ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Who are the Plaza People?

by  ARNO HOLSCHUH



 TRANSIENTS, PLAZOIDS, bums, hippies, kids, travellers. Whatever name you assign to them, you know who we're talking about: The group of individuals who spend their days hanging out in Redwood Park, coffeeshops and most of all on the Arcata Plaza. They've been the subject of ordinances, protests and probably hundreds of discussions around the water cooler.

But how well do we really know them? Where do they come from? Do they really get all their money from panhandling? Are they just too lazy to work or too traumatized to deal with life?

 

GLOSSARY

aggro     aggressive

custie     customer

schwilly     drunk

spanging   "spare changing"
or panhandling
 

 You may know what you think of them, but do you ever wonder what they think of themselves?

The answers may surprise you. It's not a scientific survey, but this week the Journal takes a closer look at five of Arcata's "undesirables." They're funny, boring, quiet, loud, dirty and clean. Some make lame excuses for their lifestyle, others defend it with vehemence and intelligence, and some are openly critical of what they see as a decline in civility among their fellow transients. They are diverse, complex, confused and contradictory -- in word, they're human.

 

Joshu, 21

[photo of Joshu]You could spot Joshu from a mile away. Even with a stooped posture, he stands well over six feet tall and has a crop of bright red hair. His flowing African tunic has enough different colors to make your brain hurt and given half a chance he'll start hawking healing crystals -- his main source of income, he said. His appearance suggests that he has just arrived via timewarp from 1969, but he's really from the mountains outside Chico.

Joshu's said he has been travelling some since birth but started doing it as full-time occupation about two years ago. When he hit Arcata, he fell in love.

"When I came here I was like, whoa, this place is really cool," he said, hopping from one roller blade to the other and scanning the Plaza for friends. He said he has been in and out of Arcata once every few weeks for the last few months, usually on the way from Ashland, Ore., to Yreka or Chico. But when he came back this time, he said, he noticed "the bad stuff going on."

Joshu said people on the Plaza (or "kids," as he calls them) have been misbehaving. Kids throw cigarette butts on the street, don't clean up after their dogs and can be too aggressive with their panhandling.

"And then," he said, "I was like, this place really needs me."

Which explains the two objects he carries around with him these days -- a broom and a shepherd's crook. The broom has a direct application; it helps him sweep up cigarette butts he finds on the sidewalk. The staff is more symbolic in nature. Joshu said he wants to solve the Plaza problems by convincing Plaza denizens to change their behavior through "word of mouth," guiding his flock to more peaceful relations with townspeople.

"If they could just change a tiny little bit of behavior," he said, "we wouldn't be in this mess. So pick up a cigarette butt a day."

 

Astro, 21

[photo of Astro]His hair is unkempt, his beard is a little wild and his clothes are a touch dingy. But spend 10 minutes with Astro and his intelligence shines through. The day I caught him he was sunning himself and writing a treatise on astrology in the margins of an old beat-up copy of the Tao Te Ching, a book he carries with him everywhere he goes.

Astro, born David Nurkiewicz, first heard about Arcata three years ago when he was living in Toledo, Ohio.

"I was told by my brother and Cricket, one of the local kids around here, that it was a nice place to come and just chill. There were a lot of nice people out here."

Since then, he said, he's seen things on the Plaza -- pronounced "plaa-zuh" in his broad Ohio accent -- get worse and worse.

"The kids are getting `aggro,' too much drinking, people getting all `schwilly' on the Plaza."

Astro said his recognition of those problems makes him understand the motives behind the recent ordinances passed by the Arcata City Council to "clean up" the Plaza. Those ordinances enlarged the area of Arcata in which smoking is prohibited, banned sitting or lying on sidewalks and specified that dogs, even when leashed, are only legal if travelling from point A to point B.

Not that Astro supports the new laws. He signed petitions against them and thinks they will hurt the community by shutting down a public space. But the violence and aggression is rightfully "frowned upon" by townspeople, he said. And while it will make some kids angry, "They really didn't do a lot to stop it."

The panhandling has gotten much more aggressive on the Plaza, Astro said.

"They get all drunk and start `spanging' here at Ninth and H right out on the fence. They block the sidewalk and you can't get five feet before somebody asks you for something -- `Spare change, got a cigarette, how about a buck for beer?'"

The panhandler's aggression is rooted in a feeling of entitlement, according to Astro.

"They think it's deserved. And this is a place you don't get anything unless you work for it."

Work is how he gets his own spending cash, Astro said. He doesn't hold down a regular job, but he said he doesn't need to because "there are many ways to be useful."

Astro said he usually makes himself useful --and paid -- with one of two activities: recycling bottles and cans discarded by people sleeping in the community forest and painting houses. People are often willing to have him paint, he said. They buy the materials and he supplies the time and experience.

"I'm a good painter, I've been painting since I was 14. And I like the work."

The Plaza people's attitude toward money isn't the only problem, Astro said. He said there has been an upswing in serious violence within the transient community caused mainly by alcohol.

He has had harsh personal experience with the problem. Joseph Nurkiewicz, Astro's brother, was the transient just convicted of stabbing Arcata resident Jed Vandenplas during a fight outside Marino's bar Aug. 25.

Joseph denied the crime at his trial and several versions of that night's events have surfaced, but certain facts are clear in Astro's mind. "They just convicted him. And that is all because of alcohol."

To Astro, it's not an isolated incident -- there were other, less celebrated cases of violence.

"There was a guy beat by 12 kids in Redwood Park because he was selling bad acid or something. The kids came back and beat him up."

As Astro told the acid-dealer's story, another Plaza person came up behind him and gleefully chimed in with a more lurid version, including graphic descriptions of injuries.

Astro listened attentively, turned his eyes to the sidewalk and then quietly said, "Yeah. There's too much violence."

 

Rose, 18

[photo of Rose's T-shirt]Rose was sitting on the corner of Ninth and H with her dog at her feet during her interview, bopping her blonde head to the Grateful Dead blaring out of the tape player on a trash can behind her. Asked what her favorite thing to do might be, she responded that she was doing it: Listening to the Dead and hanging out with her friends and pet is exactly where she likes to be.

She came to Arcata from Illinois because she wanted to go to California. "Illinois sucks," she said, and spit out a wad of phlegm to accentuate the point.

She said she gets her income from panhandling --an occasional check from her mother. Panhandling in Arcata is tough, she said, because people up here aren't very accepting of the idea.

"Most people just look at you like, `Get a job.'" When she was in Southern California, she was able to make enough money begging to rent a room. But here she makes a bare $10 a day, and then only if she "really busts her ass."

There isn't really a problem on the Plaza, Rose said. People are just being too sensitive.

"I think it's a pretty mellow atmosphere out here. People in this community could get along with us if they just look at us like we're people, understand we're young and want to travel. We want to have fun before our bones get old and tired."

Rose admitted drug sales happen on the corner of Ninth and H, but she was quick to add that no hard drugs change hands. And she said the brisk business in pot doesn't represent a threat to anyone. "I don't think it's really a problem," she said.

And while it's mostly "kids" who sell the pot, their customers -- "custies" -- are a diverse group. "Old people, young people, fat people, ugly people, pretty people, everybody. We love custies!"

That said, she recognizes not everyone loves Plaza people back. She was reluctant to talk and refused to have her face photographed, saying she feared the reaction Arcata residents might have. She said she didn't want people to "look at her any differently."

"This town is really small, really laid back and really mellow. When people like us are there it scares people, poses a threat. A lot of people get scared when they see a big crowd of people standing on the corner. They automatically think gangs and violence. That's different here; we're not about violence."

But what about the recent stabbing?

"Yeah, there are some violent people. But usually when that happens these kids don't put up with it. They tell them they need to calm down or go somewhere else.

"We don't want that kind of stuff happening. We don't want to be banned from this town."

 

Pat, 23

[photo of Pat]When Pat was 4 months old living in Vincennes, Ind., his mother left and his father went to jail. Pat went into foster care.

"It was all right because they're there to care of you," he said in soft voice completely out of line with his appearance. Clad in bomber jacket and a spiked hat, Pat looks like someone you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

Judging by appearances alone, you'd never guess the truth about Pat: He's actually very shy.

When he was 16, he dropped out of foster care to live with his family. It didn't work out, he said, because his father couldn't handle him.

"He didn't really kick me out, he was just an alcoholic." So when he was just 16, he started travelling. Pat had only been in Arcata a few days when he was interviewed.

"I was in Eugene, just living there with a friend of mine. I camped out up there for a while, and then my friend got a job at Venture Data; It's this place to work, y'know." That friend kept the job and eventually "got a life with a girlfriend and everything." Pat decided to move on.

"I heard people up there talking about Arcata, so I came down here."

"Arcata has a reputation as a good place to be" among transients, he said, but not necessarily because of its welcoming atmosphere. Pat said he was drawn here by the same things that bring up affluent vacationers from the Bay Area -- the "tourist attractions."

"Because it's a growing town --of the redwoods.

"I'm in the woods and then I come down here and hang out, talk to people, chill out for a while, spend my days." He said he might play hacky sack with someone else on the Plaza for a while and then "spare change" to get some money to eat.

He doesn't see panhandling as a bad thing.

"There's other ways of doing things," he said, "but I don't see why there should be a problem with it." He plans on staying in Arcata for a while and someday getting a job here, but for right now he has chosen this lifestyle.

"There are a lot of people who are customers at stores or whatever, and they kind of shun us because we're down here trying to make a living for ourselves." That shunning is subtle but doesn't go unnoticed, he said.

"They either look at you and straight down or just look away." He said he wasn't really sure what the problem was, but then added sheepishly that it "could be my hat."

Dangerous behavior certainly isn't the problem, Pat said. In the time he's been in Arcata he hasn't seen any violence.

"Arcata is probably the safest place to be that I know."

 

Willow

Willow didn't give her age but she is of a different generation than most of the people she was standing with. She said she wasn't a transient anymore, because she now has a daughter to take care of and a house in Garberville. But after decades of travelling the globe without a home, she still feels the need to come up to Arcata and hang out with people who are making the same lifestyle choice she did when she was young.

"I walked out of the house when I was 14 and I've been walking since," she said. She's walked, stowed away or hitchhiked around the globe, touring Asia, Europe and Australia along the way. And she wouldn't have had it any other way.

"I felt that I had the right to choose the way I wanted to be, and that did not include living in a box, driving a box on wheels and spending my entire day working to pay for this box that I didn't want to have in the first place."

Paying rent is a huge barrier to happiness and freedom, she said. "You can't travel if you pay rent, you can't experience life, you can't meet people, you can't explore."

She has paid her way by selling handcrafts and asking for spare change.

"I used to say I was alive by the grace of God and survived by the kindness of others," she said with a grin.

And while she's thankful for all the help she received from strangers along her way, Willow said she believes panhandling is in a sense a community service.

"It allows someone to fulfill the idea of giving. Without people asking they couldn't give."

People who don't see things that way and get upset about panhandling -- especially the in-your-face form sometimes found on the Plaza -- are being unrealistic about the world, she said.

"Welcome to life. It's not going to be all nice and pretty and pleasant for everybody. If it bothers you when the kids ask you for change, cross the street or just deal with it.

"When you go to the bank and someone doesn't sign your papers correctly and you get into a confrontation, you're not going to write a letter to the editor because someone at the bank raised their voice at you. This is no different."

But Willow said she, too, has seen a decline in the amount of respect shown to others on the Plaza. In her day, when the `transients' were hippies, it was different.

"Hippies had at least a certain amount of respect. I say `certain amount' because the hippies' idea of sharing, everything belongs to everybody, it undermines a type of social respect." But they believed in sharing their own possessions as well as asking from others, she said, and tried to love everything -- even the people who didn't give to them.

"Now you've got this younger generation of `bliss-ninnies.'" Bliss-ninnies, she said, are young kids who feel that they are owed something by the world.

"I have my house open as a Rainbow house, which means you can come in and take a shower and sleep on my floor." That used to work well when her guests were hippies; they'd repay her kindness by washing her dishes or sweeping the floor.

But lately the people who use her house "have done nothing. They sat and played my video games, ate my food, used my shampoo and didn't even say thank you when they left. They were like, `Hey, we'll catch you next time.'

"`Oh no you won't.' I'm not having bliss-ninnies in my house. You've got to give to get, and these people just want to get."

The changes in transient culture are an effect of the changes in the mainstream, she said.

"As society becomes tighter, the `subsociety' wants everything to become looser. Society starts holding on to their wallets a little tighter and the subsociety starts to get confused."

That's why laws like those passed in Arcata will have anything but the desired effect, she said. Because they "breed fear," they will also breed hostility.

"When somebody is walking down the street and sees a transient and fears them," they are less likely to give them money -- or respect.

"And that transient has been out all day and hasn't eaten, and they've asked the last three dozen people and they all said no. That transient thinks: `If one more person comes along I'm going to blow my shit.'

"It just never used to be this hard for us.'"

It's not a problem for her anymore. Having a daughter has made her realize that there are some life explorations that require settling down, she said. She is unemployed (on temporary disability) because her years of travelling make it hard for her to conform to a workaday life. But her child has brought her out of the life of a traveller.

"I don't necessarily want to conform, but I'm at a point now where I will. Proudly."

 

Interested in what's going to happen on the Plaza? A community forum on identifying and solving Arcata's downtown problems will be held at the Arcata Community Center, 1-4 p.m.Feb. 24. 822-1469.

 


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