44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: The kids on Haight Street aren't exactly like the stereotype you've been told about
Smiley has a year-old behemoth black mutt with droopy eyes. He obliges her as she leans into him holding her spanging sign, which tells the world the pup needs Benadryl for an upcoming van ride to Southern California. "He's carsick," she tells me sheepishly. She admits that the dog can limit her mobility on public transportation, but his benefits outweigh his cost. He keeps her warm at night — and, more important for a young woman who is often on her own, he protects her. For a moment breaking out of tough girl mode, she tell me, "oh yeah, I don't have to worry about anything when he's around."
We talk about the perceived threat of dogs on Haight Street. "They want us to leash them, which I guess I understand — but look at that!" A well-dressed woman in her 40s has her Chihuahua off its leash and it has run into the busy street, with her in hot pursuit. "That dog's out of control," Smiley smiles.
Sitting against a mural on a wall where Haight meets Clayton, I watch Piss, an outgoing, gangly guy in his early 20s with a curly blonde mohawk in a growing-out stage. I ask him where he got his unusual moniker. "I like to get drunk and piss on things," he says.
Well. Originally from Billings, Mont., Piss has been traveling since his mid-teens. "Let's just say me and my family don't get along," he tells me.
His answers to my questions about why he's on the streets follow a path I see with many of the younger homeless youth: they insist that the lure of the open road was too hard to ignore, but eventually reveal that their parents kicked them out or were unable to care for them at a young age. Many, like Juju, another small-time weed dealer I met, bounced from family member to family member until frictions with them and their significant others left no recourse but the street.
Piss says he's been to every state in the country, plus Canada and Mexico. With so many years on the road, he is, as they say, letting his freak flag fly. Piss has a blue, vaguely tribal tattoo that curls around his right eye. He's wearing white tube socks on the dirty pavement. At first glance, he could be crazy — and maybe he is. Whatever his motivation for travel, it's not to blend in with the locals.
Piss is also actively spanging passersby in a manner that oscillates between off-putting and charming. "You got some money for some crack and ice cream?" he inquires of a passing trio of young women. They shake their head, but before they're gone completely he continues "I'm just kidding! I don't like ice cream! Hey miss, you have a nice ass ... day!"
Over the course of the hour that I watch him a stand up routine emerges. Beneath the grime, he's a charismatic kid with an enviable sense of comedic timing.
As he ranges up and down a 20-foot stretch of sidewalk, belly laughs are elicited from a few targets, dollars surfacing here and there. One man carrying an accordion and wearing an expensive-looking pair of leather Chaco sandals donates a handful of strawberries to Piss and to those of us acting as his entourage.
But Piss' play is a little rough — like a big puppy — and he's alienating the people who don't crack up over crack. A couple of people walk away quickly from his petitions shaking their heads over one of the zingers, their suspicions confirmed about those rowdy Haight Street kids.
He's not doing anything more than what young travelers do all over the world. Thousands of families bid see you later to young adults en route to Prague, Peru, and Perth each year, where they lug their dirty backpacks through the world's most wondrous towns.