San Francisco

Tale of the Gutter: What Makes a Gutter Punk?

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Could Jerry Garcia have been mistaken for a gutter punk?

All this talk of gutter punks has been forcing me to question what exactly a gutter punk is. Upon reflection, I started to feel like an asshole for generalizing and stereotyping this certain sect of homeless. Upon investigating, I started to realize I didn’t even know how to identify a gutter punk. I mean, I know what I generally considergutter punk,” by appearance alone – it’s the kids whose unsettling presence scared Gavin Newsom enough to precipitate the whole sit/law lie. But when I hit the street multiple times looking for some to interview I was finding my preconceptions challenged. I saw lots of colorful characters on Haight. More than one bedraggled old man with a bottle. A shoeless tweaker talking to herself. A younger dreaded guy selling crystals out of a case on the street. Were these “gutter punks”? I mean, not really. Do those signifiers – old and drunk, lone and crazy, young guy selling gemstones wearing an expensive hat – invalidate them as gutter punks? Is it those street kids who are dirty, tatted, pierced, dreaded, ragged, mean, drunk, selling weed, with backpacks? With dogs? With cardboard signs? With palms outstretched? Initially yes, that’s exactly what I thought. But really, those are mere descriptive traits and could or could not mean “gutter punk.”  If I was out there sitting on the sidewalk, drinking with friends and bundled up after an all-nighter, I too could be a presumed gutter punk. Right? And I have definitely been there. I just haven’t been there specifically on Haight Street.

What makes someone a “gutter punk”? Who am I to label these homeless people (or homeless-looking people)? Does anyone self-identify as a gutter punk? I seriously kinda doubt it.

I’m just wondering when I got so desensitized to these homeless kids and when their presence started to offend me. I feel like a part of some horrible snotty gentrification, bothered by the “dirty street beggars.” Sure, they’re begging and yelling and sometimes being volatile, but all those kids certainly do not all fit into that designation. What makes someone a “frat boy” or “hipster” or “burner” or “yuppie”? What gives me the right to stereotype anyone, including the homeless kids wreaking havoc in my hood? I don’t have that right. No one does.

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I met these two busted up dudes last week up in the Sierra Nevada mountains that I initially considered to be “gutter punks.” Both have done their time on Haight, though I met them hours out of the city so they aren’t really a part of the neighborhood demographic. But our conversation made me reconsider calling them anything other than two individuals making it by day-to-day. They’re doing it their own way, and I’m doing it my own way, and you’re doing it your own way. I don’t want to exploit their story or scoff at their lifestyle choices. Again… who the hell am I to judge? I’ll tell you about them with my next column. This post is getting long, and right now I’m sick of thinking about gutter punks. Whatever the hell a gutter punk is.

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Angela Zimmerman - Sit/Lie Surveyor

Angela Zimmerman - Sit/Lie Surveyor

I’m an East Coaster at heart but fell in love with San Francisco the first moment I laid eyes on this pretty city and can’t seem to stay away. Except for the fact that we never get hot nights or thunderstorms, San Francisco's been mighty kind to me. I got to work for Bill Graham's rock 'n' roll archive and serve as Editor-in-Chief of Crawdaddy! Magazine, which gave me the opportunity to bring a historic print mag to the digital realm and interview some of my music idols. Today I work as an editor for a non-profit media organization, which fills my days and pays the bills, and I write about music and film on the side when I'm not pacing around my apartment trying to convince myself to do something creative, constructive, or active with my time. I'm a lover of Thai food, weeping willow trees, music festivals, Soul Train, and the Golden Gate Park.

2 Comments

  1. Lee
    January 2, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I self identify as a gutter punk. I am sometimes homeless and sometimes not, but I always spend time on the streets regardless of whether I have a roof or not. I’ve chosen to live my anarchist ideals by practicing freeganism, the streets are my home and I am not scared there, urban wasteland is the landscape I find most beautiful in the world. I write graff, I run parkour, I dumpster dive, I help establish and maintain squats, I reduce/reuse/recycle/leave no trace as a way of life. I hop trains, couch surf, work exchange. I have a certain aesthetic but it has more to do with the practicalities of my lifestyle than a fashion statement. Every gutter punk is different, but there is a huge difference between scene kids getting drunk in public, shooting up and flying signs because its the “in thing” right now and people who have consciously chosen this life for themselves.