Punk Flock: Uncovering Chicago’s subculture of eccentric nomads

At 18 years old, D.J. Pommerville was eating pizza out of the trash, sneaking onto cross-country rail cars and getting drunk under highway bridges. Now, he’s 33 and still dumpster diving. The only thing that’s changed is he gets asked for his autograph. 

Pommerville is known as the crust lord, the figurative leader of a community of young panhandling travelers called crusties.

Every summer, packs of crusties—mostly white, rebellious, anti-capitalist youth with no permanent home, and recognizable by their unkempt appearance—settle in the streets of Chicago.

Stained with the black grit of past cities, crusties travel the country cynically rejecting the mainstream lifestyle. Crusties, also known as crust punks or gutter punks, are derived from the anarcho-punk subculture, united by their love of punk music and stick-and-poke tattoos, facial piercings and dreadlocks. Pommerville, who was the lead vocalist for the hardcore band Gripe, has geometric tattoos across the bridge of his nose that extend to the tips of his fingers, hardly any of them done professionally. He has an oversized septum piercing dangling from his nose, thick stretched earlobes and he only showers when it’s convenient.

Within the crust punk community, there is a stigma against punks who come from upper-class lifestyles, bringing along cellphones, laptops or excessive amounts of money. While most crust punks are relatively peaceful, some are accused of being disruptive. “Oogles,” the slur used for the inexperiences, rowdier or more disrespectful crusties, are abundant in the city, frustrating locals and crusties alike.

Although most crusties do not have a home, they can have a homepage, thanks to Pommerville. While temporarily settled in Georgia three years ago, Pommerville and his friend Stephanie Young started the blog “Look at This F—-ing Oogle,” a playful spin on similarly named Tumblr blogs. After uploading a few personal photos of local crusties having “oogle moments,” Pommerville shared his email address to encourage other crusties to submit posts chronicling their own travels.

“I thought nobody would care because it was just pictures of our friends,” Pommerville said. “Really, a few weeks later, it got way bigger. It just started blowing up.”

While Pommerville was initially unaware of its impact and popularity, LATFO.tumblr.com how has 296 pages of inside jokes and photos of rebellious oogles documenting their daily lives spent on the road hopping trains and drinking. Pommerville said the website also serves a community service purpose: Some post missing person searches, obituaries, tribulations and truths from crusties worldwide, making LAFTO a central hub for the homeless by keeping them connected as they roam.

“Everyone I’ve met in the different cities over the years from traveling I hold close to my heart,” Pommerville said. “They’re my f——g friends for life, and just meeting them is the best part of the whole thing. A lot of us met 10 plus years ago, so seeing everybody grow up and everything is cool. Or not grow up, whatever the case may be.”

Chad Muzzy and fiancée Cherry Vikernes, covered head to toe in homemade tattoos, dread- locks and piercings, have been traveling for more than a decade and have trekked to Chicago by train many times.

“My idea of a good day is me and [Cherry] glued to a boxcar rolling out of a yard with our dogs, drinking a nice cold beer while the sun goes down, living it up,” Muzzy said. “It’s not always like that, [but] the good times outweigh the bad.”

In the four years they’ve been together, Vikernes and Muzzy haven’t been separated for longer than Muzzy’s 24-hour stint in jail. Both have been arrested multiple times for trainhopping during their past 10 years on foot. They have panhandled and worked countless odd jobs to survive, ranging from random chores to marijuana and beet harvesting.

As of late, Vikernes said they’ve been sleeping next to the Greyhound bus station and panhandling on the corner of State Street and Jackson Boulevard along with their sheepdog, Chevy, and Chihuahua, Poncho.

“Chicago is the home for the railroad riders in this country,” Muzzy said. “Any long-term freight train you’re going to ride is going to come through Chicago at one point or another.”

Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood has experienced its largest flock of crusties this summer, according to Doug Wood, programming chair for the Wicker Park Advisory Council’s enhanced security committee. He said the neighborhood’s punk rock atmosphere has attracted crust punks every summer for the past six years, with this most recent summer witnessing the most crime to date as crusties have consistently inhabited the park overnight and after hours.

“They hang out in the park in groups of 15–20 the entire day and night because they haven’t been removed from the park by the police,” Wood said. “They do drugs, they drink, they’re loud, their dogs chase people, they’ve injured some people, they’ve destroyed gardens, they’ve torn plants out of the urns … They’re incredibly destructive.”

Since February, the WPAC has been meeting with Alderman Joe Moreno (1st Ward), 14th District police, Park District Security and community groups to curb the increase in vandalism, drinking and drug sales in the park. Wood said many area bar-hoppers also hang out in the park after hours and drug sales have been an issue in the park for more than 15 years, so it isn’t clear if the crusties are completely to blame.

Because the park receives inadequate funding, Wood said it is largely maintained by local community organizations, from landscaping to park programming.

Moreno’s office declined to comment.

“When I saw people with strollers and little kids started coming in our park [five years ago], it was like a miracle,” said Elaine Coorens, a member of the Wicker Park Ad- visory Council, who moved to Wicker Park in 1976 and devoted much of her time and money toward rehabilitating the park.

“Now, a group of people that are unbathed decide they are going to put their belongings up in trees and the flowers in the park, which are maintained by volunteers 12 months a year, these [oogles] come in and trample them and defecate and pee and be disruptive in a public park. Is that a problem? Yeah, in my book it is.”

Wood said many people blame the gutter punks for most of the drugs and disruption in the park but they don’t have access to evidence to prove so. As a result of the ongoing meetings since February, Wood said Moreno had the Park District install two $30,000 security cameras and approved funding for a security guard to be in the park on weekday evenings. Since then, however, he said the cameras have not been checked and the security guard they hired wasn’t replaced during the six weeks she was on leave.

Wood said there have been two recent incidents of assault involving crusties in Wicker Park. He said the first incident happened on the evening of Aug. 11, when a crust punk was brought to the hospital with a broken spine after he was attacked with a two-by-four and a crescent wrench. 

The second incident, Wood said, happened at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 25 during a softball game in front of dozens of parkgoers who claimed other gutter punks attacked the crust punk; the victim, however, said it was another armed offender with a two-by-four.

“We’re trying to get the footage to see if these people are doing it to themselves or if this two-by-four person does exist,” Wood said. “It’s an important issue because if these people are doing this to themselves, then they could be expelled from the park based on the Park District’s code of conduct, which is people are not allowed to commit violent acts toward others.”

Vikernes said although she and Muzzy have fond memories of Wicker Park, they wouldn’t be caught dead there again.

“We don’t even go there, we just stay downtown,” Vikernes said. “Even though we probably don’t make as much money [panhandling] because there are other bums around here, we at least don’t have to deal with those stupid oogle kids. I don’t want to be associated with them, either.”

Muzzy said it’s common for crust punks to embark on their lives on the road consistently on drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with the challenging lifestyle. He said when he first took to the road as a teenager, he drank nonstop.

“Everybody has had that time when you first start and you don’t really know any- one,” Muzzy said. “You never know when you’re going to run into some f—–g a—–e who’s going to beat you up and take your s–t. When you’re new on the road it really helps to be drunk because then you just don’t give a f–k [and] it helps people cope with how f—–g hard the real world is … [but sometimes] it just gets you in trouble.”

While some crust punks chose their lifestyle, a lot of them were forced onto the streets, Pommerville said. He said his parents kicked him out at 18 because they thought he was smoking pot, and he has been a nomad ever since.

Yvonne Vissing, a sociology professor at Salem State College whose work centers around homeless youth, said it is common for homeless youths to have bad relationships with their families. Because of this, Vissing said they often flock to one another to create the support their unstable home lives lacked.

“[These crusties] would rather risk the uncertainties of the street than the known certainties of an abusive home,” Vissing said. “And if there’s a bunch of kids having home difficulties, then they bond together to get comfort, support and perspective.”

Stephanie Bassos, a local freelance photographer, started noticing crusties in Chicago for the first time in summer of 2011 and wanted to figure out their stories.

“There was this guy that had the word ‘Independent’ [tattooed] down his forearm and his fingernails were dirty,” Bassos said. “I was like, ‘You claim that you’re so independent [and that] you don’t work for the Man but you’re not independent, you’re relying on everyone else. I just need to know the logic.’”

Vissing said one reason the crust punk culture might generate so much animosity is that they are living outside societal norms. She said society thrives on defining a norm and a deviant, or acceptable and unacceptable behavior, which leads to communities, such as Wicker Park, eagerly trying to eliminate the crusties.

Bassos said although she doesn’t agree with the lifestyle, she realizes that the crust punks aren’t disrupting her life in any way.

“As long as they’re not bothering or harassing you, it’s their lifestyle choice and not mine, and I won’t give them anymore money,” Bassos said. “They’re generally nice; they’re just people making different decisions.”

Although Vikernes and Muzzy said they have enjoyed their years on the road, they’re exhausted by struggling to survive. She said they would like to get on their feet, but building a résumé on the streets is an obstacle.

“At this point, we’ve been around this [lifestyle] for so long that now we want to get a place and have a family,” Vikernes said. “We don’t really have work history, so building a résumé and s–t like that is tough. We both work as much as we can, we don’t like doing this at all. We have to work little odd jobs here and there.”

At 33 years old, Pommerville is the archetypal father figure to the culture. 

Although he said living on the road is a moving, spiritual way of life that everyone should experience before entering adult- hood, life for a crusty can be hard.

Pommerville said he’s seen different cliques form within the crust punk culture, from blackout drunk oogles to more peaceful gutter punks. Although he’s been clean for seven years, Pommerville said he used to be a heroin junkie and would visit Chicago to meet up with crust punk friends and jump trains. He said because the nature of being a crust punk is so dangerous, the most difficult part of the lifestyle is coping with the loss of their closest friends.

“What surprised me is, yeah, people die and everything but your f—king homie, who’s not supposed to die, is just dead,” Pommerville said. “Just gone. Things like that—people getting crazy diseases, the volume of the deaths and diseases … I wasn’t expecting that.”

Not unlike the social deviants of each generation, Pommerville said crusties live their lives regardless of how negatively others may view them.

“It’s the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle,” Pommerville said. “It’s fast, it’s dangerous, you lose friends along the way, either [through] death or addiction, or they change, or can’t handle it, become Christian and can’t talk to their friends anymore because they’re scared of going back to that life. What rock ’n’ roll was, it was scary, it was fast and people didn’t understand it. It’s kind of like us, in a way. We just go. We just get on a train and go.”