Article — From the March 2008 issue

Mississippi Drift

River vagrants in the age of Wal-Mart

( 2 of 10 )

Matt’s raft was moored to the bank next to a storm sewer outflow pipe. My first impression was of the Una bomber’s cabin set afloat. A brief description of the vessel: ten feet in the beam, twenty-four feet stem to stern, its decks had been laid down over three rows of fifty-five-gallon drums, twenty-three in all. “I got them from a dumpster behind a chemical plant,” Matt told me. “Some of them still had stuff sloshing around inside.” The barrels had been framed out with lumber, mostly 2x4s swiped from construction sites, and a deck of marine plywood set on top. On this platform Matt had built a cabin, about ten by fourteen feet, leaving a small motor deck aft and a front porch fore. The porch connected to the cabin through a pair of French doors, and a screen door exited the rear. The cleats, railroad spikes welded to diamond plate, were “punk as fuck,” said Matt, admiring his amateur blacksmithing. On the roof was bolted a large solar panel of larcenous provenance, as well as a small sleeping quarters and a worn-out armchair from which the boat could be steered. A wheel salvaged from a sunken houseboat was connected by an ingenious series of pulleys and wires to the outboard motor on the back deck, a thirty-three-horsepower, two-stroke Johnson, which was showroom-new during the Johnson Administration. It was one of the few purchased items on the boat, bought by me as a gesture of my commitment to the mission. Several workbenches lined the cabin, and there was a galley with a propane stove, a chest of drawers, and a rusty high school gym locker for storage. Matt had brought everything he had scrounged that could possibly be of use: old fishing anchors, tied-up lengths of rope, lawn furniture, a folding card table. Three bicycles. Several five-gallon gas tanks. A stereo speaker system with subwoofers made of paint cans, hooked up to a motorcycle battery. A collection of practice heads from the dumpster of a beauty college. In keeping with the rustic theme, the boat’s front had a porch swing made of shipping pallets and a pair of plastic pink flamingos, “liberated from some lawn,” screwed to its posts.

Matt’s six-foot-two frame had bulked up since I’d last seen him, and his hair had grown into a waist-length mullet of dreadlocks hanging behind a battered black baseball cap. He wore a goatee, and his round face squeezed his eyes to mischievous slits when he smiled. He had added to his tattoo collection to form a sort of identity-politics résumé: not really VEGAN anymore advertised an amended dietary philosophy on his wrist; a piece on the back of his hand showed crossed railroad spikes and the free-associative motto wanderlust adventure tramp; on his left bicep was a black-masked figure standing behind a dog, above the phrase animal liberation.

Matt hadn’t held a steady job since a brief stint at Kinko’s in the late Nineties. One time in court, he said, a judge had admonished him: “You can’t be homeless the rest of your life. You have to work.” He laughed as he recalled this. “I fucking hate work,” he said. “If I could see some result from it, besides money, maybe I’d do it. I went into the welfare office to apply for food stamps, and they took one look at me and said, ‘Clearly, you’re unemployable.’” He saw no shame in this, and he looked at food stamps as a way of getting back the taxes he paid when he was at Kinko’s. From the hundreds of hours he had put into the boat, it was evident that what he hated was not doing work per se but rather trading his time for money. Matt had been working on the boat for over a year and had spent almost nothing on it. What wasn’t donated or dumpstered was procured by extralegal means. “Half this boat is stolen,” he chuckled, with unmistakable pride in his handiwork and resourcefulness.

The neo-hobo lifestyle, such as it was, often blurred the boundary between ingenuity and criminality. On the legal side, there were the old standbys: “spanging” (bumming spare change), “flying signs” (asking for money with a cardboard sign), and the governmental largesse of food stamps. Matt was also a big proponent of pharmaceutical studies, which gave out nice lump-sum payments as well as free food. In one study, he said, he had taken the largest dose of ibuprofen ever administered to a human being. In that instance, the result of being a human lab rat was only diarrhea, though he hadn’t landed a new study in a while. “I had plans to buy a house with drug studies,” he said wistfully. The only semi-legitimate work Matt was willing to pursue was seasonal farm labor, particularly the sugar-beet harvest in North Dakota, which has become something of an annual pilgrimage for the punk traveler community. From three weeks of driving forklifts or sorting beets on a conveyor belt, enough money could be earned to fund months of travel.

On the illegal side of gainful unemployment, there were many techniques of varying complexity. The digital revolution in retailing had led to gift-card cloning (copying the magnetic strip on an unused gift card, returning it to the store display, and then waiting until it is activated) and bar-code swapping (either printing up low-price bar codes on stickers or switching them from one item to another). Various lower-tech shoplifting methods could be employed anywhere, from the primitive “wahoo” (wherein the shoplifter walks into a convenience store, takes a case of beer, screams Wahoo! and runs out the door) to “left-handing” (paying for an item with your right hand while walking through the checkout with another item in your left) and “kangarooing” (the more theatrical use of a dummy arm and a pair of overalls with a large hidden pouch). One of the most lucrative scams was called “taking a flight” and involved having an accomplice steal one’s luggage from an airport baggage carousel, which, with enough persistent calls to customer service, could result in a $3,000 payday from the airline. Matt and his friends saw stealing as a form of revolt, a means of surviving while they chipped away at the monstrous walls of the capitalist fortress.

For Matt, the river trip was to be a sort of last great adventure before he left the United States for good. As long as he stayed, he felt the ultimate unfreedom of jail lurking around every corner. For years he was heavily involved with the animal-liberation movement and logged weeks of jail time in three different states for protests at animal-testing facilities. He claims to be on a domestic-terrorist watch list. “When I get my I.D. run by the cops, it comes up ‘Suspected member of Animal Liberation Front. Do not arrest.’” A recent homecoming for Matt in LAX resulted in a five-hour interview with Homeland Security. He related all these stories with thinly veiled pride, the way a parent might describe a child’s performance in a Little League game.

After the river journey, he was moving to Berlin, a squatter’s paradise he had visited once and found far more livable than anywhere in the United States. “I hate America,” he said, without the menace of a McVeigh or a Zarqawi but nevertheless with feeling. I asked what he would do with the raft once we reached New Orleans and he left for Germany. “Only one thing to do,” he said. “Torch it. I’m gonna give this motherfucker a Viking burial.”

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article for the magazine was a letter from a Philippine garbage dump (“The Magic Mountain,” December 2006).

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