubled by the state of everything.
My childhood friend Paul was walking home from work in the French Quarter when he saw the police, the green bike, the paintings all over the road. My old roommate Ben, who sold his art on Decatur Street, 37 and yet somehow sweeter and more innocent than the rest of us, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver on Elysian Fields Avenue. The cops wouldn't let Paul look at the body, wedged between parked cars, but Paul was living with Ben then, and Paul knew it was him from his paint-splattered boots.
Sali, whose circuit of activist houses I unwittingly traced across the Southwest one winter, was raped and murdered at 20 while working as an indigenous rights observer in Oaxaca. My Louisville friend Jen, 29, was fatally hit from behind by a driver on Bardstown Road while riding her bike, which she'd named Rocinante.
Nate—or Neight if you prefer—and his girlfriend came upon a wide, fresh smear of blood leading indefinitely down the dark halls of an abandoned school. Nate’s girlfriend left town not long after. Nate stayed. A few years later they found him shot dead in the middle of the road, blocks from his house. He was 30.
This one is for Sali
and this one is for Shane
and this one is for all our friends
that shouldn't have died in vain
Before Chicago, our caravan of Hurricane Gustav evacuees had stopped for a week in the Twin Cities, site of the 2008 Republican National Convention. Because if we were going to go to all that trouble to get out of the storm's path, we might as well register our displeasure with the party of Bush—and electoral politics generally. The storm was supposed to come ashore as a category four, more powerful than Katrina, and it was headed right for New Orleans. The sense that it was going to be the next Big One was so acute that the Republicans canceled the first day of the convention, lest John McCain be seen as yet another conservative indifferent to the death and immiseration of poor, Black Louisianans.
In the end, the storm weakened, sparing New Orleans but still wreaking havoc on Baton Rouge and surrounding areas. I didn't know it then, but Jen from Louisville was part of a crew that rode bikes up to Minnesota to feed protesters with the Seeds for Peace kitchen collective. People took the streets and chanted, "We are unstoppable. Another world is possible." Our New Orleans group got separated, chased by riot cops, and teargassed, but we escaped the mass arrests.
The biggest story to come out of the 2008 RNC demonstrations unspooled later, as it was revealed that Texan Brandon Darby, a loud voice in the anti-authoritarian Katrina relief group Common Ground, based in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, had goaded two anarchist protesters into making Molotov cocktails, then turned them over to the FBI.
My roommate at the squat would later be arrested over an intemperate email she fired off to Darby while drunk one afternoon at a coffee shop near our house. The feds picked her up when she hopped a train to Houston to visit family, apparently concerned that she was on her way to Austin, where Darby lives. The indictment said witness retaliation.
A jury acquitted her at trial. Darby is now an editor at Breitbart.
"The 2008 RNC," a friend said recently. "God, it seems like another world."
We were standing outside the Park Slope Food Coop, wearing orange safety vests that signal our availability to walk fellow co-op members home or to their cars or bus stops with their groceries, then return the shopping cart. Before coronavirus, we saw each other once a month, at the three-hour shift we worked to maintain our access to the choicest cheese section in New York City. We chatted between walks that took us past multimillion-dollar brownstones over uneven slate sidewalks.
My friend, I have learned, is from St. Paul, and works as a freelance writer and art handler. The crude circle tattoos climbing up his hands are reminders of that other world. But on the tree-lined blocks of Park Slope, engrossed in talk about local politics, labor organizing, and the finer points of pitching articles, there's not much else to convince us that it was all real.
This one is for incarceration
and this one is for iso-la-tion
All my friends keep dying
and it's killing me
I don't wanna be strong
But I know I've got to be, yeah
I was at my desk at the New York news blog, putting off starting a story about the NYPD using a sound cannon on protesters, when I heard about Ryan, one of the handful of punks in my hollowed-out Michigan hometown.
It was a silent office, a place where you ate lunch at your desk and always needed an answer for what story you were working on, and when in the next few hours it would be ready to go up. I messaged my boss, "I just found out my friend died. I need to go outside."
I rushed for the door, past clusters of cubicles, trying to hold it together, to stay invisible. A sob escaped before I got to the elevators.
Outside was Midtown, the Theater District, just north of Times Square. There were no benches, no trees, no unattended loading docks like the ones we'd ride our skateboards off back in Saginaw. There was no breeze. It was 95 degrees, and there were only crowds of tourists, the sound of jackhammers, and the smell of burnt gyro meat.
I picked a patch of brick wall between a parking garage and an Irish bar and let go, doubled over, blubbering. I looked at the gum ground into bits of tar peppering the sidewalk. A thousand people passing by a minute and not one of them knew Ryan. All they saw was a white guy in his 20s in an Oxford shirt making animal heaving sounds against a wall on 53rd Street. Not the person to ask about where to buy tickets to School of Rock. Not that day.
Five, ten minutes passed like that, and I couldn't think of anything but to go back inside.
"You can go home for the day if you need," my boss said, via chat, when I made it back to my computer. But I hadn't lived in Michigan in over a decade. At my apartment in Brooklyn, I'd just be alone with this, with my phone. At least at work there were things to do.
The last time I'd seen Ryan was five years earlier. My parents had moved to the West Coast from Saginaw, where I grew up, and I was newly arrived in New York. Our family doesn't celebrate Christmas, but we do get it off of work, and we decided that year to meet in the middle, in the only place we had in common. Back in Saginaw and in need of a break from family, I drove out on my own and ran into Ryan at the coffee shop where we'd burned through thousands of hours as teens. He said he was working at the party store down the street, the one where we all used to stock up on malt liquor for the night.
The time before that he came to visit New Orleans for a couple weeks. The whole trip he wore a captain's hat with small animal bones crossed through the front, and that ridiculous mustache. But at 25, back in a Saginaw largely emptied of the people we partied with at 15, it was harder to talk about the minimum wage job stocking shelves as if it were some sort of gambit, a placeholder, as if the next adventure was around the corner.
"Yeah, dude, I been working at Westside again for a while now."
"That's cool," I said.
"Nah," he said. "Shit sucks."
He asked me if people were getting into anything later. I said I didn't know, but Dawn had said she might be doing something. This was how it used to work. You'd hang around the coffee shop long enough and the night's plans would come together. But that night Dawn was just being nice, and so was I.
The next time Ryan grabbed my attention, I was online, checking the news from back home.
"Couple 'huff' canned air, pass out in Walmart lot with 3-year-old in car, police say"
The story was as bad as the headline. The car was running when the cops found them unconscious. They were facing felony child abuse charges.
The editors illustrated the piece with two mug shots. Ryan's girlfriend, whom I didn't know, was crying in hers. Ryan, still skinny, had grown into a man. He had a bigger face, more pronounced features, and sunken cheeks. The sides of his head were shaved, and his ears bore the holes of big piercings—normal to me, but in the context, I could see it as a horrified newspaper subscriber might: further evidence of depravity. It was the first big splash he made as an adult, and the most shame I could imagine a paper packing into one story.
Ryan took a plea deal for two years' probation. Addicted to heroin when cops first cuffed him, he got clean for a time. The judge took away his daughter and put her in the foster system.
In the big city, lone overdose deaths rarely make headlines. You have to be a teacher dead in a school bathroom, or the face of a larger trend. But in a small-city newsroom with a fraction of its former staff and a website to fill, Ryan's huffing case made his OD two years later go from a passing blotter item to something they hung a whole story on.
"Police are investigating the overdose of a man found dead Sunday," the story began.
It could have ended as quickly as it started. All that was left was to describe where and when officers found his body. They hadn't talked to any family or friends.
Instead came the transition: "It wasn't his first brush with substance abuse." This was enough for reporter Bob Johnson to wring a couple more single-sentence paragraphs out of the ether, rehashing the worst moments of Ryan's life.
Again, they illustrated the article with his mugshot. This time friends and family inundated the paper with calls and emails, deploring their callousness and demanding that they take the piece down, or at least add our memories, include some indication of Ryan's humanity. (The Saginaw News decided to mostly stop publishing mugshots last summer during the George Floyd uprisings. An editor’s note cited the feedback African American and Hispanic readers frequently gave Johnson, who is Black, about the practice.)
The site updated the photo but not the story. In the new picture they chose, Ryan is younger, with chin-length blonde hair. It's parted to one side, and he's wearing what looks like a woman's suit jacket. He looks startlingly like I did at that age.
The friends who helped set up the memorial brought in a piece of Masonite covered in Ryan's Sharpie drawings for the display in the hall of the church. They angled it in such a way that the pentagrams and pot leaves didn't show.
Nearby was a framed clipping from the Midland Daily News, the last in a yearlong series about the city's skatepark, just opened at the time of publication. The headline read, "The Skater Mentality."
Anywhere else, he's [Ryan], a 14-year-old from Saginaw.
Here, he's "Muska," and in the words of one fellow skater, "he really rips this park up."
K-grinds, kickflips, 180s. The skinny, soft-spoken [Ryan] is one of the best. It's 9 o'clock on a comfortably cold school night and the skater has taken a rare breather. He sits and leans forward on a ledge, scooping back strands of his long, blond hair with one hand and holding his board in the other.
About 40 skaters and bladers, all male, are riding and gliding about Trilogy Skate Park – their arena to perform, to fail, to have fun.
"It's a challenge. Something to get rid of the stress, just to get away," Muska says of skating. He's not sure what his nickname means or why he has it. He picked it up when he started coming to the park a year ago.
Chad Muska was a hugely famous pro skater of the late '90s and early 2000s, known to teen fanboys and skate magazine caption writers as simply "The Muska." In 2012 the editors of Transworld Skateboarding called him "one of the most marketable pros skateboarding has ever seen."
The reporter didn't do basic research. That's lazy journalism.
Ryan, the 14-year-old soon-to-be-dropout, didn't know who Chad Muska was and was too busy skating to find out. That's punk as fuck.
At the memorial, no one said the words "punk" or "heroin," but they were right there, between every line.
The church was a beige campus out at Saginaw's exurban edge amid the cornfields, the pastor a Ned Flanders type down to the plaid shirt. He larded his speech with references to straying from the lord and seeking Jesus' light. In my diary I wrote that "it wasn't the judgiest it could have been," and gave the guy props for referring to addiction as a disease. Still, it was clear he didn't know Ryan.
Ryan's older brother Steve spoke about a time when Ryan was two years old and, briefly left unattended, climbed to the top of a tree in their front yard. A couple years later the two of them came up with a rocket travel simulator consisting of a trash can strung from a tree. Ryan was the pilot, Steve the engine. With his orange motorcycle helmet on and systems engaged, Ryan and a stuffed animal became Buck Rogers and the Space Monkeys.
Ryan was always trying to take the game a little bit further, Steve said. It made us all love him before it made us all worry for him.
Afterwards we, the young people no longer that young, gathered in the parking lot and compared notes, kicking the curb, looking at our shoes. We'd done this and that: gained beer weight; had a kid; moved out of town; moved back in with a parent after a nervous breakdown. We concurred that Ryan's brother's eulogy was powerful, and that the preacher was a dick.
I went with Rob, now a painter in Cleveland, to see if we could find any of Ryan's old tags under the freeway overpass. As I recalled, Ryan used to write Yot, which was the Toy in Toy Machine Skateboards backwards. We found a burned couch and some technically impressive wild style, but no Yot (Ryan's close pal Paul says they floated Yot as a band name but he's not sure if Ryan ever tagged it). From there we walked the train tracks across town, behind the fast-food restaurants, past the scrap yard, through the warehouses, to a bar where we reconnected with some of the memorial crowd.
It was a warm Saturday afternoon and the bar had a concrete patio out back, but no one was there apart from us mourners. There was a special on pitchers of Bud Light, so we drank that for hours, grasping for what we'd had back when Ryan was around. Back before we could get into bars, or afford them. The glasses piled up and the late spring sunlight streamed down, and the whole thing felt like a chore.
After dark a few of us relocated to the riverbank, just past the floodlights of the vinyl-sided townhouses that, astonishingly, have replaced the graffiti wall in Old Town. We could see the stars. We kept going till 11 maybe, but I don't recall ever feeling drunk.
I was the first up the next morning at Rob's sister's. On the porch with my coffee, I surveyed the block. It's a side street just off a main artery, a few blocks from a liquor store that is the social hub of that North Side neighborhood. The asphalt is veined with cracks from the frost that heaves it apart in the Michigan winters.
Each time I go back to Saginaw is an exercise trying to remember what used to be in this or that boarded-up commercial building, what each street looked like with more houses, with less tall grass, with more fresh paint. I considered a friend's story from the night before: how her dad, retired, unable to afford the taxes on his Saginaw house and unable to sell it, had walked away, opting to buy an RV and live out his days in Arizona, digging for precious rocks.
On the porch I felt the creeping loss more acutely than I had before. This was no doubt enhanced by the years spent bludgeoning my nervous system in New York's bustle, but for minutes at a time all I could hear was the wind blowing through the weedy lots. It was an event when a car drove by.
This one from is-o-la-tion
I heard Ryan had been clean towards the end, diligently attending recovery meetings. A friend who I'll call Sophie ran into him in the crowd along the Saginaw River on the Fourth of July, not long before he passed. It had been years since she'd seen him.
The last contact they'd had was him calling her house in the middle of the night looking for drugs, even though he knew that she had kicked dope. Now he was out with his church group.
"I can't talk to you," he told her. "I'm sober."
"I'm sober too!" she said.
"Well, I don't know that," he said.
The two shared a laugh about him becoming a church boy and then he slipped away, rejoining the flock.
I struggle to imagine my friend, the safety pin artist, chain smoker, feedback conjurer, and fearless urban explorer sitting through a meeting about the great works of Christ. Someone said, over potato salad and mac 'n' cheese after the memorial service, that the meetings seemed to really do something for Ryan. I could picture the foam cups, smell the burnt coffee. It helped that we were in a church cafeteria.
When Paul saw Ryan during a Saginaw visit the winter before he died, he was strung out, asking to borrow money Paul knew he wouldn't get back. But that spring another old friend who'd lost touch, Maggie, ran into him.
"He said he was doing really well," she said. "He had a job. He said he was sober. He had a car and an apartment. I said I'd come over and check it out. We hugged.
"And then a couple of days later I found out he had died."
Saginaw lost half its population over the last 50 years, and all but one of the major auto parts factories that were the foundation of its economy. The local unemployment rate was 15 percent in 2017. People are listing decent houses for under $50,000, and they're having trouble finding buyers.
Trying to tease out how much choice Ryan had in the drug use that killed him is a fool's errand. And yet here I am. We did a lot of running around together as teenagers. What separates him from me?
That I had parents who paid for college and would bail me out if I found myself broke, homeless, and out of ideas on the other side of the country is one factor.
Another: misery piles up in places like Saginaw. Punk bands and Xeroxed zines and punk Tumblr pages preach that you can, you should create a scene wherever you are. Your shitty town is not the problem. Everywhere is shitty. The trick is to reject the lies—careerism, consumerism, sheet music, showers, paying rent—and revel in the rejection.
The thing is, you're a lot more likely to make friends having a nose ring and hanging out on the curb drinking beers in New Orleans than you are most places. In Saginaw, as people go to college, move away, and marry off, your days spent skateboarding, dumpster diving, tagging, jamming out, and trying to get community projects going quickly become a lonely endeavor. Ryan found a partner, but never a place where he could be both healthy and himself.
That doesn't explain Jascha, though, does it? He grew up in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, traveled a bunch, and settled in New Orleans, surrounded by like-minded people.
Maybe there's no such place. Maybe some of us are wired to never be quite satisfied. Maybe some childhood experiences are so impossible to express and impossible to quiet that we'll forever be at war with reality. Maybe eating out of the garbage, hitching rides with strangers, and drowning yourself in drugs are reasonable responses to a society that is at once setting the Earth on fire and burying it in plastic.
Or maybe if Ryan had stayed on the road, he'd have eventually found what he had been looking for.
Money isn't a cure-all, but it helps.
A common stereotype about crust punks is that they're all secretly rich. There's no definitive research on who the traveler punks are, and I hesitate to make generalizations. I can tell you that some are—secretly rich, that is—and that Ryan was not. Also, I can say that I, the son of a doctor and a psychologist, have shared sleeping bags and jars of peanut butter with the offspring of movie stars and publishing executives, as well as the kids of laid-off construction workers, drug dealers, and single moms.
A lot of this is mysterious when you're in it. Clearly, whatever our class background, there's some shit going on with us. Part of that shit involves rebellion, if not against our parents then against authority. And if you're 20 and a squatter punk in a strange city, your parents are offstage, unseen, seldom mentioned. You are aggressively, unceasingly, exclusively your present self. There is no future, and the past, before you found punk, was obviously lame.
In death, though, family comes rushing into view.
“The year after Flee’s murder, police arrested a 16-year-old and charged him with that and three other killings, two of them on the same night as Flee’s, as well as a string of rapes and robberies. The suspect is now 26. A doctor wrote a few years ago that he is schizophrenic and has the language skills of a 6-year-old. He too will remain in the state mental hospital, for as long as it takes to restore him to competency.”
The last time I saw Sam was early in my first summer in New Orleans. He was knocking on my front door. He had his pack with him, sleeping bag rolled into a bundle at the top. It was raining hard, one of those afternoon summer thunderstorms that soaks the ground and cools the air for a few fleeting moments. Sam's undershirt, probably not particularly white in dry conditions, was soaked through, a smear of gray and brown.
I wasn't expecting him. He was someone I'd hung out with in Louisville, New England, and, that winter, in New Orleans. He "lived" or at least spent the plurality of the year at a squatted mansion in Buffalo, and we'd tried to shake the cold off earlier in the year with some whiskey and loops around the French Quarter.
He explained that he had come back last month and had been sleeping in City Park the last week or two, until a cop found him. He got arrested for trespassing and passed through Orleans Parish Prison. He wasn't trying to do that again, and I was the only person he knew still in town now that it was getting hot. Would I mind if he crashed on the couch for a couple days, just long enough for him to figure out a way out of here?
I let him stay. We didn't see much of each other, and I didn't think much of it until three years later. By then I had gone back to and finished school, and had just landed a job at a New York City nonprofit and a room in Bushwick. After a procession of sublets and internships and applications for jobs in other cities, I'd finally established a toehold.
Getting there meant I had to come out of hiding and give up some of my stubborn resistance to modernity. I bought a smartphone, signed up for social media accounts, and wrote a resume. It would be a while before I learned that when people write "ftw" on the internet they typically meant "for the win," not "fuck the world." But it worked: I convinced the straight world I was one of them and started spending my days online, like they do. And it must have been on Facebook that I learned Sam died.
It was an overdose, on the West Coast. He grew up in Brooklyn, but the funeral was out in Nassau County, just past the Queens line, in a Jewish cemetery not far from the racetrack. Some friends of Sam's crowded into my tiny living room with their packs for the weekend. I hadn't smelled concentrated body odor like that for a while. It was a welcome cameo from the life I'd just left.
We sobbed when the first clumps of dirt landed on the casket. Back at Sam's parents' house in Brooklyn, a tidy two stories squished between low hedges and narrow driveways, we looked at the floor and mumbled about how we knew him. We reminisced about him at his goofiest and most contrarian. And we learned how it all looked to his folks.
He had just asked his mom to come hop trains with him from Pensacola to New Orleans. After years of cutting school and a decade of living as a vagabond, Sam had been ready to let her in. Wary of how a trespassing arrest might affect her job as a Veterans Affairs nurse, she put him off.
"He said that ride was the most beautiful there is," she said. "I told him, 'Wait till I'm retired.'"
I made some small talk about the Occupy movement, which was in full swing. What Sam's mom said surprised me.
"I know it's exciting to you young people, and certainly I think it's a worthy cause, but we have complicated feelings." She explained that Sam had been in Eugene, Oregon, staying with an herbalist friend of a friend, when he went to check out the Occupy encampment in town and bumped into an old running partner. As best as Sam's parents knew, he'd been clean, and that's where he bought the heroin that killed him.
"So it's taken on some darker undertones," she said, sighing.
Within a cohort of people living high-risk lifestyles in low-income neighborhoods, maybe none of this should be surprising. But still I’m struck that, born after the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, raised in a prosperous country, we are blinking out of existence.
When we make the news, the view is necessarily a limited one. No journalist picked up on Jascha's death, but would one have if he'd started taking heroin after being prescribed OxyContin for a workplace injury? Maybe.
The warehouse fire did occasion a rare thoughtful Who are these dirty kids on our streets? piece from the Times-Pic. It only took eight dead.
Kirsten was young, white, pretty, and from out of town, and she died violently, meaning her death got exponentially more media attention than the killing of one of New Orleans's own young Black men. Her story is no less tragic for being the one that was told. After all, it's true: she was idealistic, a bright light snuffed out before her she could realize her full potential.
A man named Joseph confessed in 2018 to the killing of Kirsten and two other women a decade earlier. Imprisoned in Texas when he made the revelation, he had already admitted in court to the 2007 stabbing murder of a botanist named Jessica in her Bywater home. The emergence of a serial killer has meant more news stories, but his other victims remain ciphers in the reporting. One is a name and an age, a homecoming queen and her adulthood pill addiction. The other is a Jane Doe, a body found burned. Only Kirsten and Jessica got to be people in death.
A doctor told the court that Joseph has schizoaffective disorder and should be hospitalized. Only in late January of 2020 did doctors find him fit to stand trial, meaning that they believed he understood the role of the judge, jury, and lawyers on either side. Until recently he was in state psychiatric custody at a 170-year-old mental hospital upriver from Baton Rouge that officials have called deplorable, antiquated, and quickly deteriorating. He pleaded guilty to all three murders as this essay was going to press.
The year after Flee's murder, police arrested a 16-year-old and charged him with that and three other killings, two of them on the same night as Flee's, as well as a string of rapes and robberies. The suspect is now 26. A doctor wrote a few years ago that he is schizophrenic and has the language skills of a 6-year-old. He too will remain in the state mental hospital, for as long as it takes to restore him to competency.
Victor heard the shot that killed Flee from his house across the street. He was just getting home. Many months later, he realized that Flee's accused killer was one of the neighborhood kids who used to run amok at the cooperative bike shop where he, a Chalmette native with at least a decade on the other volunteers, was an elder statesman of sorts. The collective was perpetually trying to find the line between protecting the shop from kids stealing and staying open to the whole community.
One day, some kids snatched a bunch of cellphones, including Victor's. Some asking around the Eighth Ward brought him to the door of a shotgun house where a woman answered, someone's grandmother. She asked him what his phone looked like and went back and retrieved it from the kids inside. As she handed it over, she demanded a tip.
Victor was going through photos from the old phone years later. He came across a batch of pictures shot during the phone's time at the grandma's house. He recognized the face on the news as one of the kids horsing around in the images. The realization that he had once helped out, and nearly confronted the child who would go on to murder his friend fucked him up. But another decade has passed, and Flee's murder is now jammed somewhere in a heaping pile of losses, somewhere on top of Katrina and under the 2013 mass shooting at a Mother's Day second line parade that injured 18 and slowly killed his writer friend Deborah.
"Not to minimize the Flee thing, but I just don't know where in the layers of PTSD that is," Victor said. "Maybe that's why we're hyper-social because we're dealing with all of this trauma. If we're all in it together, doesn't that minimize it in kind of a fucked-up way?"
Victor doesn’t identify as punk, so he was talking about New Orleanians, but he may as well have been describing all of us.
Another option is to run towards normalcy, where, we're told, it's safer, but where you can't expect anyone to understand. There, silence extends its own pressure. The untold stories are no less true.
Survivors don't have to write history, but to be able to is its own privilege. These people live in my memory. I'm tired of being alone with them.
All my friends keep dying
and it's killing me
I don't wanna be here
Why do you
get to leave?
Corrina ran away at 16, started traveling full time at 19, and spent her 20s and much of her 30s not stopping in one place for longer than a few months. She estimates that half of her friends have died. She is now 40.
"It's like, whoops, I was all about living fast and dying young, and I forgot to die. Now what do I do?”
Crackbox broke up several years ago and Corrina moved back to San Francisco—then back to New Orleans, then back to San Francisco. She got a job in SF with the Homeless Youth Alliance, which specializes in serving what it calls "the most 'hard-core' subset of homeless youth" in the city, particularly those who congregate around Haight-Ashbury. Yes, what was once a destination for flower children is now a tourist strip. But the unwashed youth are still splayed across the sidewalks.
Since the plague hit, Corrina says, “There are not many traveler kids coming in, but many are sort of stuck here in a limbo.” The youth of today have traded the headbands and LSD of the ‘60s for butt flaps and cheap whiskey. Where Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service posters once choked signposts, patches for bands like Doom, Dystopia, and Crass now fleck the landscape.
The city legalized some tent encampments during the pandemic, and last we spoke, Corrina was out at the one on Haight Street, offering a listening ear and passing out clean needles, clean socks, and condoms to street kids. In many ways, they are younger versions of herself.