Runaway Train (Part II)

Read Runaway Train (Part I)

As Castro's Street's bars close at 2 a.m., well-dressed young men pour into Rolling Pin Donuts for a quick carb fix before hitting the hay or the after-hours clubs. While they laugh and chat, a table of young punks sit glassy-eyed under the harsh fluorescent lights. They stare out the front window at the passing throngs, slump over a card game, nurse cold cups of coffee, or flirt with the customers for a free jelly roll and a couch to crash on.

Read Runaway Train (Part I)

Open 24-7, Rolling Pin is a prime hangout for street kids, a makeshift community center, information booth, and welcomat for seasoned vets and recents runaways, like Tricia, who blow into town and find that instant access to the grapevine is only one new friend away. When there's no place to sleep, they can keep warm inside and kill time till dawn, when the soup kitchens and coffeehouses open and another day of panhandling, dealing, and hanging out begins. If they nod off, the young counterpeople shake them by the shoulder, joke "this ain't no hotel," ask them why they don't just do a line of crack or sleep in Collingwood Park.

San Francisco is a magnet for runaway youth; a conservative estimate pegs the street community at 1,500 strong. They come from small towns across the state and the Pacific Northwest, from Nevada and Arizona, even all the way from the East Coast, where harsh winters make sleeping in heatless squats more unbearable than it already is. They come in their teens, even as young as 12. For these kids, any place is better than home, even if it means living dirty and dangerously.

The first year on the road is a big adventure, a chance to live by your own rules and remake yourself into someone new. Kids take on nicknames, like Gremlin or Hangman or Spider or Judas, make up exciting pasts, shave their hair into mohawks or dye it black. They claim territories, whether the fairgrounds of Castro and Haight or the seediness of Polk and Civic Center. When they get sick of one street, they renounce it for another. The search for identity leads to allegiances to minute subcultures; kids navigate between drunk punks, chaos punks, peace punks, house punks, gutter punks, skins, crusties, goths, freight-hoppers, tweakers, nihilists, anarchists, seculars.

Junker, aka Junkman, aka Jeff Flaster, 21, describes himself as a "gutter fag." Tattooed on his hand is a big blue Universal Product Code symbol; he's sporting a mohawk and scruffy clothes. Intelligent and jittery as a Chihuahua, Junker tries in vain to keep his motormouth in tune with his racing thoughts.

"If I weren't so tired I'd be making more sense," Junker keeps apologizing as we sit at Rolling Pin one weekend night. He tells me that he fits the prototype of the average street kid: Emotionally and physically abused by his parents and ostracized for being gay, he left his middle-class upstate New York home about a year and a half ago.

Time and again while interviewing kids like Junker, I was struck by their extravagant effort to re-establish the very thing they've fled: a tightly defined order and a binding ethical code, not to mention a family. Like Tricia, Junker is searching for a new tribe of kinsfolk; he calls his best friend his "brother." For a time, he lived with the gothic rocker "family" at the Dolores Street Baptist Church squat.

"All the kids wanted to kill Martin and Galaxy when they found out what happened," he says. "If you murder someone in a squat, you're not welcome anymore. It's sacred ground."

Junker met Martin at the Rolling Pin last fall. "He liked me in the beginning. He hit on me," Junker recalls. "I grabbed him by the tie and sucked his face, and he said, 'I'm with the FBI.' Then the story turned from the FBI to being a special police agent."

"He's not a stable person," Junker continues. "One Halloween he took off all his clothes and walked around naked. He tried to create a totally fake life. You know, I have a twin, I'm from England. He's like, 'See that star? I had sex with him.' He was scary in the way he did things, erratic.

"I love Martin, but he was the group joke, a junkie, a scammer, a loser, a trickster. Someone who feels he needs to get a higher clout, so he has to knock other people down."

While Martin often affected the dyed-black hair and vampirish attire of a goth, Galaxy was a skinhead punk, of the radical, not racist, variety. "In New York we'd call them 'skunks,' " Junker says. "A junkie is what she was."

"She'd fight with everybody, beat them up," he says. "She was kicked off the Haight by kids, 'cause she was starting trouble. Galaxy was the type of person to incite things. One day she was like, 'We're gonna start a riot!' "

In the months before Tricia's death, Martin was trying to start a coven to properly practice his druidic rituals. Martin says Galaxy was his only real recruit. He was training her to become his priestess. The occult (wicca, druidism, satanism, voodoo) has long fascinated disenfranchised youths - punks, goths, metalheads, and hippies alike. For troubled kids, learning "magic" is a means of empowerment, of protecting themselves from bad forces, be they cruel parents or fate.

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