By Robin Ewing
Romeo is all about accessories: the blue-metal rabies tag dangling from the zipper of his black hoodie, the two empty red shotgun shells swinging from his backpack, the pair of plastic banana-yellow sunglasses, the wide, black-leather silver-studded wrist band and matching belt with a metal, Colt pistol buckle, the two curls pulled down in front of his ears tinted gold/orange, the blue and black bandanas tied around his wrist, the pin on his sock that says, “I love stray cats.”
Days pass in a blur for 23-year-old Romeo. One of Austin’s 400-or-so “street youth,” he used to sleep on a church porch with a group of other homeless kids, but Romeo says they got kicked off for breaking the rules — like not cleaning up, fighting and dogs. Now, he sleeps in an alley off the “Drag,” the part of Guadalupe Street bordering the University of Texas. His bed is a piece of cardboard laid inside a small indention of a building where the vent burps out room-temperature air, warming on cold nights. The cubby is just long enough to accommodate him.
Time doesn’t have the same meaning for a homeless person. I realize this waiting in a coffee shop on Guadalupe for Romeo to make his 2 p.m. appointment. An hour later I decide he isn’t showing, so I leave and there he is – slouching against a dirty red-brick wall, panhandling. His dark-curly head is down in studious concentration as he letters his new cardboard sign: “Fetish Night Tonight At Elysium. Spare Change For Fetish Night,” the “A”s drawn as anarchy symbols in his trademark style. “Hey,” he says, smiling as I sit down on the cold concrete next to him. “Is it 2 o’clock?”
Today is like any other day. Morning church bells clang an alarm, rousing him early. He smokes a cigarette, if he has one, picks up his mess and drifts over to the square on the drag where friends filter in and congregate with their dogs under the trees to chat, watch girls, heckle pedestrians, tell show-off stories and bum cigarettes. This morning he spent four hours in front of the old Sound Exchange building asking passersby for money. “You got any money for a stylish mofo,” he says, grinning and trying out his moves on a young collegiate-looking boy striding by. It doesn’t work. He usually makes a few dollars a day. “Enough for a joint, a game of Street Fighter and something to eat,” he says.
People have lots of names for the fluid gang of homeless teenagers and young adults that make the “Drag” their living room: drag rats, gutter punks, youths of promise. Many are barely teenagers, others in their early 20s. Each has a unique story. Some are abused and prefer the street to home; others are runaways, some just transients, a few prostitutes or drug-dealers and many just out of state foster care. “A couple just think it’s cool,” Romeo says.
“I like my freedom. I’m a traveler,” Romeo says. He has been traveling since he was 16. His faded army-green backpack, one worn leather strap dangling precariously, is stuffed with everything he owns: a sketchbook filled with light pencil drawings of Japanimation cartoons and sleek nude figures, a “smiley”– a rusted metal chain with a thick lock on the end — a weapon so named for the end result of a smack in the mouth, a wool hat, a blanket, a few cans of beer, a can of tuna fish and a few extra clothes. It’s so heavy I need two hands to lift it. He also carries a cardboard sign for panhandling that he changes every few days, as soon as someone tells him they’ve already seen it. Last week it read, “My girlfriend calls me a 2 pump chump. Spare change for a 2 pump chump.” And the one he says brought in the most: “I’m a fuck-up.”
A young dressed-up girl wearing an almost identical belt as Romeo strolls by with friends. “Hey, did you buy that at Hot Topic?” he shouts at her, referring to a trendy mall store that sells expensive “punk” clothes. “Yes,” she says smiling. Romeo grunts with displeasure, and she wanders off a little confused. “I’m disappointed in the punk scene here,” he says. “I went to Emos the other night for a show, and they wouldn’t let me in. Guess cause I’m a crusty kid.”
We start walking — our destination is Dobie mall — and I find myself backseat to a slow moving cavalcade down Guadalupe. “Hey there!” Romeo yells out every few seconds, raising his hand in a beauty-pageant wave to a friend, an acquaintance, another homeless person. We stop to chat. Progress is slow. A young girl with a long floppy mohawk and a thick hoop through the center of her nose skips up and slaps Romeo in the face – hard. “That wasn’t such a good one,” Romeo mutters good-naturedly. “She’s a dominatrix,” he says as if that explains it all. The dominatrix, dressed in baggy flannel, skips off. There is a pretend scuffle over a lighter with a scrawny old man, acted out dramatically next to a flustered coffee customer. A round, wispy grey-haired woman with multiple bags around her neck, strolls with us for a while. “Are you the one that likes TV dinners so much?” she asks, trying to give Romeo a coupon for 75 cents off. “You’ll have to get all the way up to H.E.B. if you wanna use it.” She muses about her past as a Galveston surfer girl and wanders off again.
We sit for a minute with a man and his identically dressed toy doll, both sporting a long braided beard. “Fish” walks by with his glossy pit-bull. A teenager, he is shirtless, with stratified scars forming a column down his arm. Another less-deliberate looking scar the size of a walnut blossoms on his chest. “We’re going shrooming tonight,” he tells Romeo and then turning to me almost shyly. “Wanna come?”
We keep walking. Romeo’s eyes roam everywhere as he talks, points and raises his voice for dramatic emphasis. He sidles over to a table outside Jamba Juice where a half-finished drink sits abandoned, picking it up with confident ownership. A minute later he spies a flattened, but intact, cigarette on the ground. “It’s stepped on but OK,” he says lifting it to his lips. “Just like me.” It takes over an hour to walk the three blocks to the food court in Dobie mall.
Inside, Romeo knows more people. A translucent boy, a tiny rhinestoned pink T-shirt hanging off sharp angles, hovers in the arcade room. Another group of teenagers from the bi-weekly Lifeworks meal roll dice, absorbed in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Romeo heads for the Korean stand and orders a 99 cent bowl of rice. “He usually gives me the kimchi for free,” he says.
He eats and talks non-stop, telling me stories about Junky Jay and Spit, who stabbed Banjo Billie in the leg and ran, about Irish and her boyfriend Southside who panhandles to buy her tacos, about pretty 16-year-old Amasa who passes out in compromising positions, about Fish’s first dog, Patsy, that he abandoned and Romeo saved, and a 15-year-old runaway who sells weed. He tells me about his mother, who died when he was 13 and how I remind him of her. He talks about his dad, whom he hates and never wants to see again, of abuse, of traveling, of freedom, of art and inspiration, of life philosophies. He coughs often, pressing an old bandana to his face. “The doctor at the clinic told me it was asthma. This isn’t asthma,” he says. We sit at the furthest table in the back, hidden from sight, beside a murky window peering down on St. Austin’s chapel. Life flows both painfully and effortlessly together for a while.
We drift out and back onto Guadalupe Street, back into the social scene. It takes another hour to walk four blocks up to the parking lot behind Jack in the Box. It’s time for band practice. The entire homeless, six-member band manages to show up at the same time despite no one owning a watch. Instruments are retrieved from various hiding spots. Romeo finds his washboard base — a rake, a bicycle wire and an upside down plastic bucket — behind an apartment complex wall. Brad, the leader and guitar player, starts yelling at no one and sloshing beer over his wiry tattooed arm and tight camouflage pants. His lopsided mohawk flaps in his red face as he strains with anger, hopping around and ranting in a nasally voice. Rusty, pulls a harmonica from his pocket and launches into a soft-spoken story about nothing in particular. Dave giggles, and randomly strums on his guitar strung with mismatched strings poking out in all directions. An argument erupts over how to spend the collective $14. Rusty wants a box of wine. “Our name is Beer-30 not Wine-30!” Brad yells violently. Someone returns with beer and cigarettes. More fighting ensues.
After a long time of little playing, a lot of drinking and even more yelling, the band breaks up. Rusty murmurs about a hoped-for gig at Hole in the Wall. “But Brad will screw it up. We can’t play with or without him,” he says, his sigh heavy with disappointment. The musicians scatter, dispersing in separate directions.
Romeo returns to his three-block territory on Guadalupe. He has a few dollars to spend on fetish night tonight. He’ll use a free bus pass or find someone with a car that wants to go too. He’ll drink as much beer as he can beforehand. “I’m growing up, but I don’t want to be,” he says. “I stay up all night, act like a kid, do what I want. It’s all about my life.”