Life on the Streets

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He goes by the name Turtle. Beneath the dirt-swirled arms, the brownish-yellow rotting teeth and the mangled Yankees cap, he is a 32-year-old man brought up on the streets.

Turtle has never sat a day in a classroom, but he has encountered life lesson after life lesson. Now he is in "retirement" from traveling the streets of the world and has settled on the curbs of Berkeley as one of many who shake cups on Telegraph Avenue.

Photo/Peter Goetz
Turtle hangs out with his friend Dave, another squatter he met two days before.

He was born in 1968 on a Navaho-Apache Indian Reservation, in Tucson, Ariz. When he was six years old he was dropped off on Highway 101 near Ventura, with his birth certificate in his pocket.

"My parents dropped me off, leaving me to get picked up by anyone," Turtle says. "I could have been picked up by some child molester, but instead a CHP officer picked me up. Then I became a ward of the state of California."

Turtle ran away from his foster home in 1980, at the age of 12. His early years set the stage for the coming adventures.


Turtle ended up in one of the many metropolitan havens of the runaway subculture - Hollywood Boulevard.

"In the early 80s the Boulevard was mostly gutter punks and squatters," Turtle says. "Now gangsters, junkies, prostitutes have taken over."

Squatters, he explains, are traveling youth that are homeless but willing to work in order to survive, often sleeping in abandoned buildings called "squats" - or "anything that has a roof."

When Turtle first arrived on the boulevard he was brought under the wings of the Hells' Angels.

"The bikers looked over me and got me drunk as shit," Turtle says. "They would give me an eighth and watch me do stupid shit."

Turtle believes that once you are on the street your childhood is over. You have to grow up and learn survival skills - street survival. Turtle soon departed from his surrogate biker family and began one of his many journeys, one that would teach him the ways of the squatter lifestyle.

At 14, Turtle embarked on an international, trans-Atlantic journey from Hollywood, Calif. to Amsterdam, Holland. Turtle made his way across the United States boarding freight trains by sneaking in the train yards and hiding away in freight cars.

"You have to look at the crew sheet in the train yard to find out where you are going and when you'll be stopping," Turtle says. "Otherwise you can be trapped in that car for weeks and starve to death."

Once on the East Coast, Turtle stayed in New York for a few weeks and soon was set to explore Europe. He wanted to go to Amsterdam because it was rumored as a marijuana user's paradise. But to get there he had to sneak on a boat that was going across the Atlantic.

"Getting on boats is easy as shit," Turtle says. "All you gotta do is wait for the workers to walk down the plank. Then you creep up real quick and hide away."

Turtle says he has snuck on boats going to Hawaii, Jamaica, Italy and Saudi Arabia. He says he usually exposes himself to the crew only after few days into the trip so they will not turn the ship around.

Turtle spent two years in Europe traveling and squatting to survive. Eating out of trash cans and "spanging," or "spare-changing," to survive. The European travels came to an end when Turtle was arrested for a street skirmish and it was discovered that he was an American.

"Deported immigrants are treated like kings," Turtle says. "One night I am on the streets eating out of trash cans, the next I am at a full resort. A golf course, hot food, warm bed - I thought it was a dream. The worst part was flying - the last time I'm ever doing that shit again. I like boats much better."

The travels of squatters are what they live for. Turtle says he has been to every state in the nation, including Alaska. Turtle has laid his sleeping bag in almost every city along the western stretch of coastline. The warmth of California is what draws many squatters to this state. It is also the main reason for Turtle living here for the past ten years.

"I have slowed down my travels now that I am 32 years old," he says. "I retired here in Berkeley 5 years ago."

Turtle has probably lived in your neighborhood at some point in the last 20 years. He has spent large amounts of time squatting in San Diego's Camp Pendleton, Palos Verdes' Rolling Hills, Malibu, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, San Luis Obispo, the Santa Cruz mountains and Marin, Mendocino and Humboldt counties - just to name a few.


In Berkeley, the street culture is composed of a four-tiered classification of street residents. Turtle is a squatter. The tattooed symbol on his hand depicts this international group of street travelers.

The hippy subculture, according to a hippy named Pockets, is composed of people who travel the nation following their favorite musical acts while living in communes. They refer to many of their fellow hippie travelers as "the family."

The gutter punks are anti-system, anti-government and steal almost everything they use for survival, Turtle says. Turtle considers this group the "lowest scum of the streets."

House punks are the people who live at home and go to school during the weekdays, living on the streets on the weekends, Turtle says.


According to Turtle, living this squatter lifestyle is not only about free-spiritedness and seeing the world. There exists a very dark side. It is a life of survival of the fittest - a life of vulnerability, crime and addiction.

Turtle, who says he would take any chance to get off the streets and get his own house, has seen it all and done it all. He has done every drug that makes its way to the streets. He is an encyclopedia of street narcotics and can give you story after story of his own experiences.

Turtle has been hooked on dope, tar, chiva - the street names for heroin - in the past. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C on Apr. 15 last year and from that day on he kicked the habit. When Turtle was addicted he says he would shoot up with the Strawberry Creek run-off. He was suicidal. After he found out about his disease, he discovered he would likely die of Hepatitis C. Turtle looked to cure himself by ingesting the polluted creek water to form an immunity.

"Think about it man," says Turtle seriously. "I figure if I drink that water I can mutate myself and clean out the Hepatitis from my body. That water will make me immune to everything. I wish I could see my DNA!"

Turtle is not the only one of his crew that has fallen victim to this street disease. His good friends Ghost, Diana, and Hatred all have it too. According to Turtle, drug addiction is the most common downfall of street youth. He recounts a recent example.

"This girl," says Turtle pointing to a girl walking by, talking to herself and gnawing on a sheet of plastic. "She came down here last spring. She met the wrong group - the gutter punks. They got her hooked up with some speed and the Hells' Angels. The Hells' Angels passed her from biker to biker. Then she went into the city, got a sheet of acid, took way too many hits and now she is like that."

He says this 19-year-old girl graduated from high school and was on her way to a private college on the East Coast. Today, she is considered a "loner" among the street residents because of her drugged state. She cannot carry on a normal conversation because she is in a continuous bad trip, Turtle says, a trip of bats and evil spirits.

"The saddest part of this life is watching people fall off and go loco," says Turtle. "Some people can't handle this shit."


Bridget, the 19-year-old child of two UC Berkeley alumni, holds a high school diploma but says she has taken refuge from materialism by squatting on the streets.

"I am a wanderer," Bridget says in the fresh voice of a novice squatter. "I don't really know what I'm doing. That's what is so great about it."

Since March, when she started out, Bridget says she has learned a lot about society from an observer's point of view.

"People suck - especially in this country," explains Bridget. "This nation has created a society that revolves around money."

Bridget left home to meet up with one of her friends from Portland, Ore., who was squatting in Tucson, Ariz. Her friend had lost a boyfriend to heroin addiction and overdose.

Bridget traveled down to Berkeley with Dave, another squatter who she met at a toxic waste dump by a bridge where they were both squatting.

Bridget stays in contact with her parents and plans to make it back up north for Christmas. She says her mom worries about her constantly and would rather she stayed at home.

On Thursday, Bridget was unhappy with her traveling conditions. But Friday she was all smiles because she found the travel companion she wanted. He is Turtle, with whom she plans to travel to Portland - another example of the spontaneity of a squatter's life.


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