INDIVIDUAL: A civic minded grown up with a little bit of panache and a hip sense of style.
GROUP SIZE: Legions (For this project 9).
NATURE OF GROUP: Irresponsible teens who have left the house without their perfectly good coat and are going to catch their death.
INCIDENCE: coats4TEENS / look cool stay warm
What teen doesn’t want a to goof off with their friends in a white fringe pleather jacket!?
coats4TEENS was 2015-16 holiday coat drive for Irresponsible teens who have left the house without their perfectly good coat and are going to catch their death. See the Facebook event page for additional posts on this important topic.
We kicked off coats4TEENS on December 22nd with this call to action:
Please join us in this open source art-intervention concept and holiday season coat drive for irresponsible teens who have left home without their coat and are going to catch their death! When asked why they don’t just bring their perfectly good coat teens just roll their eyes with an undulating utterance that sounds like UHHHaaaaauuhhhh!
Remember when you were young and it was cool to wear a $6 thrift store coat? Now you can educate teens in your town about looking cool while feeling warm.
This teen is wearing a 100% cotton t-shirt over a long sleeve-t in a wet snowstorm! He’s going to catch his death!
Here’s how it works:
- Go you your local thrift store and pick up a few coats. We suggest; vintage warm up jackets, loud plaid sport coats, knee length mohair coats, 70’s heavy metal jean-jackets, coats with ironic printing for a bowling team or auto body shop, or 80’s neon ski jackets.
- When you see a teen shivering at a bus stop or outside the mall approach them with the coats. If they express concern about not wanting to carry it into a building just tell them to throw it away or leave it on a bus bench for the next cold teen!
- Ask for a picture and a first name then send in the documentation to be posted here on our event page! Anyone who sends us a picture or story about their donation of a coat to a teen will get a free hand-made zine at the end of winter!
Some cool coats we picked up at the ARC on 50% off day!
- Variety is key! Teens exhibit a wide array of styles but they almost all go out into fridgid winter weather without coats. A hip-hop teen is not going to want an ironic auto-body shop coat any more than a metal-head teen is going to want a vintage Puma warm-up jacket so take coats of several styles. Remember in addition to providing teens warmth you are also acting as a style consultant so be sure to have a range of coats.
- No one likes a middle-aged man idling in a sedan outside a Jr. High! So be sure to approach teens outside of the safe-school zone. Consider working in teams or having a fellow youth or a woman in your group approach the cold teen.
- Teens ignore adults as a stanadard tactic. Your first overture to a cold teen maybe met with only a side-eye glance. Be persistent! Remember they are cold and with just a little bit of salesmanship a teen will accept your generous donation!
These teens went out in just their t-shirts even though they could plainly see it’s winter out there! Don’t they feel cold?
Cody // Bomb Squad
I found a meter with 20 minutes left on it and grabbed two thrift-store coats, a black jacket that had “BOMB SQUAD” printed in white on the back and a purple shiny women’s vinyl jacket. Most of the teens walking up and down Denver’s 16th Street Mall were out Christmas shopping with their parents and had been obviously browbeat into wearing their perfectly good coats. I did see two male teens without coats (but in a flannel and long sleeves) walking 20 feet in front of their girlfriends. As I attempted to engage them they quickened their pace. Then I saw a male teen wearing a short sleeved t-shirt and a beanie. He ignored me when I asked him if he wanted a coat until I bounced it up and down in front of his face, “HEY, WANT A COAT”? He looked startled but politely told me “Uh…No thank you.”
With the sun going down, I took the coats over to “Stoner Hill” in Denver’s Commons Park at the west end of the pedestrian mall. Stoner Hill is a gathering spot frequented by ultra-irresponsible teens and the bane of nearby residents who are sick of looking down on a bunch of disrespectful dopers from behind the glass of their luxury highrise condos.
As I was summiting the hill a teen in a long sleeved shirt waved one of two plastic broad-swords my way and yelled, “I challenge you to a DUEL!” I asked him if he wanted a coat. A small cadre of teens gathered around. One pre-teen, who was wearing just the hood of his coat properly but the rest of it like a cape, wanted a coat. I chastised him for being selfish when his friend with the swords had no coat – at which point the warrior told me he did have a coat it was just in his bag because he was all warmed up from dueling. Bursting through the group and interrupting our conversation, a very skinny teen in an incredibly dirty short sleeved pullover told me emphatically, “I NEED A COAT!” He had filthy clothes and a dirty face, including an unmitigated 4″ snot tendril streaming to his chin. He grabbed the BOMB SQUAD coat and immediately put it on. I asked him if I could take a picture and for a first name. He told me his name was Cody and was surprised when I stuck out my hand to shake his dirty and snot streaked hand. His hand was calloused and freezing but he had a firm confident grip.
Cody is clearly an irresponsible teen who has left the house without his coat. Sadly, however, it appears like he left his house a long time ago and, in effect, may no longer have a house. We could speculate on the reasons he has been so irresponsible and whether or not he needs to call his mother to let her know where he is – but for now he just needs a coat.
Pirate, Cookie, and Shea // Purple Sparkles, The Green Gap, and Tri-tone Lacoste
With the temperature dropping below 30 at dusk, I headed back to Stoner Hill. Only male grown ups in appropriate (though heavily worn) winter attire were out. Their bags were lined up in a neat row and they were huddled together in a body-warmth pod reminiscent of March of the Penguins. Despite the lack of teens, I offered them coats which no one needed – though one man asked for gloves. Two teens in clean H&M sweatshirts walked up the hill but neither wanted the cool coats I was offering and they definitely didn’t want their pictures taken! It’s likely they were worried their mom would see the pictures on Facebook and know they had gone up there to do some marijuanas. A ring-leader – I’m not sure if he was a leader, or if this group even has one, but he was sporting a walrus mustache, a top-hat, and tails – told me “Come back tomorrow when everyone is here.”
The next afternoon, I went back to the West Colfax ARC with a new strategy. The weather had been below freezing and most teens were in light jackets, not appropriate for the weather but better than nothing if they insist on leaving the house with their perfectly good coat. I also was looking for name brand and designer labels to appeal to a basic teen. Hipster style is a bridge too far for most 8th graders. I scored a men’s XL red Polo by Ralph Lauren zipper jacket, a women’s M green Gap double-breasted corduroy coat, a 1970’s tritone L men’s Lacoste zipper-front warm-up, a sporty women’s down Marker ski-wear vest, and a couple pairs of $1.99 gloves.
I decided to put the coats on hangers and carry them over my back with a shoulder strap. The hangers added a touch of class and made the selection process seem more like a shopping experience. Feeling confident with my coat selection that I could convince a basic irresponsible teen to just put on a jacket in this winter weather, I hit the street. About a block from the pedestrian mall a bro in a white SUV with white Bronco’s decals pulled up, rolled down his window, and screamed at me, “HEY FUCK-WAD!!” before gunning it up to the corner to continue spreading Christmas cheer by yelling explicatives at a baffled homeless man.
There were not very many people, let alone irresponsible unattended teens, out at 3pm on Christmas eve. I’d made a tactical error by going out on one of 2 afternoons a year that teens could be forced to sit down at a table with their parents and just have a pleasant conversation with the entire family for once… A pre-model tall blond teen in $500 jeans, a Calvin Klein logo-T, and an irresponsibly flimsy (and not at all winter appropriate) sport-coat came out of Sally Beauty Supply. I veered toward her thinking she’d be perfect for the Marker vest. About ten feet from making contact her post-model manicured mom came out of the store and gave me a stare 1000 times icier than the weather.
At the end of the mall Stoner Hill was crawling with irresponsible teens who’s parents were just wondering why they wouldn’t return their texts. I asked a Warped Tour style punk in a sleeveless jean jacket and long sleeve-t and his oversize sweatshirt wearing girlfriend if they needed free jackets. Despite their edgy style they were both clean with clothes their mom had obviously freshly laundered with no recognition for all her hard work. “Uh.. No thank you. But thank you SO MUCH for offering.” The girlfriend longingly stared at my coats but made no sound or movement. On my way out I approached a 20 something I’d seen on both of my previous visits and asked him how he was doing, “Uh… I’m pretty faced man.” (Everyone on the hill was frantically huddled around a man with a glass rod and a tar-stained aluminum box doing lots and lots of marijuanas.) I told him I brought gloves for the person who’d requested them yesterday. “I don’t know man but I NEED gloves. My hands were FREEZING yesterday” When I handed him the puffy gloves his face lit-up. “Oh MAN they’ve even got that rubberized grip! THANK YOU! Oh my god THANK YOU SO MUCH!”. I wanted to photograph his beaming face and open smile but Zane was only comfortable letting me take a picture of his before and-after-hands.
At 16th and Curtis three irresponsible teen girls were waving a cardboard sign that said SMILE yelling “Merry Christmas! SMILE! Be happy!” at pedestrians. Two of them were wearing sweatshirts with Sox Place printed on the front. Sox Place is a daytime drop in center downtown who’s mission is to “provide food and clothing and meaningful relationships to Denver’s street youth”. The sign holder was wearing an undersized purple jacket, skull printed leggings and shaggy rainbow raver flair leg warmers.
“Do you ladies want a free coat?”
“Oh my GOD YES I want the purple one!!” squealed raver flair.
“I want the green one, Oh my god it’s CUTE too!” exclaimed the one in the blue smurf wig.
“I’ll take this one” whispered the shy one as she grabbed the tri-tone Lacoste jacket.
“Can I take your pictures”
“Of course” said raver flair as she and smurf wig started vamping in their new coats.
“What are your names?
“How about you?”
“My name is Shae,” said the shy one who was starting to get more remote and nervous.
It’s worth noting here: the National Conference of State Legislators reports that, “46 percent of runaway and homeless youth reported being physically abused, 38 percent reported being emotionally abused, and 17 percent reported being forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member”. A strange forty year old man with free stuff wanting to take some pictures may not be a welcome encounter for a lot of street-wise homeless teens.
“What are you ladies doing? Spreading Christmas cheer?”
“We’re trying to get some money together” shrugged Pirate “But this works better than just asking for it… SMILE” she turned and yelled to a haggard white-haired homeless man rolling past in a wheelchair. He looked up startled that someone was trying to engage him and couldn’t help but smile as Pirate told him to have a Merry Christmas.
On the way back to the car I got hit up for money by a 40 going on 70 woman in a wheelchair with a nasal oxygen tube. “You want some gloves?” I held out the pair of $1.99 red sparky women’s gloves.
“Oh yes! I’ll put them on over these,” indicating a matching pair of pink sparky gloves, “to make my hands warmer.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ok Momma D – stay warm, Merry Christmas…”
“You too honey. God bless you!”
Momma D’s sign closed with “GOD BLESS THINK YOU”. I actually don’t think God works in that way, or should be necessary as a tool to guilt people into helping others, or is even “real” (as in up in the sky) or whatever… But I did appreciate the take-away – THINK YOU. All the way home, I did THINK – it seems like people who have a lot to loose are very guarded and hostile to strangers, and people with nothing to loose are very open and accepting even when they really have NO reason to trust anyone.
AKTIV // Red Polo by Ralph Lauren
Dozens of teens dressed responsibly for the sub-freezing weather thronged the mall. Multiple groups of 3-10 teens stood in casual conversation pods anchored by smiling grizzled homeless men, laughing at their jokes and patiently listening. I did see one of these teens shivering in just a sweater but I didn’t want to intrude on the circle he formed with his friends around an over-tan man in Carhart coveralls.
As I climbed Stoner Hill with my coats a scrappy old (probably my age but looking plus twenty years) homeless man pointed to a small group of teens and said, “Step right up, they’re waiting for ya’.”
“Anyone need a coat?”
They responded with “Dollar dabs?” After an awkward pause, there was cascade of mutual no thank you, no thanks, and nah’s.“Dabs” must be how the ultra-irresponsible teens of Stoner Hill are doing their marijuanas. (Back in my day irresponsible teens did good old fashioned “bong-rips”.) A teen with freshly laundered but immaculately disheveled clothes – and only a sweatshirt on – walked up with a crumpled buck and was soon touching the tip of a red hot bowie knife to the end of a glass rod. He coughed violently before bolting up to the top of the hill where he fidgeted and paced around alone. His mom it totally going to notice that behavior later…
“Hey let me check out that black vest,” said the 20 something selling $1 dabs. He was the one who’d requested gloves on my second visit to the hill. Zane, who I’d given his intended gloves to on my third visit, was laying on a patch of grass off to the side talking to a 40-something woman with proper hygiene and appropriate winter wear about “dabs” and the exact placement of the surveillance cameras pointed at the hill. He was wearing more lightweight blue gloves and a cream colored fur-lined trench-coat.
“Yea, sure – it’s a girls though. A small.” I walked back to the dollar dabs group.
“Oh yea – it’s a girls…”
“HEY! You gave me a coat the other day!” A teen with heavy cerulean eye-shadow and wavy red-orange highlighted hair smiled up at me. I didn’t recognize her.
“Yea? You sure? I don’t remember?”
“Yea – on Christmas eve!” I looked a little more closely, noticing her cheek piecing and her Sox Place sweatshirt.
“Oh YEA! Shae right?”
“Yea! That’s Right”. Dollar dabs dude chimed in,
“Daummn! When does someone remember your name but not your face!!?”
One of the teens pointed at Zane, who was now wandering around the hill in his grass covered fur lined cream coat and yelled “trench coat mafia” at him. Zane chortled, probably too young, or too “faced”, or too much of a nihilist to be put-off by the reference to Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’s high-school clique. “Yea, we should get everyone up here to wear trench coats.” I made a mental note for the ARC’s upcoming 50% off New Years event.
“No customers today,” I told the scrappy old (but not) homeless man who’d heralded my arrival to the hill.
“Yea man – kids!? They never put on a coat. Don’t matter HOW cold!”
“Yea! Why is that?”
“Guess they’d rather be cold and look cool… That’s ok though. There’s a lot worse goin’ on out here than bein’ cold…”
A white rasta in a knit pullover bumbled by. “Hey, you want a coat” I’m giving these away to anyone who needs one. The only men’s I have left is this vintage CDOT work coat.”
“Uh… That’s ok – thanks though.”
“Too safety-orange for you?”
“No man, it’s pretty chill actually.” He said fingering the coat a little looking at the CDOT patch, “But I’m good. Give it to someone who needs it.”
Shae points and yells, “LOOK EVERYONE A RAINBOW!!” The whole hill looked up with beaming faces and spontaneous cries of OOOooo, AAhhh, and “BEAUTIFUL” at the sight of a wispy rainbow fragment – not even a partial arc but more of a roygbiv undulation in cloud cover broken by a ray of the dipping sun.
On my way out of the park a bundled-up girl gave me a tentative wave. I didn’t recognize the three inches of visible face until Pirate rounded the corner behind her in the purple sparkly jacket I gave her Christmas eve. “Cookie! Pirate! What’s up?”
“LOOK!” Pirate yelled emphatically pointing to the sky. I reactively snapped my neck back and searched an empty sky. The rainbow was gone…
“That’s what’s up.”
At 16th and Wazee an older teen in a cotton button-up blasting gangsta’ rap from the pea sized speaker on his SAMSUNG crossed the street with a lumbering swagger. “Hey man, hey… You want a coat? You look pretty cold right now.”
“You sure, you look really cold”
“Naw I’m good!” I knew this was the first real chance I’d had to engage a basic irresponsible teen who actually had a home to leave without his coat on. I went in for the hard sell.
“You sure? Look I got a XL red Polo jacket right here! Matches your shirt – RED! It’s your color man. Look at that! Polo by Ralph Lauren!!”
“How much you sellin’?
“FREE! I’m out here to GIVE IT to a cold teen and you look really REALLY really cold right now!”
“Aight, yea. We could do that!”
“Awesome! Can I get a before and after picture for my project?”
“Ok, trade places with me because the sun’s at your back right now.” He stepped into the light and I snapped a before picture, “Ok now put it on. Hell yea! It fits! Lookin’ TIGHT my man” (I’ve heard teens from this particular subculture use “tight” instead of “cool” so I thought I’d try it out.)
“Yea?” He laughed a little nervous laugh as I took his picture.
“Ok, what’s you name man?”
“Can you spell that Active?
“A K T I V ! ”
“Alright, tight… Peace man!”
We fist-bumped and I headed off with a new bounce in my step.
The conversation circles of responsibly dressed teens and homeless people still lingered. After a man with a wild eye, scraggly beard, and huge backpack insisted he really REALLY had to get going, I approached the two teens he’d been regaling with stories.
“Hey can I ask you something?”
“Sure! What’s up?”
Fighting the urge to pass along Pirate’s dorky but prescient joke…“What are your names?”
“Kiana” said with an open smile, an extended hand, and a firm grip.
“Mercy” said with hesitation.
“I’ve been seeing groups of young people like you talking to the homeless people all afternoon. I’m out here every day trying to give coats to people, and I’ve been talking to a lot of street-kids, people your age, and it seems like no one ever approaches them or talks to them. No one EVER talks to the homeless. So, uh… What’s going on?”
Kiana explained in enthusiastic chirps “Uh.. Well, we’re here for the Denver Christmas Conference!?… We’re from all over, like Nebraska, Ohio, everywhere really. We’re all doing a three hour homelessness immersion!? We were asked to just go out and talk to homeless people and ask them questions and, you know, like… listen… to, you know, learn what it’s like to be homeless! And, you know, we ARE Christian so… We do kind of want to spread, um, you know, just… HOPE!?”
It was so heartening to see Christians actually doing what Jesus would do – and teens being patient, standing in the cold for an hour (though in responsible winter wear), and treating the homeless like humans who deserve the time and attention of a fellow person. I drove home thinking about shy Shae looking at (and like) a rainbow, AKTIV all warm and cozy in his new designer-label gang-color-coordinated coat, and Kiana, Mercy and their fellow Christmas Conference attendees out being Christ-like for the afternoon – it all gave me a renewed sense of… you know, just… HOPE!?
All aboard the ARC
The 50% off New Years event at the ARC was in full swing. I had to wait for someone to leave before I could park. I’d had the most luck unloading name brand light jackets – less so ironic hipster styles. The red Polo by Ralph Lauren jacket I’d given to AKTIV hit the sweet spot in between; vintage and objectively cool, but a name brand and appealing to a basic teen. The first coat that caught my eye, however, was classic blipster (blue coller hipster). A shiny green snap-button jacket with Sonny embroidered over the heart in script. A burgundy vintage PUMA warm up jacket was an obvious choice for 50% off of $6.99. Someone over in dishware dropped a plate. The sound reverberated through the ARC to a chorus of oops and tisk-tisks in English, Spanish, Russian, and Somali.
Thinking about my secondary constituency, the ultra-irresponsible teens who’d left home without their coat six or more months ago, I picked up a red puffy 70’s Frost Line coat that looked like you could wear to ski across the arctic. Someone over in dishware knocked over an entire end-cap. The cascade of broken glass sounds continued for what seemed like a minute and was met throughout the entire store with a cautious silence.
Set on men’s, I headed over the women’s. Women’s coats are harder for me to pick out. The styles are so diverse and the name-brands less familiar. Plus women’s is always WAY more picked over. I found a Barney’s New York light green zip-up jacket that looked pretty classy, maybe a little too matronly, but at $3.45 it was a steal. (When I brought it home my wife characterized it as something a teen on Model UN would wear.) I rounded out my purchases with a lined North Face hooded windbreaker. In Denver most responsible professional ladies have a North Face which they’ll wear out for any occasion, pairing it with jeans and boots, or even club-wear and heels. It’s practically a uniform. Waiting for checkout, I absentmindedly read the large lower-case vinyl typeset on the front wall. “you are making a difference today. arc thrift stores make a difference in the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. thank you for shopping.”
Inspired, I did some googling. A statement on ARC’s Mission and Core Values page resonated with me, “The Arc believes in self-determination and self-advocacy. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with appropriate resources and supports, can make decisions about their own lives…” Substitute irresponsible teens for people with intellectual disabilities and this described my mission with coats4TEENS. I’ve been trying to provide appropriate resources and support to irresponsible teens who’ve left the house without their perfectly good coats. In doing so, I’d tangentially made a connection to a group of ultra-irresponsible teens who have taken self-determination and self-advocacy to an extreme by living on their own and on the streets. But, the street-kids were obviously ill-equipped to find their way through an exciting yet dangerous time in their lives without those appropriate resources and support. While a free coat could educate a basic teen about looking cool while feeling warm, to a street-kid it was probably just a band-aid. Was I truly making a difference? I surfed over to SoxPlace.com and clicked on the individual volunteer application. As a nonbeliever I hesitated at their mission statement “… to bring the Father’s heart to the fatherless” but, based on the Christmas Conference kids, Christians seemed to be the only people who had any real compassion for the homeless. Jesus was a traveler after all – born in a manger!
The form was more onerous that I’d expected – asking for references, qualifications, a statement of faith (to which I listed the fundamental principles of Humanism), and lastly a “Personal Testimony”. This was a stumper. It’s probably a regular request with Christians, akin to an artist’s statement in my world. Being a Humanist, I wasn’t prepared with a pat response and was forced to contemplate a personal question that often comes up at some point in open-ended art intervention experiments like coats4TEENS. Why am I doing this?
Personal testimony: (Additional details added here in parenthesis)
When I was 18 I decided to live in the woods outside of Jackson Hole Wyoming instead of paying rent. At the end of the warm season, I took $900 I’d earned as a hotel maid – which seemed like a huge amount of money at the time – and bought a one way train ticket to Seattle to “travel”. For the next four months I slept on the floors of loose-aquintences and in campgrounds on Orcas Island 100 miles north. After a couple months, I spent almost all my remaining money on a $400 Cadillac Coup De Ville (named her LaTisha) and moved in. After eventually traveling south to Arcata California, (and multiple fruitless attempts to secure food stamps, as you need a permanent address for food-stamps, or a job, aside from a two day cash-for-labor job clearing out an evicted hoarder), I got in an argument with my traveling companion (and lover over my being a burden on her freedom – and my inability to find work), and was asked to leave her friends house we’d been staying at. By that point I had about $40.
Very fortunately for me, my parents, who were good non-abusive and understanding people, both helped me out. My Dad (after my desperate and heart-broken collect-call from a pay phone) found me a nearby place to stay with one of his former grad-students (and put a small deposit in my college-fund bank account he’d told me he would not be contributing to until I was in college). My mom allowed me to move back in under strict guidelines about working (as it turned out as a WALL MART “code-10” as in “code-10 to isle 5 for a wet clean-up, or code-10 to the lot for carts”), saving, and moving out to go to college within one year.
I often reflect on this time in my life. Though I did not consider it or realize it at the time, I was a homeless teen for close to a year. I thought I was traveling free and seeing the country. My life skills, and ability to support myself in a normal, socially integrated way, however, were extremely lacking – despite a good education, supportive family, and safe and forgiving home environment. I’ve been able to readily understand how a young person could easily slip into this lifestyle, and how it could become a permanent situation with little chance to turn it around without outside support.
Despite being New Years day, I got an email back within two hours ”…Thank you for your interest in Sox Place. We are closed for a few more days due to the holidays. I will contact you for an interview time…” An information packet was attached. Under the last bullet point under “what to expect” it said, “If you are a church group, here for a mission trip, note that we do not require the youth that come into Sox Place to be Christian or listen to a sermon in order to receive any of our services… We try to follow Jesus’ example of compassion to the outcasts, as He does with the woman at the well in John 4.” After googling John 4 it didn’t really resonate with me. Jesus is essentially telling the woman, a Samaritan, that he’s cool with her even though she’s had four husbands and lives with a man who isn’t her husband. Though I’m sure that was very open minded back in the year 0 or 25, or whatever, it came across as kind of passive aggressive, sexist, and judgey to me. But maybe there’s something I’m missing. Samartian did strike a chord so I looked up the origin of “good-samaritan”. Apparently the Samaritans were disdained by the Jews at that time, not sure why, probably run-of-the-mill racism.
Parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37): “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” Jesus then poses the question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Indeed, is a good neighbor someone who has vestments, or is from a privileged class, simply due to their race or status? Or is a good neighbor someone who actually takes time out of their busy day to help out and try to make a difference?
Eduardo, Homer, and Sapphire // Burgundy Puma, Red Frost Line, and The North Face
Fully stocked with seven coats from the ARC’s 50% off New Years event, I decided to reverse my normal route and hit Stoner Hill before the mall. I was hoping to lighten my load and give first dibs to the street-kids who actually need coats.
“Free coats and jackets!”
“COATS, Coats, coats.” repeat-echoed across the hill. I’d noticed this on past visits. I’d tell one person I had coats, they’d yell COATS, and everyone else would repeat it with the “human microphone” technique. The kid who’d been doing “dabs” off the red-hot tip of a bowie knife on my last visit ran over.
“I want the North Face”
“Ok, It’s a girls. It might fit you though.”
“Nah, not if it’s a girls”
“Oooo, I’ll take it then” said the young lady sitting closest to me.
“I want this one!” A teen, who appeared to be the twin of the knife dabber, reached for the puffy red Frost Line you could wear to ski across the arctic, and started to run off.”
“Ok, wait! You’ve got to let me take your picture with it though. That’s the deal. And tell me your first names”
“Sapphire” said the girl now ensconced in The North Face.
“Eduardo” from the knife dabber (or maybe he wasn’t the knife dabber, it could have been his twin).
“And you?” I asked the other twin holding the red Frost Line. He’d shot his brother Eduardo a scolding look when he told me his given-name.
“What’s your name?”
“This one is SO soft…” Eduardo was fingering the sleeve of the Puma jacket. “Can I have it?”
“ Yea! Totally, grab it! Ok everyone – pictures!”
“Why you want our pictures?”
“It’s for my project. It’s part of it.”
When the camera came out a few of the older people on the hill took a protective interest. “Why you taking pictures? What are they for?”
“My project is photographing people I give free coats to. How about I’ll take them without faces if someone doesn’t want their face in it.”
After some inconclusive and suspicious grumbling from the group, Homer acquiesced to a neck down picture. Eduardo followed his lead. I snapped them both and showed them all the pictures on my camera to prove it didn’t have their faces in them.
“You can take it with my face, if it’s for your project.” Sapphire conceded a half-hearted smile.
A 20-something whose name I didn’t catch, tried on the Sonny jacket (my personal favorite) and let me take a picture with his hat-hidden face, but ended up returning it. I thought this one would be a hit. When I was a teen, all the hip kids would have killed for a green satin jacket with STRATTON EAGLES embroidered on the back and Sonny in script on the front. Tastes have changed. Irony is SOOooo 20th century!
In the rapidly dropping temperatures of the first warm afternoon in weeks, I was hoping to engaging some T-shirt clad basic teens on the mall with my remaining inventory. I knew they’d irresponsibly left the house in the warm afternoon without thinking ahead about how it would get colder when the sun went down. A 20-something wearing headphones and a plain white-T charging down the mall looked straight through me – even when I waved the Sonny coat in front of him like a matador. A second T-shirt teen coming my way responded with an “uuuuUUUUuHHH HH hhhhhhhh” that crescendoed and dissipated with a doppler effect as we passed each other. I crossed the street to engage a teen girl in a long-sleeved cotton-T. When I asked her if she wanted a free coat she unintelligibly laugh-moaned what I took to mean no. Her friend was able to find his manners and say “No thank you.” A couple of male teens, one in a sensible-for-the-weather bomber jacket and one in an American Eagle Outfitters cotton long-sleeve with the cuffs pulled over his hands in T-shirt mittens, were crossing toward me. I waited on the corner, “Hey man, you want this free coat,” holding up Sonny. He responded with a wide-eye terrorized expression that looked like the pre-cursor to
Zero for four with the basic teens. The contrast between the irresponsible basic teens on the mall who’d left the house without their perfectly good coats and the street-kids on Stoner Hill was counter-intuitive. Street-kids were welcoming, quick to offer a “name” (though usually a pseudonym), ask questions, even challenge me on my answers, and immediately get on the level. The basic teens were very socially challenged – completely unable to process a simple unsolicited offer from an unknown grown up. Though the Sox Place info packet I received when I filled out their volunteer application said that many street-kids were emotionally immature, they seemed in many ways to be way more socialized and more confident. Or maybe they were just high. Or maybe they were effusive from doing all those marijuanas while all the basic teens were too pumped full of Prozac and Zoloft to form a sentence.
In my rush to get out on today’s coats4TEENS mission I’d left the house in a light sweater and my Canadian tuxedo – a thread-bare jean jacket with Ozzy written in ballpoint pen over the heart. The temperature had dropped 10-15 degrees. I stated to wonder just how cold I’d get while carrying five coats on my back. Noting the irony of my own irresponsible winter wear, I set down my inventory, and then myself, on a bench. While snapping up Sonny over my Canadian tuxedo I drifted into an free-associative inner-monologue. “Now, I like THIS coat. It’s warm. Maybe I’ll keep it… It IS the last day of coats4TEENS – well tomorrow is really the end of the Facebook event, but all the basic teens start school tomorrow so… I still have Sonny, the Marker Vest, that Burton ladies snowboard coat, and Barney’s New York… And CDOT back in the truck. Yea… I’ll keep Sonny and CDOT (my line of work sometimes involves installing fake signs on public roadways in broad daylight so it’s good to have a Colorado Department of Transportation work coat disguise.) I’ll just take the girls coats back to the ARC. ‘The ARC giveth and the ARC taketh away…’ I gotta’ remember to get a donation receipt this time – they ARE designer labels; so, I can probably write off like $200-$300 without the itemization getting flagged…”
“Hey, you the coat guy?” Startled I loped up to see two scrappy looking teens.
“Uh yea! You want a coat? This is the only men’s I have left” starting to unbutton Sonny, “I just put it on ’cause I was getting cold but I totally don’t need it. My truck is right over there.”
“No we’re good. I don’t need it.”
“You sure? It’s pretty great. It says STRATTON EAGLES on the back,” turning to show them.
“I’ve got a coat. So, you’re taking pictures of people with coats? What are you doing with the pictures? You post them?”
This again… “Uh… Yea – of the people I give coats to.”
“Why? Why do you do that?”
“Well, a coupe of reasons I guess. The main one is to create a story, a compelling narrative that has a hook to it. Something funny. Like, you know how teens always go out in winter without their coats on?”
“I don’t do that.”
“Well sure, but you know people do, I just saw four kids on the mall wearing t-shirts.”
“Yea well, some people are stupid.”
“Sure, or just irresponsible, or whatever. And you know, these teen’s Moms are all like ‘why are you going out in the dead of winter without the perfectly good coat I got you!’. And, I’m in my 40’s so a lot of my friends, my Facebook friends, have teenagers, so people with that older perspective think that’s funny.”
“And, uh… So anyway, you use that to draw someone in to your story; but, in reality, most of the teens I end up photographing and giving coats to are street-kids.”
“Right who actually NEED coats.”
“Right! So, you create this simple joke about irresponsible teens leaving the house without their perfectly good coat, and a compelling story, or series of stories, and then you start to turn the narrative, in a subtle and maybe a little manipulate way, to be about something else, like the fact that there are teens out here in winter without even a home, or a mom – and some of them without even coats…”
“to raise awareness!” Finishing my sentence for me.
“Yes exactly. And that reframes the issue so people see it differently, or are maybe aware of it for the first time.”
“Oh ok… That’s cool.”
“You sure you don’t want this coat? Seriously, I don’t need it.”
“No I’m good.”
“How about you” asking the inquisitor’s quiet companion.
“Nah. I’ve been on the streets for a long time… I’ve got two coats.”
“Ok. So what are your names?“
“Albert” – from the inquisitor. The other kid said something really faint.
“What’s that? I didn’t catch it.”
Final volunteer summation and report for The Institute of Sociometry:
Two weeks ago, at the start of coats4TEENS, if I’d known I would only be able to engage AKTIV as the sole irresponsible teen who’d left the house without his perfectly good coat (as this event was billed), I might not have not have volunteered. If I’d know that street-kids would be calling me “coat guy” I would have been pretty pumped about that. If I’d known I was going to end up googling bible passages and filling out a volunteer form for a Christian charity, or that the last word I heard within the boundaries of the project, “Christian” strikes me as a synchronistic sign about my need reexamine the actions of Jesus and my own judgmental views about Christians… Well, I probably would have just rolled my eyes and stayed home.
One thing I’ve learned (or rather first I was taught by Eleanor Antin a kooky old-lady – and pioneering performance artist – I took five classes from in college, who once proclaimed herself King of Solana Beach, spent a year dressed up as a bearded hobo, ended up arbitrating disputes, and having her proclamations heard at city council meetings) is that an open ended art-intervention needs to have a premise and end-goal to give it direction and momentum. But, crucially, it must be open to getting blown off course by unexpected circumstances. If you ignore those nudges of random pushing you in an uncomfortable direction and only focus on the end-goal then you’re not making art about the nature of life – your merely making art about your ego. And everyone HATES ego-art! So, back to the one thing I’ve learned (since). When you’re trying to construct an art-prank about the nature of life, it needs to be able to grow legs and run ahead of you into the forest. Your job at that point is just to chase it and see where it goes. But, crucially, it must be able to get so far out in front of you that it can hide behind a tree, jump out, and spook you. If YOU are not also fair-game as the target of your own prank then on some level you’re just pointing and laughing at others.
Signing up to volunteer at Sox Place is frightening new territory for me – social action unguarded by the armor of art and satire. I hope they do call me back. It may not happen – especially if they do a thorough enough background check to come across this story. After all, telling “true stories” through the lens other people’s lives is exploitative. Journalism, documentary, non-fiction, street photography, and art-interventions, if done well, all capture a persons soul. They take a real human experience and whittle it into a parable or a metaphor that may not be recognizable by it’s main character. So, when the subjects of my parables start picking at their corners and asking me what EXACTLY I’m planning on doing with that picture then it’s usually time to stop. If I need to exploit someones image to expose a weakness in the system, or try to right a wrong, or speak truth to power, I think that’s relatively benign collateral damage. But, once I’ve got my story, and especially in this case, maybe it’s important to recognize I’ve taken something which isn’t mine, turn off the camera, pull the tongue out of my cheek, and work on giving something back.
Q: How do I get involved, do I need to be in your town or attend meetings?
A: No! This is an “open source concept” that you can enact independently in your community. Irresponsible teens out on the street without the perfectly good coat they own are in every town! Just follow the above steps and send us a picture or story!
Q: What’s a concept?
A: “Concept” is synonymous with “idea”! Artists use the term concept to imply an action that will result in a “form” – in this case a zine (which is a home made magazine)! Concepts also often are about a social or political issue but may not make actual literal sense or speak to that issue in a specific way.
Q: I’m not an artist. Can I still participate?
A: Absolutely! We’ve already done the art part – we just need participants! You can be from any background in order to be an integral part of coats4TEENS!
Q: But is it really art?
A: Renowned media and cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan said “Art is whatever you can get away with”. So we’re trying to get away with this!