Everyone Hates the Oogles: Exploring the animosity towards New Orleans’ panhandling punks

I was at a party a few weeks ago where people were discussing “oogles,” the young crusty punks who invade each autumn and often panhandle in our city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The response from everyone at the party was massively negative, without exception. Oogles were useless. They were ignorant, they were violent, they were bigoted, they were thieves, they were junkies; the very sight of them on the neutral ground was enraging and offensive. Everyone hated these kids. They were, it seemed, the only group in New Orleans more reviled than NOPD.

Criticisms of the oogles focused on their lack of respect for others. An employee at a community resource center confided in me, “There are two groups who really abuse the space, who leave garbage lying around and who steal from us. The totally underparented younger kids– some eleven or twelve-year-olds who honestly don’t know better– and the fucking crusties.”

I struggle with my own dislike for oogles. When I see young, able-bodied punks panhandling it pisses me off, but it’s not because I abhor panhandling or begging. Like most great old cities, New Orleans has professional beggars. Begging is an ancient, time-honored tradition, a legitimate trade and an economic niche. Life can be tough. People without family or friends to support them turn to the larger community, and I don’t think that’s wrong. Even I can spare a buck or two; there’s enough to go around.

I also don’t think hating people is generally healthy or useful. I try to restrict my hatred to malefactors who have money and power, and few panhandling crusties have any power beyond existential privilege– most are white, many are male. Beyond that, they’ve got no clout.

Obviously, people who hate all poor people also hate these kids. Councilwoman Stacy Head attacked them in a 2010 City Council hearing for being a threat to French Quarter tourism, characterizing them as “the gutter punks…the Vassar graduates with dogs and a trust fund… the Phish fans.” I don’t want to be on the same side as Stacy Head, and yet in a city where ten-year-olds tap-dance for dimes, watching sullen, sallow scumbags on hobo vacation suck up money and resources that could go to our community’s own poor folks is infuriating.

Outsiders who waltz through town, soliciting money from New Orleanians who’ve weathered flood, economic devastation, and institutionalized racism from government, banks, police, insurance companies… could there be a more powerful symbol of disrespect? Coca-Cola spray-painting advertisements in the French Quarter and Mountain Dew bedecking the Lower Ninth Katrina Memorial with “DEWEEZY” stickers both come to mind… but those big faceless corporations are boring and futile to hate, whereas the white kids panhandling in the Eighth Ward are right there in my face, on the un-air-condtioned side of my car window.

In a superb recent article in the New Orleans Tribune on the racial realities of gentrification, Lovell Beaulieu wrote, “there has been a proliferation in the numbers of Whites who are spotted at major intersections… begging motorists for money. …Observers say police are reluctant to confront the beggars because of the paper work and hassle of dealing with the dogs.”

As a casual observer of NOPD, I don’t find this to be the case. NOPD does whatever it likes to oogles, dogs or no. In January the NOPD major offense log noted Unit 502A, “responding to a complaint about gutter punks” along St. Roch dealt with the hassle of a dog by shooting it.

Panhandling in New Orleans is tricky. Each police district has its own arbitrary and arbitrarily enforced rules about how many feet you must stay from a curb or stop light, what you can do and what your sign can say. No matter how nice you are or how scrupulously you observe the district’s policies, if someone calls 911 you’re likely to get arrested or at least hit with a hefty fine for “aggressive panhandling.” Oogles don’t know these rules, because they aren’t hooked into how New Orleans works. They don’t know a lot of things. As we learned tragically a couple years back, some don’t know not to build a fire inside a wooden building.

Not discounting in any way the horror of those deaths, the squat fire in St. Roch did create a larger negative perception of squatters, which is a common complaint about oogles: they make things harder for everyone else. As downtown gentrifies, transient crusty kids will often be among a neighborhood’s earliest white residents, and the interactions they have with locals can shape attitudes towards the supposedly more community-minded whites who come after. A recurrent theme in my interviews and conversations was anxiety about being mistaken for or blamed for the misdeeds of bad crusty kids.

“A lot of the punks who complain loudest are, I think to a lot of New Orleanians, indistinguishable from traveler kids,” a friend told me. “All these little and supposedly important differences of subculture aren’t visible to anyone who isn’t immersed in it.”

Amber, a panhandler often found on Esplanade, complained of the same thing. “I don’t have the attitude or the look, but people assume I’m with them, or one of them,” she said. It was true: approaching Amber from a distance, I had judged her as likely a crusty kid, I suppose because she was young, caucasian and panhandling. Yet she had no patches; her clothes and hair weren’t eccentric or subcultural.

The apotheosis of this mistaken identity problem is my friend Neight Train, a longtime freight hopper, bike builder and community volunteer. I wanted to talk to him, because although he’s lived in New Orleans for years, owns a home here and is basically a good person, he’s constantly mistaken for an oogle. He, like Jesus, suffers for the sins of others. When he goes to take a crap, the barista accuses him of using the bathroom to shoot dope. When he walks his (visibly very healthy) dog through the French Quarter, strangers berate him for animal neglect. When there’s trouble at a bar, coked-up bouncers and NOPD zero in on him. When actual oogles steal from a house near a train yard, cops scour the woods, find Neight and his partner camping, and clap them in cuffs.

Neight bears the heavy cross of anti-crusty bigotry. “I get the stigma,” he said. “They make me look bad. They make it harder for punk rockers to find jobs, to be part of the community, because you’re mistaken for something you’re not.”

Why are oogles so aggravating?

“I think a lot of it is an age thing. The kids who are eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-two don’t really know what’s going on. They rob and steal, including from other punks. You let ’em sleep on your couch and they steal your money. Most of them grow out of it and get more respect for people. They grow up or die, unfortunately. Or a lot get hooked on drugs. Then you go to jail over and over; that becomes your life.”

Oogles’ youth surfaced again and again. “They’re kids,” said Amber, whom I spoke to on Esplanade. “They’re kids who have nothing, and so they see no reason to show respect for anything. I really try not to judge whole categories of people, and I realize they’re my peers, but I’ve been working on fixing up a blighted house, trying to stay on good terms with the neighbors, and I let one of these punk kids stay there. Now there are others just continually showing up, not asking if it’s okay, messing up the bathroom horribly… copping [heroin] and bringing it into the house.”

Last fall, a homeless friend told me that the manager of the St Claude & Franklin Avenue McDonald’s had begun banning crusty kids from the store, banning anyone he even thought looked like a crusty kid. Note that I’m only hearing of this second-hand; management did not return my calls for comment. My friend, who’s in his late forties and has a fairly typical homeless appearance, said he was still allowed to sit in a McDonald’s booth with his single small coffee or bargain-menu apple pie for as many hours as he liked, but no young punks could even set foot inside the restaurant. My friend reckoned this a sign of growing grassroots anti-crusty antagonism.

“There are positive kids,” Amber said, “but every year it seems like more and more of them are hateful and disrespectful, just super fucked-up all the time.” Like tourists, oogles can be drunk and belligerent. A friend who is himself sometimes homeless took offense to being panhandled on Decatur, told off the kids spare-changing him, and was badly beaten up for it. Drunk oogles disrupt events held in parks or other public places– I’ve witnessed them aggressively and at times violently interrupting poetry readings, music performances, and community meetings.

On the flip side, Sarah and Alexis, a local couple who panhandle to supplement their income, surprised me with the warmth and generosity with which they spoke of punk panhandlers. The kids who staked out the corner across Claiborne from Sarah and Alexis many afternoons were “nice kids,” they said, friendly kids who shared cigarettes and were respectful about who worked which corner. “We don’t really mix with them, but they don’t cause us any problems.”

“It doesn’t do good to judge a group of people until you know the individuals,” Sarah said, somewhat chastisingly. “Anyway they’re only asking. Some of them may be in a situation where they just have to have money.” I took this to be a reference to drug addiction. “If they weren’t asking, they might be stealing instead.”

I was recently spare-changed by a group of kids sitting outside Hank’s on St. Claude. One of them (“Johnny B”) I knew from his previous swings through town. He seemed a little abashed that someone he knew had caught him panhandling. “I’m honestly just doing this to survive ’til I catch [a ride] out,” he said. “I can’t find work here. I’m going back to New York to deliver pizzas again, and I’m too old and ugly to fuckin’ hitchhike. These assholes wanted to see New Orleans, but there’s just no money here right now.”

“It’s fucking hot,” one of his cohort observed.

“It’s hot and there’s a fucking hurricane coming,” another said. “It’s bullshit.”

Although the question made me feel like a dorky Dick Clark interviewing a decades-younger band, I asked the group how they would respond to being called oogles. The collective response amounted to a shrug.

“I’d be like, okay, then give me a dollar. Treat me like that and I’ll act like it.”

Why do you think people have so much hatred towards panhandling punks?

“Why spend so much time thinking about other people? I guess their lives are boring,” Johnny said. “They know it’s bullshit. They know we know.”

“Look at this,” said one of Johnny’s associates, stretching his lips to one side to display a very daunting dental problem. “This shit kills, all day all night. For anyone where seeing my ass out here is such a bad part of your day, feel lucky.”

His maxillofacial situation was inarguably horrendous, but it reminded me of a street musician I know who got “doored” while bicycling and lost a comparable number of teeth as a result. No longer able to play trumpet, she adapted by learning to play the drum.

Many longtime street performers are harshly critical of panhandling punx. “They drive me up the wall,” said one I spoke to. “You’re in New Orleans: perform! If you can’t sing or play an instrument, stand on a milkcrate in an outfit. You don’t just panhandle! Find something you’re good at, or try one thing until you get good at it. Do something!”

While I was in sympathy with these sentiments, almost everyone I know makes a living catering to tourists. Don’t the oogles deserve some credit for refusing to prostitute themselves, for refusing to be entertaining or charming? I can respect a refusal to “earn” money; I respect refusal in general. Philosophically speaking, responding to 21st century America by getting drunk and riding trains and not giving a fuck seems like a perfectly valid enactment of alienation.

In that way, the oogles seemed almost heroic.

I asked a traveler kid whom I know and like to generalize for me the crusty attitude towards New Orleans. He paused, as if unhappy with what he was about to say. “New Orleans is easy pickings,” he said finally. “Some of these kids don’t have any morals. I mean, there’s definitely tourists you could be panhandling here, but a lot of these kids aren’t panhandling where the rich people go.”

I suggested they panhandled in the poor neighborhoods because police won’t bother them as much. “It’s not just that,” he said with a sigh. “They’re in the impoverished neighborhoods because they know, in New Orleans, people help each other out. They know people here are generous, that even the poor people will give you something if you ask for it. So they come down for the season, take all the money, and then leave and spend it somewhere else. They’re parasites. They know what they’re doing.”

Hearing those words, and later typing those words, made my blood boil all over again.

I couldn’t help myself. I was back to hating the oogles.