by J.D. Tuccille
February 10, 1997

You Owe Me!

The squat around the corner from my apartment went up in flames the other day. News reports have been sparse ó the East Village barely registers on New York media radar ó but it seems that the fire was accidentally started by one of the squatters illegally camping out in the abandoned building. It wasnít a small fire either ó geysers of flame shot across the street, fire trucks and ambulances arrived in waves, and a column of smoke rose straight up to add an acrid spice to the soup we New Yorkers call air. But thatís only where the story begins.

In the aftermath, dozens of ragged, and rather pungent, former residents of the building pressed against the police barricades chanting ďNo housing, no peace!Ē They were angry, too. Angry with the humorless wrath of the righteous, because city authorities were demolishing their gutted building and now somebody owed them.

They were owed, you see, because they needed a place to live. Need confers right through some magical alchemy. I know that, because I heard them say it, over and over. They told me as I passed on the street. They told the news reporters who they button-holed, and they told their friends, the ones who somehow manage the upkeep for legal apartments and spend much of their time pasting up multilingual flyers calling for the preservation of the rent control regulations that have devastated the cityís housing stock.

The city authorities arenít too sympathetic, though. Squatting, after all, is illegal ó itís trespassing. Firemen, cops, and rescue workers risked a personal fricasee over a fire that shouldnít have started, for people who put their own lives in danger, and endangered the inhabitants of the tightly packed tinderboxes along the old block.

Itís not that I completely oppose squatting ó when itís done for real, as homesteading. Done right, homesteading requires the assumption of legal title, efforts to make the structure safe and livable, and payment for utilities so that the neighbors donít wake up to the smell of you as the rotisserie special of the day.

ďHeartless bastard!Ē I hear you say. ďThose people are homeless ó they canít afford decent housing. We knew you were a swine, but now youíve stepped over the line.Ē

Well, maybe. But maybe the sight of those ranks of young, white, suburbanite heads set off my bullshit alarm. Bums-for-a-day, junkies, drop-outs ó many of them were in that squat for the thrill. Itís camping, but with a political edge, and they can piss-off Mommy and Daddy at the same time. Unemployed? Of course ó and proudly so, as theyíve told me in the past when I walked down the street, clearly on my way to work.

ďDonít scowl at me, man! Iím in a band! I donít have to go to a job that I hate!Ē

Uh huh. You donít have hot water, either, asshole.

And theyíre not just unemployed, but deliberately unemployable. Dreadlocked heads, unbathed, and in many cases emblazoned with elaborate tribal-patterned facial tattoos that could evoke nightmares in anybody who has recently enjoyed a late-night viewing of Apocalypse Now.

Thatís right. Nineteen and 20-year olds stenciling themselves with a permanent bathroom-mirror reminder of that brave semester on Avenue B. Mommy and Daddy better be generous with the trust fund, Ďcuz even an inner-city McDonalds will hesitate to hire aging Maori-warrior wannabes to scrape the grease out of the fryolator.

Oooh. But I forgot. We owe them housing, and food, and maybe a job as long as they donít have to get up too early. A caring society provides for its poor and disadvantaged ó even if the disadvantaged did their best to render themselves that way. Right?

No. Caring people know better than to let kids grow up thinking that the world owes them a living. Itís better to know the truth from the start than to get a necessary kick-in-the-ass reminder when youíre 20, disfigured, and living on the street.

No housing, no peace? Fine. Whatís your motherís number?

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and Iíll use your polished skull as a beer mug.