Column: Labels can obscure real issues
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 14:10
Jules Bentley’s article, “Everyone Hates the Oogles,” in the September issue of Antigravity got me thinking about my own feelings toward gutter punks. For those who don’t know, “gutter punks” (aka “oogles” or “crusties”) are those pan-handling youth that troll the French Quarter in asymmetrical hairstyles, tattoos and earth-toned clothing. (Seriously though, what is up with all the brown? It’s not like colorful clothing costs more.) Bentley addresses the resentment New Orleanians have toward crusties.
I remember my first experience with this hate. I was ten years old, walking around the French Quarter with my dad. I saw a young woman on a stoop begging for change. She didn’t look like the typical homeless person, and for some reason, that made me furious. I scoffed, “She’s not even playing an instrument! Why is she asking for money?” My dad told me that she probably didn’t know how to play an instrument. She probably had a hard life and had no real family. At the same time, I also remember admiring the gutter punks for looking so cool. I longed for their freedom, their large groups of friends and dogs. They were so Peter Pan!
Sure, they suck away precious resources from street performers and those who are unwillingly homeless, but aren’t they fabulous? Some Loyola students even imitate their style, despite attending a private university. There is something romantic about these kids, something we admire, perhaps out of our own Peter Pan daydreams.
Therein lies the problem with “Gutter Punk” as a category. It’s basically impossible to differentiate between gutter punks and people who dress like them. It’s also impossible to tell who among them is willingly homeless and who is homeless due to circumstances beyond their control.
I long to be compassionate. However, compassion here is measured in dollars and is thus a finite resource. This is why gutter punks make us angry. Anybody who’s ever worked in the Quarter has had the experience of walking out of a stressful job only to be hassled for dollars by the willingly jobless. Heck yes we resent this! Yet this tendency to avoid the crusty translates into discrimination against all tattooed or homeless individuals. It is similarly de-humanizing to envy the “freedom” these travelers appear to have when many of them suffer from drug problems, abandonment and health issues. None of this means freedom to me.
“Gutter punk” as a category thus becomes a receptacle for our own resentments and desires. In our defense of them as well as in our disdain, we take away their humanity and fill that void with our own fears.
Chacha Murdick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org