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[personal profile] kaigou
( continued from part I )

I should clarify, pursuant to an observation (about this post) that I saw elsewhere: yes, these are the comments of someone with practical application, trying to explain where authors so frequently go wrong in their romance with street life. This is, granted, my personal opinion and based on my personal experience, and in the finer details your mileage, as always, may vary. This is not a post on how to characterize, any more than it's a lengthy diatribe about the kinds of people who become street kids, junkies, criminals, deadheads or skinheads or even Vespa-riding mods. I'd be lying if I said I could tell you "these are the people who'll head to the fringe, and these people will not", because society throws away all kinds.

This, also, is not a post about how to characterize someone from the street. I can only point out the realities, as I saw/learned them*, and hope that from these details you can draw a clearer, more accurate picture as you build your own story.

*YMMV, of course, but that doesn't make me a dilettante.





10. No one gets out of here alive. On the street, some leave sooner than others.

I've known around seventeen people addicted to heroin, and I met all but one while in the city. Of those seventeen, I know at least nine have died: six of overdoses, two of AIDS, one of Hepatitis C. I don't know about the rest. I do know only one who is living in relative security and safety as part of the mainstream.

The people I know who did coke -- relatively rare among street kids, actually -- are clean, and now mainstream as well. Much higher rate of survival there, it seems.

I was good-to-better friends with eight bouncers. One is now working as a mural artist; another manages a band. Two are dead from heroin overdoses. One died in a knife fight. Another died in a drunk-driving accident. I don't know what happened to the last two.

Of the kids I met, I don't even know how many I met. One slipped sideways into heroin and coke, and started prostituting herself to pay for coke. Last I heard, she'd moved to the west coast where the supply was better. Another died when her car broke down on the highway and she hiked through the woods to a gas station: someone attacked her in the woods, raped her, and left her body in a ditch.

Two guys I knew, last I heard, were arrested for grand theft auto and shipped off to jail. Two of the kids I used to feed daily (when I worked at a restaurant) are both dead, of suicide. One guy now works as a bouncer, after years of hanging out at the clubs, and he's 33 with no education, and no skills, and really no chances of going anywhere.

My friend with the butterfly knives is on her third marriage but this one sounded like it'll be working out. Another friend -- who'd been heading towards severe alcoholism by 23 (not counting the risk of AIDs or other STDs) -- is now clean and married and living in a big house with two kids and is quite happy. The guy who drank and drove every night is now sober and married, with a good job.

I only know three people from that time who are in solid, safe, healthy relationships that have lasted more than a year or two. Divorce and alcoholism seem to follow, assuming a person even made it as far as decent job and steady residence -- an awful lot of people went down in flames around me, and continued to do so after I left.

The street will eat you alive. When I say a lot of people don't make it, I don't mean that every now and then bad shit happens. I mean that if you put your character in a room with ten other people, be aware that only two might walk out -- and your character might not be one of them. It comes down to hard work, it comes down to knowing the right people (to steer you away, as much as draw you in), it comes down to having good instincts, it comes down to just plain sheer dumb luck that this time, the cookie crumbled and there went another friend.

For a long time, I had caller ID, and for specific area codes, I simply didn't answer. I was tired of belated news about funerals.

Which is another point: sometimes, those who get out, aren't willing to extend a hand backwards to those still in. Sometimes, there's no energy to do it, or no real care/compassion; sometimes, it's just so damn difficult to get out in one piece that there's just nothing left to help another.

It's not dog-eat-dog; it's street-eat-kid.

11. Even a con can get conned. Savvy in one way doesn't mean savvy in another.

As [livejournal.com profile] maldoror_gw reminded me, the drawback to a street-wise character (especially if that character is 13 years or younger) is turning the kid into some kind of Gary/Mary Sue, like the bastard child of the Artful Dodger and Albert Einstein. (In truly egregious cases, throw in a happy-go-lucky carefree soul for good measure, like all it takes to 'fix' someone is a good meal and a few gifts -- cf everything I said about gifts.)

I'm not actually contradicting anything I said about being highly savvy, sharp critters when I say that the vast majority of street-based folks are unbelieveably stupid -- they're really only stupid in terms of having these massive, world-sized blindspots. Think about it: this is essentially an environment not unlike throwing a bunch of rats into a maze, with random electrical shocks, hostile or unfamiliar rats, and iffy rewards, lying around every corner. The freedom of the now can turn into a trap, the longer a person accepts (or is forced to accept) that this is the extent of their existence.

You end up with kids (and adults) who simply cannot accept, cannot see, that there are more options than what's directly in front of them.

Long-term planning? It's really almost impossible. I scoff at most stories where a street character scrimps and saves for years to finally 'get out' and hit it big. Save? What? How? Yes, it's possible, and yes, it can be done, but I don't think people realize what an absolutely monumental task it is to save even a hundred dollars -- when after rent, food, transportation, random incidentals and whatever, you're left with $2. Not just because it requires a discipline far above what most people have, but because it also requires an awareness of the future, and honestly, daydreaming can get you killed.

No, really, it's a survival mindset. Stay focused on now, don't think about what can't or won't happen in a week, or what will happen, because you'll realize just how few options you have. Enjoy the now; it's pretty much all you've got. Those who long for the future are going to be looking at possibilities instead of keeping their attention on what's immediately around them, the current risks. Plus, it's just damned depressing, if you stop and consider where you're at... so you learn to shut that away.

That makes for two weaknesses: one, some personalities end up almost fatalistic that they don't or won't have 'a future' because they don't deserve it, somehow. (Or they just write it off, like a friend once told me, "I never expected I'd make it to 30, let alone 25. I just figured I'd be dead by 21." And she was serious; she'd accepted that fact and lived with it. At 30, she had no clue what to do.) Others grasp at the most ridiculous, most patently false possibilities -- often a variation on a 'get-rich-quick' scheme or the psychological equivalent -- that no one in the mainstream would even remotely believe... because if you've never turned that street-trained analytical mind away from the walls (real and metaphorical) around you and onto the effort of punching open windows, then you've no real concept of what's a realistic window/exit, and what's not. Everything sounds like a way out.

It's like the street teaches you to be very good at A, B, and C -- but don't bother with D, E, or F, let alone X, Y, or Z, because that's way off and right now the immediate is far more pressing: where will you get food, do you have a place to stay, is that car coming down the street with the guy leaning out the window another random drive-by shooting? A lot of the kids I met were phenomenally skilled at assessing the next two steps... but they failed miserably at seeing how these steps could connect with those points off in the future. They just didn't often have the time or energy to spare on what-ifs; I can hardly blame them, but it does make for a massive weakness.

It means that when a drug dealer tells a kid, "if you run these drugs, you'll get L and M..." and the kid knows that X, Y, and Z follow logically, but the kid's lacking the practice in stringing the dots to reveal what the dealer isn't saying. So the kid's been shown this down-the-road option, can't assess how it connects past the immediate next steps, and goes into it headfirst. I don't think it's true to say that street-folks are necessarily self-destructive so much as easily manipulated. Yes, you learn to see how others might use you, but again, if that use isn't automatically obvious, doesn't have immediate apparent application, then it becomes sort of a non-reality thing. Accept the gift, assume your reciprocation was enough, and later the person comes back and says, "actually, it wasn't, couldn't you see that J, K, and L were down the road? sucker!" ... because no, the street-folk couldn't.

The problem is that being on the street may teach you self-reliance, but remember it also teaches you to distrust. The majority of folks who don't have authority issues also, unsurprisingly, don't have issues with staying in the mainstream. You don't head for the fringe when you're just fine taking orders (or being beaten, or wearing a suit, or whatever). As a result, even those folks bright and sharp enough to do well in, say, college or a brain-powered job, probably won't get that far, because they can't accept external direction to get there, and they lack the interior skills to create the path themselves. Throw in the need for constant bluffing and brittle veneers of self-confidence, and you've got characters who aren't going to listen -- and will rebel violently -- if someone points out the mistakes in their thinking.

I tried it, once or twice, with some of my closer friends. Why not do this, why not try that, why not take a risk and see what happens? To your mainstream readers, it may seem as though being risk-adverse is a contradiction in terms -- but the people I met on the street were actually quite conservative (in the psychological sense). Their entire lives were one big ball of risk; they, like most people, were seeking to reduce that risk. It seems backwards, but it requires security and stability in some percentage of one's life to be able to handle instability/risk elsewhere -- it's just like those who can handle significant 'change' (like moving long distances, switching contracts regularly) often have some other element in themselves or their life that's highly stable and acts as a counterweight (partner with income, solid living arrangements, plenty of savings, whatever).

Try suggesting long-distance options to someone streetwise, and you'll probably get one of several responses. Fatalism: it'll never happen anyway, there's no reason to waste energy even thinking about something impossible. Defeatism: maybe you can do that, your family's doing okay, but people like me, no one would help me get there, no one's going to give me that chance. Exaggeration: and then I could, and I could, and [insert wildly unrealistic expansion of original idea] but... naw, that [final notion] would never work, so the whole thing is obviously useless. Denial: I'm fine the way things are now, I don't need that, I'm doing okay and I don't need your help. Offense: what, you saying I can't figure it out myself? You saying I'm stupid or something?

The defeatism, incidentally, comes from hearing and seeing and knowing that when you're scrounging through trashcans and cajoling someone into letting you tag along to have a place to crash or even panhandling, that you're not really a runaway. You're a throwaway. If you're not in someone's face waving a gun and mugging them, then most of the time you're pretty much invisible to anyone in the mainstream... and eventually, a lot of kids/adults start thinking that's just how it should be. If they were worth something, to anyone, they wouldn't have ended up where they were -- but since they did, they're not worth anything.

You can see, now, how easily a person-savvy character could manipulate someone otherwise street-smart. Anyone perceptive enough to guage the likely reaction is going to know how to adjust the offers, the lures, the options, just so to get the wanted response. And into adulthood, whatever mode your character used to deal with the street will remain, along with the truly real danger on an emotional level of acceptance. There's the real crux, for some adults, in being accepted and then rejected, because it re-affirms and re-enacts the entire trauma of whatever forced the kid onto the street in the first place.

My greatest scoffing, honestly, is reserved for those authors who write characters who 'had a few years on the street and got smart and now can kick ass' -- because the author often entirely avoids the original reason for moving to the fringe. Yeah, so the adult-character may no longer be all up in arms about it, and in fact may give it little thought most of the time, but that pattern, and those scars, will remain. Put the character in a similar situation and the original pain of rejection -- and fear/uncertainty/misery of adapting to an alien environment -- will come back in spades. Your character just up and one day decided to 'live on the streets' -- why? just because? or do we get a pat "family life was bad, and it was better to get out". Dear author, do you genuinely believe that merging with the street is a simple, effortless process? Even if it is on a physical level (as in, a Fagin took the character under his wing), it won't be on a pyschological level. If you need an analogy, the street is like being thrown straight into a squadron that's bonded already and has its dynamics -- and the squadron's at the front lines already. No bootcamp, just catch up as you go along, and if you get left behind, them's the breaks.

Now imagine if you take that character as an adult, give him/her a place and a security, and start your book by (naturally) ripping it out from under the character. If the author just glosses over the character's backstory, it's completely dismissing that any street-knowledge came with a heavy price. Without a solid understanding (at least on the author's part) of why, and how, the character went through that first traumatic transfer from inside to outside, and without seeing how that bone-deep pattern would impact the in-book crisis, then the author acts as though this means freedom to write whatever reaction is wanted. Far as I'm concerned, it's an authorly crime right up there with breaking your own rules of magic: because people just don't work like that.

If a child was thrown out because s/he wasn't wanted, the shift comes with a huge chunk of pain thanks to that soul-wrenching rejection. If the child or young adult left, the reaction is going to be radically opposite: that was a move of self-preservation, of defense, it was an action in which the character chose this path (and often clings to it as the best example of the character's ability to control his/her life, cf self-reliance). If the child left but not colored with anger so much as stark fear, that, too, would have colored how the character saw the street, reacted to it, interacted with it. Then add in the character's reaction to his new location on the outside -- the caste, for lack of a better word -- and how that clashed or meshed with what s/he was raised to be or accept or believe, along with the cohort that eventually accepted the character ... and you have a whole set of patterns that will (consciously or unconsciously) get followed when any crisis/upset occurs, however later in life.

Let's say your character left home in anger at some wrongdoing, found a new community on the fringe, and grew to find a pride in his self-reliance. Give him a new life as an adult, a good job, and then rip it all up... it's going to be a form of rejection not unlike the original impetus for leaving. Chances are he'll strike out in anger, accepting or choosing a path that's almost uncannily stupid and short-sighted (as much as heading to the street is, to a mainstream mindset), although he may also then reveal amazing tenacity in adapting that new environment and finding pride in -- once again -- surviving the worst that could be thrown at him. Anger, pride, a lot of bluff, hackles raised, maybe a dose of prickliness.

This is a far cry from the reactions of a character who was thrown away, and did not want to be on the fringe, but learned to adapt and make do. Rejection comes with misery, self-castigation ("it happened again, it must be me, I always knew it but now I've got real proof"), a sort of flailing helplessness even if buried beneath a surface of action, a longing to 'make it all better' and perhaps even daydreams of finding a way to ameliorate, undo, fix, the current (and thereby, the original), pain.

Authors like to write characters who got their G.E.D. being a thief on the streets -- or an unloved child bounced from fosterhome to fosterhome -- because they want that veneer of "this kid practically raised himself!" But then they write the character with all the logical and stable reactions of someone who's always had security and safety, and it just don't work that way. Come on, if you just think about it, you'll see what I mean: if a character got a blister on his little finger as a child, the boo-boo was kissed, and he learned but carried on, then he'll grow up seeing potential burns as something manageable, maybe not pleasant but not ending the world. Now imagine a character for whom his entire life was on fire. Constantly. Do you really think he's going to react the same way as the first?

You can leave the street. The street will never leave you.

12. A replacement family: get it clear what that means.

It does not mean orgies. It doesn't even really mean promiscuity -- not in the sense of "woo, we sleep with anyone we want" like the mainstream seems to think. Most of the kids I knew were pretty damn monogamous, though they did seem to sort themselves into various groups depending on their expectations of the gender roles. By that I mean, I hung with a bunch of folks who were quite egalitarian in gender roles -- the women stood alongside the men in a fight, if you were having sex (or thought you might) then you had condoms and it wasn't just 'the guy's job', the women would voice opinions of the night's fun (and be listened to). In contrast, the group I hung with in late high school years was more traditionally-minded; girls were plunked onto the stage during a show rather than allowed near the mosh pit, and generally were extensions of a boyfriend with little voice noted except what she whispered in his ear. Hell, you could even see that in the dynamics waiting in line outside a show -- a clump of girls shunted over to stand on the curb, while their boyfriends waited in the press of bodies trying to get at the box office window, as opposed to groups like mine, where either someone volunteered (either gender) to claw through to get tickets, or everyone traded off between the long wait until doors open and the sudden rush forward.

But in terms of sex, and sexual activity? There's a lot of affection, hell, there's massive amounts of affection between members of a cohort. I recall noting that people often assumed that half my cohort were lesbians considering how affectionate we were -- but we weren't; we were simply expressing affection. (And, granted, pushing it as much as we could, at times, just to raise eyebrows, but that's part of the teenaged push-limits attitude, too.) We are tactile beings, and we all need, we all crave, physical touch. There's just no two ways around it, even if some cultures hem it in with strict rules about who and where and when and why.

A cohort becomes your brothers and sisters, hell, brothers- and sisters-in-arms, really. They're at your side through thick and thin, even if they're the ones causing the thin, and you sleep with them, eat with them, hang with them, may even end up squeezed four to a bathroom with them when it's a morning crowd and they're getting into the shower right as you're getting out and handing off the towel to the next... although there's not really a blase attitude about nudity, I noticed at the time, except among the very closest sub-groups of a cohort. (I hung with about four or five people in specific, and we were all close, but we were part of a larger group of about ten to fifteen people; I dressed/showered/etc with my co-ed inner group but did feel uncomfortable if even slightly undressed around the broader group.)

Those kids were actually among some of the most conservative kids I've ever met, and I mean that in a sexual sense -- strongly monogamous. The few 'player' types were disdained, and why is this a surprise? Players like that (even if not on a sexual level) are ones who betray, who cheat, who say one thing and mean another -- and it's that kind that probably were at the heart of most folks' escape to the fringe. After that rejection and uncertainty, it makes sense that a group would seek the honesty of brutal violence (if he doesn't like you, he'll try to beat you up; he gains nothing by being two-faced), and the solidity of knowing that this person, or these people, are fundamentally here. Reassure by constant touch, reinforce by specific pair-bonding that disallows outsiders, and maybe some of it's false and maybe it won't always be true, but it is in this moment, and that's still better than nothing.

We did not fuck like bunnies. We slept like puppies. There was nothing better than waking to find yourself in the middle of the pile of arms and legs, a night-long hug.

13. Fighting skills may look cool, but sometimes running is a much smarter option.

First rules of the street, insert mild lecturing tone here. If someone seems to be heading your way, get away from them. If you're cornered, kick 'em (but avoid the balls, because if you kick there you'll probably not do nearly as much damage as you will just plain piss 'em off, so go for the shins and kneecaps instead, easier anyway and doesn't require your leg come so far off the ground that you risk losing balance, as well) -- and kick 'em until you can run. Then you run like hell, and if you can't get to safety, run until you're able to hide. And then you frickin' hide, and you stay until you know it's clear. And then you run for safety. Only the masochists and the destined-for-dead stick around to get the shit beaten out of them -- and if you don't know how to fight, then you're one or the other. Or you can be smart, and run like hell.

Yeah, there's the joke about "first rule in a knife fight is that there are no rules" -- but a more practical thing to remember is the twenty-foot rule. A person with good reflexes can cross that distance in less time than it takes you to react, and a gun won't defend much if you're aiming at the spot where the person was standing. Same with a knife -- someone with better reflexes can and will get in there faster and take you down, regardless, or you'll get in close to take a swipe and the other person's faster or has longer reach and knife or not, you're going down and maybe even getting the joy of your own weapon used on you.

The classic fight-or-flight instinct is true, but what that ignores (and what it seems authors like to ignore or forget) is that both come with a shitload of lizard-brain instinct and a massive dose of adrenaline. You don't need training to kick blindly and run like hell. You do need some kind of experience -- hell, you really only learn by experience -- before you can channel that burst of energy into a controllable force behind your punches. Too, if you've never been in a fight (or only school-yard fights) then your truest instincts will come out first, in teh blindness of adrenaline-fueled fights: a punch is thrown and you will flinch. Or worse, try to cover the target -- which is effectively taking both your weapons (your hands) out of the running and using them as shields. It takes time and hard lessons to move through another's fist to take the opening revealed in their punch; it also takes being familiar with, or at least completely unafraid of, the pain of getting hit -- because it's often a sacrificial move, to take a hit so you can land a harder one in return.

When adrenaline hits the vast majority of people, the actual most immediate response is to freeze. Ain't that useful in a fight? They see the punch coming, and it's just like the person who knows he needs to dial 9-1-1 because the house is on fire. In a calm, everyday atmosphere, dialing wouldn't be an issue, nor would getting the keys in the ignition or the front door, or putting on one's shoes. In that first blast of adrenaline, the body does not function: it is overwhelmed. (One thing Hollywood does get right is the heroine fumbling madly with the keys to get them in the car door so she can escape the mad man -- that's exactly how our motor functions break down when the adrenaline floods our system.)

It's a bother, honestly, to try and teach anyone to fight, because there's always that first stage of "woo! I learned a punch or two!" and then they're off, trying to pick fights with everyone. The folks who've been around longer, earned their scars, just don't have the time to patch the kid up -- let alone possibly deal with the consequences of who the newcomer/newb pissed off -- and sure don't want to spend the money on bandages or worse, like the hospital if things go too far. Nor do they want to abandon someone... so the first lecture anyone gets is, don't frickin' fight. Just run. Come find us, and we'll decide what to do about it.

Your reputation on the street is not completely tied up in how much ass you can kick. Plenty of folks, young and older, will avoid a fight if at all possible, but are still forces to be reckoned with -- they can steal the shoes while you're wearing them, or have good friends who'll break your kneecaps, or even just know the right ears to say the right things and get you banned from your favorite club. A character's reputation might be on how sneaky they are, or that they're just plumb crazy because who knows what kind of crazy-ass dare they're taking on this time and the last time two police cars ended up in a pile-up in front of the museum and the shit hit the fan and just don't mess with that guy because he's not scared of nutthin... or a reputation's based just as much on someone who's steadfast and hardworking and true to their word, and doesn't get messed with because s/he is genuinely respected. It's not always about the fight.

But that doesn't change the fact that most of the time (especially for newcomers or younger kids), you don't lose points by running. It's just shrugged off as, hey, it would've been crazy-stupid to take those guys on. Sure, there are times a street-folk might get cornered/jumped in an alley with no way out and gets the crap beaten out of him, but there's honor in the street and a move like that gets a strange combination of reluctant admission (surprise does work, after all), annoyance/hurt pride (only way to take us down was by trickery/surprise), and determined response (call in everyone, we're gonna put those guys in their place). That sort of escalation often stops and ends between the groups, unless someone shows up at a fight o' baseball bats and chains with a machete, or shows up at a knife fight with a gun -- and then you've got growing warfare that never ends well. Until then, though, it's a lot of sprains, bruises, maybe a broken bone or two, and a lot of injured pride.

The really strange thing -- and I think this has to do with the element of living in the now -- is that this sort of fist-and-bat warfare is often paced out, with periods of nothing happening in between. Warfare, on some levels, requires a mindset of planning, of considering not just what everyone's doing today or tomorrow, but next week and the week after that. When you're mostly in the now, and so are your opponents, it's partially hedonistic (in the lighter sense, that is, do what feels good 'cause you might not get to, tomorrow) and it's partially just plain not the priority. When you're fighting with everything to survive -- and double for cities where the winters are harsh -- do you really have the luxury of picking yet another fight with someone? Besides, there's a great band playing over at such-and-such, and everyone wants to go see them, and if the other guys show up and want to pick a fight then you guess you'll deal with it then, but if they're cool, and you're cool, you'll deal with them later... because if they pick a fight and ruin everyone's night, most uninvolved bystanders are more than happy to hear (and will support you when) you say, "hey, some other time, don't be bringing everyone down with your shit."

There's more than one way to play the game, and not everyone walks away from the street an expert in knife, gun, and tactical operations. Hah, not everyone, more like the vast majority don't. Even on the fringes, folks fall into specialities, which brings me to the next point...

14. The character has a caste, and the twain don't meet too often.

Everyone has a line they won't cross.

For me, it was shoplifting. I could conceive of doing plenty of other things as a way to meet the ends, but that was one thing that I just -- for whatever reason -- couldn't do. I'd freeze up, get terrified, and fail miserably, despite all the advice and exhortation. I ended up being decoy, instead, and that was okay by me; it wasn't that I had anything against taking from the pockets of Big Corporations in general... it was that I couldn't pull off the specific type of chutzpah it takes to snatch an item, sneak it out, and act like nothing's happened. I guess I just looked guilty and knew it, even when I'd not done anything. (Not that I do now, of course. Right.)

A cultural detail that often bewilders and/or amuses me is that in Japan, there's something called 'compensated dating'. This is where young girls, from 12 to 18 or so, will cluster around hotspots for salarymen, and basically be a kind of escort, getting gifts and dinner and whatnot in return. In some cases this 'escorting' moves into actual sexual encounters, but it's still very much an exchange... in contrast, if you went to Shinjuku and panhandled, you've sunk so low you're not even ranked as human. It's a system/concept set up on exchange, and the beggar accepts a free hand and gives nothing in return.

To say that's a world away from the West isn't even half the distance. More like a total reversal and a galaxy away: panhandling was a matter-of-fact back-up plan if you didn't have enough cash... but taking a job as an escort was a step away from being a hooker, and for the majority of street kids, there's just nothing lower. Hookers, especially the younger ones, get roped into that as a way to pay for drugs, and there's nothing more shameful than needing drugs so bad ("I'm not an addict, at least I'm not fucking someone to get pot, y'know?") that you sell yourself for them. That made you less than human.

I met cohorts who were mostly thieves, loose confederacies of window-breakers and VCR-stealers; I believe I only met one person with deft enough hands to pickpocket (the US just doesn't have quite as much of an emphasis on pocket-picking, it seems, as Europe). Pickpocketing, too, takes getting close-in and real skill, and it's not easy to learn -- while breaking a car window, grabbing the bag off the back seat, and running... well, that just takes a heavy rock, quick hands, and quicker feet. I didn't actually run into too many kids who were in it just for fighting -- those existed, sure, but they were (ironically) mostly out in the suburbs. It takes energy and resources to fight, I keep saying, and maybe the authors reading will eventually get it. In the surburbs, kids have resources, so a saturday evening meeting in a parking lot with chains and knives is all fun and games... but if you have to be up in the morning to clear out the crash before the host throws you out, or you've got to hold up well enough to panhandle during the morning rush at the subway (and not get arrested for vagrancy by some busybody do-gooder because you look like you should be in a hospital ward), or that part-time one-afternoon stint unloading a truck for $20... you're not up for getting any more banged up than absolutely necessary.

So, in a group, there may be two or three heavies -- the ones who do know how to fight, and will, if someone within the group is threatened -- but for the most part, groups are focused on survival. Violence may be gratuitous and superficially spontaneous (although that's mostly only because living in the now meant not looking far enough ahead to see the upcoming intersection) -- but it's not really the main bulk of the day.

A caste -- for lack of a better word -- defines who you are, and what lines you don't cross. Often these are split across musical lines, too, and you'll find certain clumps of people showing up at certain bands/venues, where they feel welcome (and possibly know the band relates to their attitudes, too). Straight-edges (is there a newer term?) won't do drugs or drink, but there are groups that drink but don't do drugs, and groups that share drugs only of kinds A and B but don't go near C. A character who slips into, say, heroin addiction is soon going to be on the outs if he's been in a cohort mostly interested in drinking at shows -- their interests no longer mesh. Kids won't try and save those who depart, either, especially if the departed is slipping down the metaphorical ladder to a lower rank of being.

That's one category -- what you do in your free time, as it were. Another category is how you make the money you need to get by. In general, your choices are stealing, begging, trading, and selling. Most newcomers start out begging (panhandling, usually), since it requires nothing but looking pathetic and a willingness to ask strangers for a handout. While some newcomers walk in with skills (like myself), I did notice that often even those who could manage trading (either working a job for money, or taking day-jobs for cash) were often pushed into panhandling. It's not a way to make money, it'll barely put you ahead of lunch let alone the day, but that lack of money makes you beholden to the members who do bring in money. It puts you in debt, and it binds you to the group.

The closer the cohort is to legitimacy -- for instance, those groups with shared crashes (thanks to every city having slumlords who could care less so long as the check arrives) -- the more likely that after panhandling for x length of time, the newcomer will be encouraged to start working and holding up his/her own. Work in a kitchen, do day-jobs, get a good reference from someone to be a foot-courier (less common now thanks to the internet, but still in use by some architecture firms b/c of the size of their stuff), and if you're really lucky and can sweet-talk enough, get a job as a barback, which'll set you up for learning bartending -- a cushy and well-paying job compared to say, working door or hefting boxes. If the crash has hot water, it's more likely some of the cohort will work retail or wait tables, which still ain't much but it's better than panhandling.

The farther the cohort is from legitimacy, like those who move beyond drinking into drugs, the more likely the next step is trailing along behind the experienced members and learning the arts of stealing. Those, like guns and blades, require certain skill sets and personalities, and just because a character can do one, doesn't mean s/he can do another; in fact, the better someone is at one, the less likely s/he bothers to do another. I knew one guy who was just amazing at shoplifting. I was busy getting help "picking out" which tape cleaner would clean the heads on a tape player (which we needed anyway), and meanwhile he walked into the store and walked past me three minutes later looking no different. He had three cartons of cigarettes in his coat. Stage magicians had nothing on him. That night, I stood in line at the show while he and two friends sold the packs up and down the line for $2 each (at the time, you had to be 16 to buy but that meant having ID, so plenty of ID-less kids were willing to pay $2 for an easy pack over dealing with the hassle), and then he'd bring me cash and I bought the tickets with it.

But he sure as hell didn't smash car windows (though he was also the most remarkable car-hood ornament thief I've ever met, and if you want 'points' on your reputation, try stealing the hood ornament off a Mercedes with diplomat tags that just happens to be parked in front of the Russian Embassy -- on a night when the embassy's lit up with party lights, now that is a man with some serious balls) -- and he never did breaking & entering. I knew some that did, and really, B&E is a completely different skill set. You're not bluffing your way past anything in an empty house, and unlike a store where you know what they'll have and can see it right there, a good B&E means at least a few hours scoping out the chances, the risks, the situation.

Car-smashers are more opportunists, though some will do B&E, but they don't worry about noise -- smash the window, grab and run. The folks I met who had whispered B&E reputations fit my personal profile of what it'd take: they were patient, they weren't that interested in noise, and they sure didn't want to stand out while they're on the street corner scoping out that house across the street. They blend. Car-smashers don't care; they won't stick around long enough to be noticed anyway.

The last is selling, and by that I mean drugs or one's body. Ain't nothing more dangerous in the street than selling drugs, honestly -- I can't tell how many times I met someone who allegedly "had something" and then never saw that face again. If the cops don't get them, or the clubs don't note the deals and turn them in (sometimes, honestly, because the club's bouncers don't like the competition), or their own suppliers don't cross 'em, or even their buyers don't dick 'em over somehow... well, it's a lot like working restaurants. The real money's made in owning, not working, and the ones doing the work get little for the effort and turn over faster than fried okra.

I always pitied those kids, because they could see the supplier's power and wealth, and knew that was X, Y, and Z, but they had no real comprehension of the dangers that lay in everything between C and X. That whole live-in-the-now bit them in the ass, lackadaisacally ignoring some risks as too far off to be an issue, strictly hedging against known risks (like so carefully stashing the drugs so the cops won't find it, only to have their own users take the stash and leave them owing the supplier), and too starry-eyed over 'making it big'.

Once the dealers who started using... ain't nowhere they were going but down, and everyone knew it. Avoid those like the plague, because without users to supply, they're on the end of the food chain themselves. With a drug habit to support, and no real cohort helping them out, they drift... and invariably end up one of the kids selling to perverts on the farthest end of 14th.

The fastest track to selling, though, I saw among the kids who'd come from middle class and higher. They weren't used to deprivation, so the concept of not spending it all right now (or not using it all right now) made no sense to them; sometimes it seemed like they had even less concept of the value of money than I did. If there was ever anyone who'd be a poster child for the old trick of "I'll give you two dimes for your one quarter", it was kids like that. So the cohort's managed to compile the $100 for another month's rent, but here's a dealer offering $100 worth of whatever, and if shit like that happened, more often than not the fingers got pointed at the kids from the really nice suburbs.

I can recall standing there wondering why one kid just couldn't seem to see what the problem was -- that she'd spent the $40 we'd made, all on loveboat. That meant the other three of us were going without dinner. I wanted to smash her face in, and was tempted, but you don't mess up the upper-class kids because -- as my friend/sempai explained later after telling me to take a walk and cool off -- you never know what'll be enough to send them running back to Daddy. Just easier not to risk it, just easier to tell her to get lost.

It's a simple, if vicious, mindset, but this is another element that stays with a person into adulthood: when it's time to cut the strings... the strings are cut. There may be regret, there may be grief, there may be resentment and anger and a wish that it weren't so, but the priorities are simple because life is down to just self-preservation. You don't have time, energy, or money to support a freeloader, any more than you've got it to spare to support someone who's just going to blow it all on drugs and put the rest of the group at risk. (It's another thing altogether if the group, as a whole, knows the money it's made will be spent on drugs or drink; shared is different from selfish.)

And, I should add, based on what I observed: there's no explanation given. There's none needed, in the minds of those doing the cutting. (As one told me, "We have to cut her now, so we don't have to kill her later." A statement only marginally metaphorical.) The rules are simple, and clear, and they were broken -- there's no respect for someone who whines that they don't understand what they did wrong. Just get your stuff and get out, find someone else to use -- because using each other is part of the game but there are still limits.

Someone like that, used to cash in hand or ready access, used to the protective element of roof and walls and most especially "someone else to care for them" -- those are the ones who I saw fall into drugs/prostitution the fastest. I guess it was because some personalities, some backgrounds, just don't teach you self-reliance, so you're not even close to prepared for any situation where it's crucial. A pimp, a dealer, can manipulate easily, and it's not like any street-kid can compete, because the dealer/pimp is saying, "I'll take care of you," while the cohort's saying, "we don't want you going there, we like you, but you have to pull your own weight." It's not a stretch to see which is more attractive, if we're talking about a personality in shell-shock between the secure/insulated middle/upperclass world versus the aggression and desperation on the street.

But it's not like the junkies are doing anything the rest aren't doing; they're just using a different method. It's all a way of ignoring the future, of living only here and now. Some do it by focusing only on what's in front of them, and ask me on Friday what we're doing on Friday because I have no idea on Tuesday -- while some know the path is a dead-end but at least the drugs make the right-now a rosy, bearable quasi-reality. I never met anyone who whored because they wanted to; they did it because it was the only way to pay for that blissful forgetfulness. Whether or not they once could've handled the self-forced semi-ignorance now-focus of the street kid, the drugs could do it so much easier and better. Some of the junkies I met hated themselves -- the closer they were to bottom, and the more isolated, the more I saw that self-hatred bubbling up 'cause they knew they were a big part of any blame. Some considered it a trade-off, a chance on their day off to be wrapped in velvety ignorance after six or seven days of grueling, low-paying labor on construction sites or working door or unloading trucks and knowing most of the money'd go to rent or food and they'd never get ahead. Some just did drugs now and then, and did manage the days-off, just-casual drug use, which looking back was probably one of those things -- that the closer a person was to stable and accepting (at least internally), the more likely they were to be able to take, or leave, as they could afford or were inclined.

But those who sold themselves, for whatever reason, any reason... they were written off as dead, right then. They were dead, they just didn't know it yet.

The greater the age, the more likely the division between trading and stealing is going to be great enough that the two won't even meet. The former may be headed for a life of fringe, scraping by in shifty places with never enough food for quite everything, but they will eventually integrate back into mainstream, however sub-standard or lower-class that might be. The latter groups are more likely to end up as career criminals -- but it's a lot like trade school. Until you finally declare a major, there's some fluidity, even within a single group -- usually until someone who's trading/working stops and says, "you did some shit that's going to bring the cops down on us, and I've got a job, and I don't want to risk that." That's when the divisions occur, the cohort splinters, and soon they're occupying different worlds, almost as though they simply stop existing for each other.

The group I hung with splintered in that fashion, just before I came along. I did meet a few of the former halves, and there was mild tension and some regret on both sides. Enough that I noticed and asked, but most of the time my questions were brushed off as not important. Like the fatalistic view of the future, so too did the past become a distant worry: what's done, is done, and there's more important things like food and place to sleep, over what happened last month or last year. Ancient history. Forget about it. (Though, I should note, this is not to say that those involved didn't forget, only that in most cases newcomers aren't expected to carry/uphold that baggage.)

It's like a bunch of little unions, and you pay your dues and you work your way up, and when you realize your apprenticeship is headed somewhere you don't want to be, you leave and go somewhere else. Sometimes leaving means paying off a final debt, sometimes leaving is hard (or impossible) thanks to details of personality or situation, sometimes it's just a wave over the shoulder as you segue into a new group, go through the newcomer path all over again, integrate, and carry on.

But it's most definitely not true that one person could ever, would ever, fill all the roles, let alone occupy the castes in one person, of being car-smash and house-thief and shoplifter and day-job muscle. Nor would a group of mostly trading-focused members tolerate two junkies freeloading, any more than a single working joe would be welcome (or even feel that comfortable) in a group where the rest are junkies. Birds of a feather, and all that, and the dynamics of one's personal interest/daily goals meshing with the group's priorities will also define how the character acts/reacts to other groups, down the road.

It's not just knowing where your character came from, or what s/he went through in a general sense, dear author. You need to also decide/determine how that character interacted with his/her first cohort, whether that was his/her only cohort for the duration of street time, whether the group split and why, and where the character got caught up in those dynamics, and how s/he felt about it, too. Knowing that will tell you the pattern, the lens, through which your character will see and react to the current in-book crisis.

It'll also tell you, more than anything else, what lines the character simply will not cross -- and whether you're really taking the character to a place where s/he must question that.

15. Why you arrive, why you leave, why you return: the reasons often boil down to where you're welcomed.

I don't know if it's a truism or a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a kid from a middle-class or higher background is more likely to go home than a kid from a lower-class background unless drugs are involved. Or maybe it's just that kids from middle and higher get pushed to go home by the lower-class kids -- it is hard, after all, to go from a life of relative material plenty (even if emotionally and physically it's a battlefront), to days where eating is iffy and what there is to eat isn't that good. When you've spent most of your life getting new school clothes and shoes when the last pair got worn, it's exciting at first -- and then, later, a real downer -- when now your shopping is amongst the dirty clothes covering the floor of some squat.

It's not that the reasons for staying are better than reasons for leaving, so much that the reasons for leaving are just that much worse than life on the fringe.

I won't belabor this point, but I will say this: here's one huge-ass indication, to me, that an author has little clue about abusive dynamics and doesn't care to really find out: it's when a kid -- as a kid, or even as an adult -- goes back home.

In a healthy, otherwise safe family (because kids will head to the street for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are related to family dynamics), the kid is welcomed home. The parents are overjoyed; there may be some stress as the kid's reintegrated, but overall they're relieved and happy.

In an abusive family? Hah. The kid comes back... and the parents are pissed.

Oh, they may be happy to have the kid home, but the relief of "you're safe" is tinged with relief of "now we can go back to looking normal." When a kid walks (or runs) away from a family and there's no other obvious reason -- bad boyfriend, drugs in the bottom drawer, whatever -- everyone looks at the family. And the last thing an abusive family wants is to be studied, the last thing they want is to be exposed... so the kid comes back, and under the so-happy-you're-safe is a strong current of "don't you dare ever do that again, or you'll pay for it."

Is it any surprise that when an adult with that sort of background is welcomed somewhere, they're either going to be highly distrustful of the situation -- waiting to have those undercurrents rise up and carry them away -- or they're going to throw themselves head-first into the welcoming place? Sometimes, that place that welcomes them is on the fringe. That doesn't make it necessarily an unhealthy place, purely by definition. Yeah, so it's got its unhealthy parts -- I'm not saying smoking pot's all that great a move for your brain, among deadheads, or eating from trashcans is the best source of protein -- and the gratuitous, constant violence (and vigilance against it) can turn some personalities into twitchy, distrustful wrecks... but sometimes, the brutal honesty of the street, the fundamental Darwinian element -- is still healthier than the environment left behind.






It may be an alien notion to your readers that anyone would embrace such a dangerous, uneasy, difficult life over that of family and home and stability. But if you're going to play the street-life card, if you're going to tout your character as going through the doctoral degree of hard knocks, the least you could do is not trivialize the experience.


all the parts ▪ dear [not just urban fantasy] author part Idear [not just urban fantasy] author part IIdear [not just urban fantasy] author part IIIpermanent record, pt I: edginess, and street fightingpermanent record, pt II: guns, knives, and making it hurt

continue to part III
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Date: 22 Nov 2007 02:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petenshi.livejournal.com
I was very struck by both parts of your post. Mostly because, as you explain, writers (and readers for that matter) seem to have a quixotic notion of what being a street kid means. Your critique was not only detailed but also intensely personal and left no doubt about the reality of street life.

You're often writing these essays in which I never know how to respond but I end up stewing over them for days. I guess I should thank you, I certainly feel as though I've gained something from reading. :)

Date: 22 Nov 2007 03:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
*cringes*

I was trying very hard to keep the personal out of it as best I could (though I gave up after a certain point!) -- but I'm glad it's serving a purpose nonetheless.

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From: [identity profile] onyxhawke.livejournal.com - Date: 22 Nov 2007 03:57 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 22 Nov 2007 02:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] onyxhawke.livejournal.com
::: claps :::

Now where can we find your books?

Date: 22 Nov 2007 03:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Hunh. Did [livejournal.com profile] difrancis send you? She must've. She paid you to say that.

Hah, you can find them under the pile of power tools. I set aside a novel for a mental break, and in the meantime I've been tearing out renovating my kitchen. Strange, how people underestimate the meditative value of a good routed rabbet joint...

As for you 'n Di (and the rest of the folks whapping me to get back to things), I hereby solemnly swear I will set the circular saw down and pick the novel back up. I'm even swearing on a stack of Taunton's Fine Woodworking, so now you know I'm serious!

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From: [identity profile] kraehe.livejournal.com - Date: 23 Nov 2007 06:38 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 22 Nov 2007 03:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] temporus.livejournal.com
More good stuff. Just added this to my memories so I can come back later when I'll need it.

Date: 22 Nov 2007 03:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Here to help, however I can. ;-)

Date: 22 Nov 2007 05:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tanuki02.livejournal.com
Today I heard some talking head propose that we could solve the problem of homelessness by giving every homeless person a voucher for a free apartment.
Someone once suggested that we need an annual "Reach Out and Smack Someone Day". I agree, and I propose that you go after the clueless UF writers, and I'll go after the blathering idiots on radio shows. Deal?

Date: 22 Nov 2007 09:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Oh, I don't know, that's a tough one... can't I help with the blathering radio idiots, too?

(I've known homeless folk who'd be more than happy for a place to live... and others who wouldn't take it no matter what. It's not an easy problem.)

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From: [identity profile] kraehe.livejournal.com - Date: 23 Nov 2007 06:46 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 22 Nov 2007 08:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] l-clausewitz.livejournal.com
#13 is definitely not just a street rule--it appplies to any kind of fight, anytime, anywhere, except for the aberration called the battlefield that's the only place where you're more likely to die when you run away than when you don't.

I guess the proliferation of ass-kicking fights in all manners of fiction is strongly related to the movie mindset that has become so prevalent among writers nowadays. They put things that they think would look "cool" in a movie adaptation--i.e. fights--into their books without considering the plausibility or the consequences, let alone the odds of their books ever being picked up for an actual movie adaptation...

Date: 22 Nov 2007 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
except for the aberration called the battlefield that's the only place where you're more likely to die when you run away than when you don't.

*snorts soda through nose*

Heh, now that you mention it, YEAH.

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From: [personal profile] vcmw - Date: 24 Nov 2007 08:23 pm (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 22 Nov 2007 08:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mikkeneko.livejournal.com
I found this very fascinating, sometimes sad, reading. I will say I've never had much exposure to this kind of life, but I'm still kind of boggled to hear the assumptions some twit writers make. The dynamics you describe make a LOT more sense, logically, person-wise. I dunno that I ever plan to write urban fantasy as it were, but if I do, I would consider this good adivce.

Date: 22 Nov 2007 09:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
It's just another form of giving your character cred, like the "I was a soldier in 'Nam" ridiculousness that pervaded Hollywood in the 80s and into the 90s, or the "I survived rape" that you sometimes get with some female characters -- as though just slapping that label on the person is good enough and the author doesn't really have to deal with all the messy issues that might be attendant for such a label.

reminding me

Date: 22 Nov 2007 04:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robert-gage.livejournal.com
It’s a difficult life. Depending on city size and or severity of their lives the success rate of saving a street kid are less than ten percent, maybe less than five.

Thank God for my mother, bless her. We grew up poor. Looking back, I wonder how she managed to feed five kids on her own. Without an education beyond the ninth grade, she raised her children, kept us from stealing and whatnot. I laughed inside when adults commented, “You have it so rough.” Growing up poor does not equal a lack of love or proper upbringing.

Perhaps in my own writing I do not draw from my own experiences. At times, I worried detail of street life would scare off an agent or publisher, it can be harsh.

Thank-you for reminding of what I already knew.

Robert

Date: 22 Nov 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Given Holly Black's success writing a true-to-harshness in her YA books, I don't think readers would necessarily have an issue with verite.

As for me, I personally would've traded a boatload of stuff in my childhood... To mangle your phrase, growing up middle/upper class does not necessarily equal a plenitude of love. But then, I dislike drawing from my own experience, too; I often find myself writing characters who come from happy families.

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Date: 23 Nov 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vg-ford.livejournal.com
Thanks for posting these. There's a lot of good stuff here that will keep me thinking for a long, long time.

Thanks.

Date: 24 Nov 2007 05:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Thank you for reading, in return. I'm glad it's proven to be helpful to folks (despite what I'm sure has got to be a rather overwhelming length, by this point).

Date: 24 Nov 2007 05:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silk-noir.livejournal.com
Applause, applause. Brava.

Date: 24 Nov 2007 07:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Awww, heh. Thank you for reading! I was rather expecting most folks to say, "oh, crap, you wrote how many pages, you have got to be kidding if you think I'm reading that!" So that alone has me pleasantly surprised... :P

Glad you enjoyed.

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Date: 24 Nov 2007 06:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] elorie.livejournal.com
found you via [livejournal.com profile] matociquala

And...yep. I lived with a group of people when I was in my early twenties; being older made many things easier, but we were still pretty fringey. The ways we survived involved: Reading Tarot cards, teaching martial arts in the park, being models/extras (for those pretty enough, and if you are or look over eighteen. Some people won't ask too many questions if they're in a big enough hurry, but it doesn't pay as much at that level as you might think), working various and sundry temporary cash-paid jobs (everything from cleaning a local expensive prostitute's house to working at a food cart selling doughnuts to transcribing interviews for a book about alternative sex practices) all of which we got because we Knew People. Small-time dealing (which we got away with because we only dealt with "hippie drugs"...no coke or heroin or crystal meth...and only dealt with people we knew, which also meant we never made much money at it. However, brokering a deal between two known persons who don't know each other reduces risk for everyone and can buy your groceries for the week. Also, in contradiction to what you were describing, people who wouldn't smoke a joint with you were Not Trustworthy and would be avoided as probable narcs, so anyone selling was also using to some degree.) Sometimes bouncing or other forms of regular job (the Tarot gig turned into a regular job). Some of those things require a phone and hot water to keep up. Most of them require a whole bunch of connections.

We also had a very detailed knowledge of what groups in the city gave away free food, which ones had nearly free food (the Krishna temple and the Buddhist temple both had weekly feasts, and if you showed up for the whole service and put a little money in the basket, they wouldn't quibble), and which restaurants had the cheapest food or would give you food if you were there when they closed.

I also had an eye for clothing, especially vintage, and would sort through the stuff at thrift stores in different parts of town looking for good items, pull out the stuff I could wear, and then sell what I couldn't to the high-end vintage and consignment shops. You could buy a dress for two dollars and sell it for five or even ten if it was really good; I once paid three dollars for a late '60's designer mini-dress that I later sold for $40. That required some money up front and transportation; but one of us had a car, and it was pretty easy to effectively get decent clothes for free at the expense of a day's work. I'm not sure you could do that any more, though, because more and more people have caught on about the resale value of some clothes. Still, some people still do just send everything to Goodwill, especially in rich parts of town.

Date: 24 Nov 2007 07:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Models? Extras? ...must've been a different city than mine! ;-) I was the only one of my circle that modeled, but I did stints as an artists' model. Ran about $20 to $40, depending on how long and how many artists were chipping in, and sometimes at the end of the afternoon they'd feed me. I was a jock in HS, so my body-perception was based on different values than my friends (who were often unnerved and uneasily respectful that I'd, uh, just take my clothes off, and what if I saw my picture hanging in a gallery? I'd cheer, I told them. Sheesh!)

Ah, actually, I probably was a bit of an oddball in the group.

But, it was a strange time, too, those days of being the murder capital of the world. The heated political climate infused everything, including seasonal noise about international visitors getting "the wrong idea" at seeing so many homeless. Cops'd dutifully hassle us, in a half-hearted way, until the focus diverted and then we'd all go back to minding our own business. (On the other hand, we used this to our advantage, dressing outrageously and charging tourists $10 to have their picture taken with Real Live Hooligans. Now that was always fun.)

When I say political infused everything, I mean it, down to the lowest levels... Any given day, I'd join homeless, couriers, and a passing bartender or retail jockey, all bitching about what Congress decided last week, can you believe that shithead in the Interior, and did you hear what the Whip did? Heh, good times. Though it always made me wonder what they talked about in LA, to pass the time. Actually, we used to feel sorry for kids in other cities, without a source of free amusement. No, really, we did! ;-)

I had friends in selling-groups, whom I'd visit (my main circle was on the threshold, tipping over into working jobs as we got closer to our twenties), but I never shared with them -- not my personal self-destruction of choice; I preferred the bottle. Then again, I also could quote chapter & verse on my connections, and I was usually there on invitation of someone trustworthy. I think only once did I ever get grief... big fat whatever. I'd already done the staring contest with a gun-toting skinhead, and even that wasn't half as bad as what got me onto the street in the first place. It took way more than some two-bit stoner being petulant to make me step down. I snort imperiously here, but I *cough* did have my exit route planned out. Natch.

[And to think coworkers wonder how I can stare down the scariest of clients without batting an eye. Oh, please, what's the worst they're gonna do? Whine? Sheesh.]

For the most part, though, narcs weren't really a major issue. No cop'd bother with a $10 bust when there were crack dealers moving pounds of way worse shit, daily, just sixteen blocks to the east. The irony, of course, was that drug-dealer/cocaine turf could be deadly for city-kids. Those guys would shoot you, on the bizarre logic that homeless people make a neighborhood look bad, and then suburbanites wouldn't come into the city to get their score. Wait, let me get this right: the drug dealers -- yeah, the ones armed to the teeth with illegal weaponry -- think that we make a neighborhood unsafe? Sure thing, me 'n my concrete block are real frickin' scary!

*rolls eyes* So about that upside-down logic...

Eh, all that aside... it continues to surprise me at the feedback that authors/readers had underestimated the importance of one's group/community. I wouldn't wish a single winter on someone utterly on his/her own. It'd be a killing winter, that's for sure.

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Date: 24 Nov 2007 08:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sureasdawn.livejournal.com
Also here via [livejournal.com profile] matociquala. Thanks for writing this. I don't do UF, but there's lots of information here that is useful to me as a writer (who has nothing quite like this in her toolbox), and just as a person who is interested in people. Adding to my memories.

Date: 24 Nov 2007 12:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
OMG, total icon lurve, just absolute. :-)

Yeah, I'd written it focused on UF (in the original post), because there is a big emphasis on what I call the chick-with-gun genre. Take Faith from BtVS, and slot her into any generic city... and there you go. But as more and more folks came back with, "this isn't just UF," I edited a bit for broader once I'd finished the second half. I suppose it is applicable to a lot more, even if UF seems to be the current forerunner for a romance with the street and its denizens.

Glad to be of some help.

Date: 24 Nov 2007 12:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alankria.livejournal.com
Here via [livejournal.com profile] matociquala also. Having never experienced anything like this, I found your posts incredibly informative. I will definitely think about yours points in future writing (and in editing of past writing); I don't write UF, but I suspect some of these points will apply to what I do write. Thanks very much for posting, I'll be adding these to my memories.

Date: 24 Nov 2007 12:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
As I've admitted to others (see above), I'd originally designated UF because it does currently seem to be focused on the metaphor of street = Other. Which I don't mind, certainly, but I just got frustrated with the notion that as the Other is romanticized, so is the street.

(I suppose at some point I should note that the author who got me going on this is not actually guilty of any of these sins - for once! Heh.)

Date: 24 Nov 2007 04:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] puzzlehouse.livejournal.com
Also here via matociquala. Thanks for this and the earlier post - I have a character I need to figure out, and you've given me some excellent points to chew on. I'd like to add you to my flist, if that's okay with you.

Date: 24 Nov 2007 07:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Go right ahead. I can't promise I'll pull stuff like this out of my hat on a regular basis, but if you wait a bit, I'm sure I'll get set off by something else and head off into another snarkfest or rant-land for a lengthy post before I calm down again. ;-)

Assuming you're willing to put up with the incessant mecha!geek in the meantime... fffft, I can't help it. I was raised on Voltron.

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Date: 24 Nov 2007 06:28 pm (UTC)
ext_22: Pretty girl with a gele on (Default)
From: [identity profile] quivo.livejournal.com
Here via [livejournal.com profile] metafandom, and feeling seriously weird about replying to this. I'm probably not the sort of person you had in mind when writing this (I write Harry Potter fanfic. Yeah), but this really pinged with me.

This is getting saved-- this post, and the post before it. I don't know if I'll actually ever use it, except to maybe remind myself of where not to go without research and a steady hand, but am grateful for having read it in the first place. Thanks for sharing...

Date: 24 Nov 2007 07:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Metafandom? What? Wow. I'm starting to wonder if it's possible to do some kind of a trace on links in LJ, like following breadcrumbs or something. ;-)

Hey, an author is an author, fanfic or origfic, and we're all writing about people. In the end, nothing I've described is really (to me) that fantastical, because it's all just personal dynamics. There are some details that might shift, but how we deal with new members, or what it's like to be a newcomer, while in a warzone of some type... well, that's the power of writing, ain't it? Learning to extrapolate.

So if it does you some good in some way, I'm glad of it. ;-)

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Date: 24 Nov 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brithistorian.livejournal.com
Yet another person here via [livejournal.com profile] matociquala (you'll probably be getting extra comments to these posts for weeks thanks to her). You've definitely given me a lot of think about here, both for writing (if/when I ever get around to it again) and for day-to-day life.

I've also taken the liberty of adding you to my FL and taking your filters quiz. Expect another comment there shortly, in which I introduce myself. :-D

Date: 24 Nov 2007 07:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Hey, glad I could help in some way. Reading the comments will probably illustrate that not every city has an identical sub-culture, but at least (I hope) I've created some place to start.

Glad to have you, and I can't promise intensely thought-provoking street-wise analyses every single day, but they tend to come around on a semi-regular basis. Then I froth at the mouth, or just snark, or just go into professorial mode. If you give me a day or two, I get over it. ;-)

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Date: 24 Nov 2007 08:43 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] vcmw
Thank you very much for both of these entries (I also linked through from matociquala's lj). Would it be ok if I printed out a copy to stick in my writing notebook? I think there are two characters in particular I'm working on for whom I need some of the reminders badly, and I can't have the internet part of the computer on and actually get any writing done.

I think the thoughts on street vs. abusive reactions were particularly valuable for me, and the bits on the different reactions of kids who did come from middle class homes. (I tried a few different extra sentences but they sounded too personal. So, umm, thank you very much again for the thought that went into your essay, and for sharing it.)

Date: 25 Nov 2007 01:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Go right ahead. You're not the only person I've met who prints & reads -- and these are only medium-length posts by my standards. I get going on something, and we'll be here for a day or two... so it's not like I can get on anyone's case for needing it on hardcopy. Hell, I'm just flattered anyone'd make it all the way to the end!

The biggest tell I saw anywhere were the reactions kids had to certain events, that to me were transparent (thank you, analytical brain) although to them were sometimes opaque. The peculiar thing? Lower-class kids from non-abusive backgrounds were, in some ways, as blind to manipulation as upper-class kids from non-abusive backgrounds. The street may teach you that... unless you walk in with that knowledge already.

A few extra sentences are okay, if you're okay with that. I think I may do a follow-up post with some of the commentary from other folks who've been there (to any degree), just to assist those writers wondering about the finer details. I know I might communicate more articulately than some who were there, but I also know my experiences were hardly par for every course. I mean, I didn't end up OD'ing in an alley, and right there I'm in the ten-percentile, it seems.

Eh, well, regardless: glad it proved to be helpful for you. ;-)

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Date: 26 Nov 2007 02:02 am (UTC)
ext_840: john and rodney, paperwork (Default)
From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/tesserae_/
I've got to say, I've never been quite so grateful for my easy middle-class teenage years *and* for the fact that my experience of the drug culture happened a world away from what you're talking about here... the level of detail & insight you've got in this post is extraordinary, and way beyond anything I've read before. Thank you...

Date: 26 Nov 2007 05:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
I keep being surprised when people say it's so detailed. I thought I was managing to stay rather broad strokes, since I know a lot of what I experienced isn't necessarily universal. First, my city is/was culturally far different from most US cities (although each has its own flavor), and second because I entered the sub-culture as a bit of an oddball. I predated the baby-dyke world, so that made it worse: I would wear lipstick when cajoled enough, but preferred boots and no real effort on face/hair, but I didn't want to grow up to be a plaid-wearing lumberdyke.

Haha, which reminds me of the time a bouncer promised me he'd let me in on his guest pass to see a band I really, really wanted to see... but only if I wore something other than motorcycle boots. And a dress! Grrrr. I showed up in heets, hose, and a dress, and he let me in... and then I promptly went downstairs and used the bathroom to change into jeans and boots. Woot.

He took away my drink card for the night. *grump* We compromised on me wearing the dress but with the boots, and after that, it sort of became my signature style. Girly from the waist up, ready to run from the waist down. ;-)

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Date: 26 Nov 2007 02:03 am (UTC)
ext_3249: (Default)
From: [identity profile] ms-treesap.livejournal.com
Here via [community profile] metafandom

Thank you for writing this. As someone who grew up with a very sheltered life (home educated in suburbia.Yeah) it brought up many things that I hadn't really considered before.

I'm meme'ing both entries as a reminder. I'm sure some of it is applicable to fic about English CID policemen in 1973:)

Date: 26 Nov 2007 06:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
I'm certain a lot of it's applicable to many areas; it's all really just interpersonal dynamics, group dynamics. The same hazing (however mild or harsh) occurs in all groups, from working peers to sports teams to kids on the street. It's just that we don't always recognize it as such, when the stakes aren't as high.

The greater the risk to the group, however, the greater the bar you have to leap to get in and/or be accepted -- I've interviewed DEA folks about that, and some of their dynamics seem awfully similar to what I saw both among my teammates as well as kid-gangs I met in the city.

With the exception of details like weaponry and hobbies, I'd thought most of this could be extrapolated easily. I guess I ended up writing this because too many UF authors were proving my expectations wrong. Pity, that.

Date: 26 Nov 2007 03:46 am (UTC)
ext_1981: (Default)
From: [identity profile] friendshipper.livejournal.com
Thank you so much for taking the time to write this up. I think it'll help me a lot with an urban sci-fi milieu that I'm working on, but a lot of it is just excellent writing advice across the board (as well as fascinating and sad to read -- it not only made me think about writing, but just made me think in general). Definitely saving this. Thank you again!

Date: 26 Nov 2007 06:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
People keep saying it's a sad read. Maybe that's my blindspot, that I fail to see what's sad in there. Or perhaps this is one more example of something I've pointed out when critting friends -- that what we, as writers, give little emotional weight to, thus allows the reader to add that in, on their own.

Err, not sure if that makes sense. I mean, to me, everything in these two posts is rather dispassionate. Hell, I don't even recall getting that angsty about it when it was happening (with one or two notable exceptions); it was always just a rather fatalistic, life-sucks-and-you-keep-going kind of mode. So I just view those years as, well, they sucked, and I kept going.

Oi, but still, glad it proved to be helpful. That was the entire point of writing, after all!

Date: 26 Nov 2007 03:53 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nike-victory.livejournal.com
Here via [livejournal.com profile] metaquotes:

Thank you for this. I'm writing a fantasy story where some of the characters come from/are in an urban setting and you not only gave me ideas, you also gave me the words to explain why one of my characters acts and reacts the way he does - oddly enough, I'm shockingly good at figuring out how a normal person would react to the situations I put my characters through. I was incredibly surprised when I found a good article on the psychology of a torture victim and realized it matched pretty closely with the actions and reactions of my character who had been tortured in the story. What you just said meshes really well with a character who's spent quite a lot of his time on the fringes and what little that didn't is just because I didn't think to take it into account (namely, the reaction to gifts). Thank you again.

Date: 26 Nov 2007 06:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
I find that there are authors who can grok the logical elements even if they've never had even a remote experience. The author-friend who prompted a lot of this discussion -- [livejournal.com profile] difrancis -- was asking me for feedback on her upcoming book's first two chapters. I gave her an assessment based on the backstory implied in the opening -- adult, former street-kid, prickly and defensive and standoffish yet skilled and dedicated to his work -- and how, based on the 2nd chapter's kicker, I expected a street kid with his qualities (based on my experience) would react.

She pretty much nailed every single facet, and turns out she has no personal experience at all with being on the street. Let alone what the scars that'd be left by coming to the street at age 8 and making it to 16 before getting an apprenticeship.

Which is all a way to say: I do believe authors can figure out which end is up. Hell, authors do it all the time for murder mysteries without needing to go, y'know, kill anyone. Yet at the same time, I was reading UF that so patently and blatantly screwed all the realities.

But if the details help, then that's good to hear. ;-)

Here from metafandom

Date: 26 Nov 2007 04:40 am (UTC)
solesakuma: (Default)
From: [personal profile] solesakuma
A very good post, but the saddest part is that most of these things are fucking common sense. I can't believe that there are people so disconnected with reality and then they go and write about it.
The part that really hit me is that some of these things...well, they hit home and I've had a pretty nice and lucky life. Never skipped a meal, always had a house, 'normal' family. So, yeah, some of my classmates ended up in jail/juvenile institutions but while they were the ones next in line to get booted off society, they were still in when I knew them.
Why should it feel familiar? Then I realized that the feeling that tomorrow you may have lost everything, that you're lucky to have things and that cops are never ever to be trusted (heck, nobody is to be trusted) is not a feeling I have... it's a feeling my whole country has. 'Tomorrow we may go up in flames, so try and buy your house while you still have a job... so that when you lose it, you don't have to pay rent and you still have a roof above your head. And that's if you're lucky!'
[Buying land is a lot more affordable here than in Europe/America.]
And about fights? Running away is always the best choice in any environment. Blind rage sucks as an offensive weapon.
And something that tends to bother me is the fact that Street-life =/= No Laws. One of the things that show that my country gets worse every year is that poor people (as in Slum poor) are stealing from eachother and dealing drugs. Fuck, they're doing drugs now and before they just were alcoholics. They're breaking their own laws and that shows that we keep going down. Of course, nobody gives a damn if 'villeros' are dying from 'paco' (what's left of cocaine; dead in one year).

Date: 26 Nov 2007 06:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
And something that tends to bother me is the fact that Street-life =/= No Laws.

Oh, I'm not sure I'd say that. Certainly there's a good deal of 'might makes right,' but the important distinction in that assertion is that it takes a group to make 'might'. If you cross a line and get shunned or cast out, you've lost all power; there's no punishment like losing your cohorts and trying to make it on your own. You can't; you won't. The key to survival is the group.

I do think good authors could extrapolate -- it's not like they don't do it all the time, unless they're writing non-fiction and have cue cards! It's just that for whatever reason, authors seem to (currently) feel they can just fudge these particulars, and no one'll notice or care.

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Date: 26 Nov 2007 08:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kattahj.livejournal.com
This was highly interesting, thank you!

Date: 26 Nov 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
You're welcome, and thank you for reading!

Date: 26 Nov 2007 09:22 am (UTC)
winter: (Default)
From: [personal profile] winter
Thank you for this great post. Lots of insight here, especially relating to how some things are universal and others so culture-specific - even with the US versus Europe. I'll definitely be bookmarking.

Date: 26 Nov 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
I was trying to stay away from stuff that verged on too biographical, which is where you'd really get a lot of the culture-specific details. Even at that, it's clear (from other replies) that every city really does have its own sub-culture in general, its own flavor, adn this will alter your experience of that city's streets.

I've spoken to folks who spent time on London streets, and man, their experience was a far cry from mine in some ways. Just completely different assumptions about things like how to make money, how to pass the time, what you could & couldn't do. Although I will say that "going to see bands" seems to be a universal suggestion for most nights. ;-)

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From: [personal profile] winter - Date: 26 Nov 2007 07:14 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 26 Nov 2007 05:08 pm (UTC)
ciaan: revolution (Default)
From: [personal profile] ciaan
Really interesting and useful for something I'm writing right now; one of those mixes of "that's what I just said" and "oh, hey, wait, maybe I need to change...."

And oh look, you're from DC.

Date: 26 Nov 2007 05:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
I'm glad it proved to be helpful -- sure is a lot of words to wade through. I'm still working on the succinct part.

What, me, from DC? *whistles* Gee, what gave it away? (Heh.)

Date: 26 Nov 2007 06:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] a-hollow-year.livejournal.com
This is one of those insightful and sobering posts that I never get around to responding to because I'm still thinking them over years later and trying to incorporate the information into my life; the last time I read something similar detailing the life of street kids I stuffed a hoodie and a backpack in the trunk of my car just in case I ever ran into a street kid who needed some new basics. So, as an aspiring author and a person, thank you for writing this.


It may be an alien notion to your readers that anyone would embrace such a dangerous, uneasy, difficult life over that of family and home and stability.

This is really the crux of it from a (commercial) literary perspective. A lot of people don't like reality - the serious, bone-deep stuff - to invade their fiction. Occasionally I'll read a book and roll my eyes because it's trying so hard to be "gritty" or "edgy" and then I'll look on Amazon and find reviews from people who are utterly scandalized by the drug use/addiction/drinking/sex in the book or even the *gasp* bad language. Heaven forefend! And those are simply trappings on the deeper psychological workings that you've written about here; if someone's offended by the word "fuck," what will their reaction be to an honest depiction of a former street kid? How will a publisher trying to make a mint react to it? Honestly, in the US at least, I just don't think a lot of recreational readers understand that there are places you can never really come back from (or if they understand it they want to escape the fact of it) and that's reflected often in our fiction.

Date: 28 Nov 2007 07:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kaigou.livejournal.com
Just remember my warning about gifts, and don't take it personally if you offer the sweatshirt to a kid who looks at it, looks at you, and then demands to know what you want for it -- and gets particularly suspicious when you insist it's just a gift. (Although I can also think of friends who would've heard "it's just a gift," snatched the shirt and backed the hell away, then laughed like they'd pulled one over on you somehow, suckered you, before taking off -- compared to me, who would've gotten defensive and insisted I was fine, before vamoosing like you were some kinda pervert offering me candy.)

I'm aware that 90% of the readers out there don't want to hear about the street's realities -- I'm almost positive a good chunk of the UF writers don't, not as long as they're busy romanticizing this connection between the Other/fey and Street/fringe. That really bugs the crap out of me, because it's just another form of prettying up an experience & place that can be brutal, dehumanizing, and demoralizing.

I don't think you have to put in all the dirt to be true-to-reality, but I do think you have to have a solid grasp of the logic in a society/sub-culture, and the majority of UF writers don't seem to -- they write as though it's still suburbia but with a different painted backdrop. You can put in all the dirt you want, then, and all the cussing, but it's still not even coming close to the psychological truths of that society. The rules simply aren't the same.

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