Stranger to the System

Jim Flynn's new book, Stranger to the System, is coming out soon. It'll be available through our offices or through CurbsidePress.com. Jim spent dozens of hours interviewing the "residents" of Tompkins Square Park. He's a true listener, and his oral histories are riveting. Here's an excerpt.

Stephanie and Bolt

I first meet Stephanie and Bolt as I'm riding my bike through East River Park late one night in October 2001. I nod a tentative hello as I pass, but the foreboding presence of Bolt and Anubis the pitbull is an unnerving deterrent. After I peddle a few hundred feet, I circle back and arrange an interview. When we reach the river, I ask the couple if they would be comfortable talking in front of each other. Stephanie replies that it's no trouble at all. They're married. Stephanie takes the first interview. At first Bolt eyes me cautiously, but after a few minutes he seems satisfied that I'm harmless and curls up on the concrete with Anubis. Stephanie responds to my questions confidently, with elevated Californian inflection.

 

Stephanie

My mom's really cool. She's this punk rocker chick, really fucking cool, smokes weed, drinks beer, snorts coke--really cool person. My dad was like this stuck-up asshole who doesn't even drink, smoke, nothing--typical Indian from New Delhi. I lived with both of them in East Los Angeles until they got divorced when I was two. When my mom split for Tennessee, my dad couldn't handle us, so he bounced us around to different relatives. I grew up in Santa Ana, Hollywood, Irvine, Tustin, Costa Mesa--all over.

All the relatives on my dad's side were straight and narrow Indian assholes. They took me to their churches and tried to discipline us. I liked it much better staying with my mom's people. Her family was crazy, and I could do what ever I wanted. My Uncle Allen and his son are in Quentin for selling coke and boosting VCRs. That was a cool family.

Me and my sister did a lot of things kids do, like nigger knocking and shit. You know, knock and run? We'd shoot BB's at people's dogs and play Atari. There wasn't much consistency with everybody else, but me and my sister were always together. She was my best friend in the world. We always found ways to amuse ourselves. I remember one time we were at my grandmother's house, and we stole her cigarettes and went under the porch. It took us a whole book of matches before we got one lit, then my sister ran around yelling that she had cancer. We were basically just delinquent little hood rats.

Nobody could get us into a normal routine. One of my aunts tried for a while, but I can't remember her name, maybe Rahim or Pudgee. She'd try to make us do our homework and not let us watch scary movies. But that didn't work out. We were too wild.

I loved school. I loved breakfast, and I loved lunch. We hardly ever really got fed at home. School lunch was the shit, pancakes, Pop Tarts. That's the only thing I liked about school. What sucked was you had to carry this little card, so everybody knew you were poor. I used to get in fights over that a lot. I did all right as far as grades. I wouldn't study, but I could pass a test.

When I was like seven, my mom decided she wanted custody of us. She was working at a La-Z-Boy factory in Tennessee and was living in her own trailer. My dad gave us up right away, because he wasn't taking care of us anyway. Mom sent us a letter with plane tickets, and she said that she had a surprise for us when we got there. It was kind of weird in the airport, because I didn't really remember what my mom looked like. But when I saw her it was like immaculate acception. Like, "That's my mom."

Mom took us back to the trailer and showed us the surprise. It was this huge broken ass boat in the backyard. It was cool to play in it. My sister and I used to listen to Cindy Lauper and pretend we were going somewhere. After a while it filled up with beer cans, and we couldn't play in there anymore.

The first two years in Tennessee were awesome. My mom had remarried, and they had a kid. There were also four other stepbrothers. My stepdad was pretty nice at first. He was an ex-con who had all the boys over playing poker, smoking weed. He was in jail a lot and was gone most of the time. The rest of the time he worked the night shift in some lumber factory or something. I liked him, because he didn't bother me. He didn't get on my case when my sister and me pinched his stash.

First time I smoked a joint I got so high that I could just hear my heart going bup, bup, bup. I went into my bedroom, and that Prince song Purple Rain came on. I turned the lights off, and I just melted. It was soooo fucking cool.

School in Tennessee was different than LA. In LA nobody really gave a shit that I was half Indian, because I looked Mexican. When I moved to Tennessee, I was the only person of color in the school. Little kids would call me nigger and shit, and I'd get really pissed off. On top of that, they still made fun of us for being poor. We were so poor that we only had three spoons in the house. We had to wait to eat.

My mom cheated on my stepdad a lot. He drank all the time, and he was always passed out in stupors. My mom told him that if he stopped drinking, she'd get back with him. He did. That's when he became the big ass dickhead from hell. See when he was drunk, we got to do anything we wanted, like camp out in the back yard with tents and stuff. After he got sober, he started coming home every day at exactly three o'clock. As soon as he got home, that's when the yelling started. "Wraah! Wraah! What are you doing? Where's dinner?" My stepfather's still sober to this day, and he's still a dick.

When I went back to LA, I moved in with my uncle in Los Nietos. He was really neglectful, so that was cool. I had my own apartment. I slept in the living room and my grandfather was in the bedroom. He was really sick, so I had to change his bladder bag and feed him. My uncle paid me a hundred dollars a week to take care of him.

There were a lot of other kids around, and I had a boyfriend named Carlos. He was this little cholo and his older brothers were Serranyos. He always had his hair slicked back and creased pants, looked just like Ralph Macchio. Ralph Macchio was the shit. I lost my virginity to Carlos, and it was cool. At Whittier High School I hung out with a pretty hardcore group of cholos, and they respected me. Have you ever seen Blood in Blood Out? It's this cholo movie about drugs and shit. That's what my life was like. My friends all had low riders, and they rolled with different gangs. It was a lot of excitement. Then one of my friends got caught with a brick of weed, and I was holding his gun for him. The school pressed charges and we got kicked out.

The whole time I was in Los Nietos, my dad kept saying that he wanted me to move in with him, but he really didn't mean it. My step mom just kept on nagging him, saying that he had a responsibility to take care of his own blood. I really didn't remember my father other than a vague image. I guess I missed the thought of having a dad, but I didn't miss him as a person. When the shit went down with the gun, my father called and said he was going to take me in.

I was scared to be leaving, kind of wary, like a dog. It was weird when he pulled up. He looked like this weird hunchbacked dude with his pants pulled up to his waist and these big glasses. He looked Mexican, but he had this thick Indian accent.

Alisa Viejo was total Southern California suburbs. I was fourteen, so it was my second year in high school. The place was filled with totally snotty 90210 people, trendy fucking yuppie kids. At first I fit in with the popular clique, but after a while that got boring, so I started hanging with these four anarchist, fuck you, freaky freaky, 666 kind of kids.

One time they took me to a graveyard, and we got into all this philosophy. Then one kid whipped out a Satanic Bible. It's all about enduring in carnal pleasures and not having a hand that powers over you. Do unto others as they do unto you, not turn the other cheek. It's all about doing your own thing. We'd draw a pentagram in the dirt and hold hands and maybe chant a backwards prayer, but mostly we just hung out in cemeteries and talked. We didn't sacrifice babies or anything.

I spent a lot of time at this place called Cafe Lo Lo. A lot of gothic kids hung out there. They were cool, because they weren't affiliated with any kind of authority figures, and they did a lot of drugs. One of my best friends was this big chick who sold dope, named Cathy. She was always sleeping, nodded out. We would lug her around the school from class to class. I didn't know what was wrong with her. I just thought she was a fat chick, so she slept a lot. One night we were sitting around at her house drinking tequila and she shot up. I asked her what it was like, and she gave me the basic Train Spotting description--a thousand tongues licking her. She didn't want to give it to me, but I was like, "Kick down, motherfucker!" I was so drunk I didn't even feel it. After a while, I started going to her house a lot and shooting up and nodding out in front of the television. It was hella cool.

Around that time, I started cutting myself. When I got mad, I'd go into my room and take out this cool gothic dagger and slice my arms. It really released a lot of anger. Sometimes I'd get rigs and start withdrawing blood. About a week before Christmas, my grandfather in Los Nietos passed away. I was really upset. All of my father's relatives came together for a reunion at our house. They were really mad at my dad, because he didn't tell any of them that Grandpa was about to die. They got into a big argument, and I went into my room and started cutting myself. My dad busted in and dragged me down in front of everybody yelling that I was crazy. After that, they stuck me in rehab.

They kept putting me in different facilities, and each time I'd bust out. My parents would file a missing person report, but when the cops brought me back, my dad would kick me out again.

[When] I was twenty-one[they] put me in [a] program called Grer House. You lived there, but they let you leave for work. It was really cool. The first day I got there I slept in till noon. It was awesome. I had a job working at a restaurant, and I had access to all my money. As long as I followed the house rules, I could go out any time I wanted. We did get drug tested, so I had to stay clean.

On my free time I met these kids and we started a band. I played drums. Eventually, I started going to bars and doing a lot of drinking, because alcohol wouldn't show up in a test. I was never really an alcoholic--it was just taking the place of the heroin. Grer House was so lax, they had no idea what was going on. Even when I kept on showing up late, they just gave me warnings. That's when I met Bolt.

Bolt

"It's all about shock value. I could be walking down 42nd Street at rush hour, and people will part like the Red Sea. I love it. Sometimes old ladies will look at my face and scream. I scream back. Stephanie hates it when I do that."

It's two o'clock in the morning when I finish talking to Stephanie. She gently rubs Bolt's shoulder and rouses him from his sidewalk slumber. The couple switches places as Anubis climbs on the bench. Bolt's hands tremble as he rolls a loose tobacco cigarette. At first Bolt appears disoriented, but gradually he settles into a steady hypnotic tone. His voice swoops in pitch as he alternates between rapid-fire recollection and calm introspective analysis. Although I find it difficult to digest some of the details of Bolt's narrative, I am captivated by his energy.

I was born in Bellevue. I have no idea who my dad was. It was just me and my mom for a long time. She was kinda tall and skinny, really pale, changed her hair a lot. I don't know what color her real hair was. She was usually pretty calm and quiet, unless somebody was paying her to do otherwise. She was a prostitute.

We moved around a lot. I remember parts of Brooklyn. I remember Queens, Uptown, down here. We hopped around a lot of hotel rooms and different guys' houses. Sometimes she'd pull her tricks with me in the room. She'd just tell me to watch the TV while guys came and went. I watched it so much I thought Archie Bunker was my dad. On TV I noticed a lot of kids had a mom and a dad and lived in the same place every night. They were always happy and laughy. For me it wasn't like that. I always knew something was wrong.

I used to get nightmares from watching my mom shoot dope. It looked like it hurt. She'd start talking all slow about things I didn't understand, and then she'd fall asleep. She gave me food, but I don't think I really loved her. I always used to get mad because I never had anything I wanted. The one thing that I wanted the most was army guys--all the kids on TV had army guys. I remember one time I was at the playground, and I picked up this other kid's army guy and I wouldn't let it go. The kid started crying and my mom dragged me away screaming, but it was all right because I got to keep him. I still have him today. A few months later when I turned six, my mom left me in this room for two days with just the TV. When she came back she had this box full of old busted toys. That was kinda cool.

I had a lot of imaginary friends, but they only came out when nobody else was around. I liked talking to the TV. It was like my friend for a while. I guess my fist hero was Tonto. He was cool, because he didn't talk. He just hung out. I didn't really understand that it was fiction. I thought that people lived in there. One day I got in a lot of trouble, because I found a hammer, and I broke the TV trying to set the people free.

When I was seven, my mother put me in PS 62. That was her way of getting rid of me for a while. I freaked out, because I'd never seen that many kids before. I didn't know what to make of the classroom. I didn't want to learn how to write or anything. They gave me a pencil, and I thought it was a toy, so I stuffed it down my pants. They found it, because I stabbed myself in the knee. For the fist two months, I didn't talk to any of the other kids at all. Then I saw this kid who had dirty clothes like me. We started hanging out, because we were the only kids who never had a lunch. We used to fight each other every day, but then we were best friends. After summer vacation I never saw that kid again. I looked for him in the fall, and I was mad that he wasn't there.

In first grade I was so scared of school that I just kept really really quiet. But being there a second year I turned into a loud motherfucker. I was running around everywhere. The second week they put me in a classroom with just a few other kids. That sucked, because they were retarded. One kid had this funky metal thing on his head. That scared the shit out me. The kid who sat next to me was a big fat kid who always drooled on himself, and the teacher was this big ugly Halloween-looking bitch. I'd just go to sleep and try not to think about the kid with the metal thing. (laughs)

My mom never brought me back for third grade. She'd just leave me in playgrounds for hours. I thought that was the greatest thing -- beat sitting in the hotel room. If she put me on the jungle gym I could only play on the jungle gym. If I fell off, I'd have to get back on real quick, or when she came back she'd beat the shit out of me.

To this day, I still hate the corner of Houston and Avenue A. There used to be a candy store there. When I was nine years old, my mother took me there, gave me five bucks, and told me that she'd be back in a little while. I thought it was great. I ate candy for hours, then I sat outside the store waiting for her to come back. I waited and waited for hours. I was cold as fuck, I had a huge stomach ache, and I was scared as fuck.

At like four in the morning, a bunch of punk rockers walked by--scared the shit out of me. See, I knew the difference between normal people and punk rockers. They scared me shitless with their bright colors and funny hair. There was this one lady who had this huge pink Mohawk and metal chains hanging all over her. Her name was Ice. She asked me what I was doing there, and I said I was waiting for my mom. Ice sat there talking with me for hours. When the sun came up she told me that my mother wasn't coming back. I was balling. That morning Ice took me home with her. I fell asleep right there in her arms. That was like the first time I ever slept with my arms around somebody.

When I woke up I was in this huge room with a few other punk rockers in it. There were candles all over the place and holes in the wall. The smell was kind of funky. Later I found out that it was a squat called Dos Blockos.

Ice kind of became my mom. It was awesome, because I could do anything I wanted whenever I wanted. The only thing I had to do was to pick up the garbage. That was really no big deal, because the beer cans were toys. For a while, Ice kept me away from all the other people, and I'd only hang out in her room. The people who came to visit all did the same thing as my mom--shot heroin. I didn't really know what it was. I just thought that was something moms did. One time, and this is really fucked up, she poked me with a needle, and I cried. Then I felt really funny, like sleepy. When I woke up it was like a weird dream, but my arm still hurt. I didn't know what to make of it. Ice never did that to me again.

I lost my fear of punk rocker people pretty quick. Now I thought that all the normal-looking people were scary. Gradually, I got to know the squatters. They were all in their late teens, early twenties. Ice was eighteen when she picked me up. I really didn't have any friends my own age, but Ice had a boyfriend. We'd hang out, and he'd put me on his shoulders and run around the room and I felt like a kid.

When I started getting more comfortable, I turned into a real pain in the ass. I was a real high-energy kid. If you left your stuff laying around, I'd pick it up and start playing with it. I was always trying to run up and jump into girls' laps. If they tried to kiss their boyfriend, I'd get in his way. I'd fuck with all the guys, because I was too little for them to beat me up. The squatters gave me the name Unwanted. For ten more years it stuck.

I could do pretty much whatever I wanted inside the squat, but Ice was really worried about letting me out on the street alone. Pedophiles would always try to pick me up. It got to the point where I was leery of everybody I didn't know. If I didn't know you, you couldn't get me to budge. I thought everybody was out to hurt me.

Ice tried to bring me back to school once when I was eleven. I had kind of a little punk rock look, because all the people in the squat would spike my hair and rip my shirts. When they put me in the classroom, nobody would talk to me. That kind of pissed me off, so the first day I got into a fight, and I beat this kid up really bad. The principal said he was going to call my mom. I remembered Ice telling me that if they said they were calling your mom, run away. That's what I did. I busted out of the school and kept running all over the city. I thought that every grown-up was out to get me. Finally, I ran into a couple kids who I knew from the squat, and they brought me back home.

When I was twelve, I started getting into heroin. A few of the people in the squat got me high a few times 'cause they thought it would be funny. Ice beat the shit out of the guy who shot me up and kept screaming at me not to do it. It didn't make sense. I thought that everybody did it, and it was normal. After a few times, I learned how to do it on my own. That was like the greatest thing. It was like, yeah, I'm a grown-up now. I thought I was hot shit. Ice didn't know about it for a while. Sometimes I'd hide her drugs and do them myself. When she found out she flipped.

Pretty soon [my girlfriend] Jane and I were doing all sorts of drugs, pot, coke, heroin, acid. I used to grab purses in midtown to get the money. I robbed prostitutes and guys trying to buy prostitutes. I'd just grab anything they were holding and run. One time me and Jane were walking down 42nd Street, and this old wino just came out of nowhere and cut her with a broken bottle. I thought he killed her, so I just started pounding on him. I stabbed him with my knife and then broke a couple bottles over his head. The cops rolled up, and I got arrested. They charged me with attempted homicide.

When I went to court, they couldn't find my mom, so they decided to put me in a group home. I had no choice. Within like an hour, these people picked me up and carried me to a van kicking and screaming. We drove to this little farm in Connecticut. When we got out, I just started swinging. I didn't want to be there at all. They had to put me in this rubber time-out room. It took a couple days for me to cool down.

When I got out of the rubber room, they put me to work doing some chores in the kitchen. I went down to the basement for a mop, and I saw a can of gasoline down there. I poured it all over the kitchen. I was just getting ready to light the stove, and this guy came up and tackled me.

They were going to call the cops and put me in a juvenile detention center, but this lady talked them into letting me stay. For two days I had to clean up the gas. When I finished, they let me go into the barn and hang out with the animals. The animals were cool. They were the only thing I didn't try to break or mangle. I didn't want to hang out with other kids. I didn't know how to relate to them, and I was always getting in fights. I even hit one kid with a baseball bat. For the first two weeks, I was in the time-out room every day. All the other times, I was under lock and key, because I was a flight risk.

I didn't trust adults at all. The ones that I met on the streets were always trying to scheme you for sex or something else, even if they were perfectly normal looking--especially if they were perfectly normal looking. The people at the group home freaked me out. They were nice, but they were authoritative. They wanted me to change my clothes and cut my hair, pretty much do everything I didn't want to do. They were really Christian-based people. You had to go to church. You had to say prayers. I didn't like that at all. I'd seen church people before at food kitchens, but you could just blow them off. At the group home they forced you to sit there while they bible-thumped the shit out of you. A week after I tried to burn down the kitchen, they made me kneel down at the altar in front of the priest so that everybody could pray for me. That was really embarrassing. I hated it. Afterwards, the priest talked to me for a while. He was cooler than I thought he'd be, but I didn't want to hear it.

Things didn't get any better as time went on. I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere acting like a maniac, so I started behaving myself to get their trust up. After the third week, they let me go out alone after dinner. It was like seven o'clock, kinda dark. I snuck into the barn where I was hiding my old clothes, then I hauled ass out to the highway and hitchhiked down to Norwalk, Connecticut. I was scared, but I knew I had to do it. From there, I got another ride into Bridgeport. I stayed there for a day and a half on the street. When I panhandled enough cash, I took a train to New York.

From Grand Central I walked back down to the Lower East Side. Everybody was real surprised to see me. I walked up to Ice, and she just jumped up and smothered me with a hug. We were both crying. That was the first day I called her Mom. She cried even more about that. "Mom, I'm home." We were a family. That night, I met up with Jane. She ended up being OK. It wasn't as bad as it looked that night. She had a scar, but it actually kind of enhanced her beauty.

Seeing Ice and Jane die from heroin made me lay off the dope for a while. Instead I started doing a lot of speed. I stayed out on the streets for a week at a time. I didn't have to eat. I didn't have to sleep. I didn't have to do anything. At first I was still pretty depressed, but after a year things were starting to get better. I met a new girlfriend, we had sex maybe twice. I was still kind of weird about that, because the only girl I really wanted was Jane. This girl kind of reminded me of Jane a little bit, and that helped me get over everything.

It was getting near wintertime, so I decided to head back to San Francisco. I met some squatters, and we moved into a place on Second and Mission. It was Anton LaVey's house, the founder of the original Church of Satan. It was freaky. There were trap doors and hidden passageways everywhere. I could get from the third floor to the basement without walking through a room or doorway. You could walk right up behind somebody, grab their hat, and disappear. We found the first door by accident. It was like a movie.

I still had the prison mentality, so I didn't talk to hardly anybody. I did a lot of scams to get money for dope like robbing people or stealing bikes. Once I robbed this guy for two thousand seven hundred dollars. When that money ran out, I started cutting down on the dope. I went from a three-gram-a-day black-tar heroin habit to a half gram a day. I was trying to kick, because I wanted to get off the streets and retire. That's when I met Stephanie.