NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In December of 2010, eight young people died in a New Orleans warehouse fire. Local accounts describe them as homeless squatters. One of the victims was Katie Simianer, a 21-year-old who told her mother she was backpacking across the country.
Marty Goslee Jaramillo joins us on the phone from her home in Alliance, Nebraska. Thanks very much for being with us, and we're so sorry for the loss of your daughter.
MARTY GOSLEE JARAMILLO: Thank you very much, and it's my privilege and honor to be here today.
CONAN: Where did you think Katie was?
JARAMILLO: Well, I knew she was in New Orleans, and I knew she was traveling. She had set out on an adventure, and she went through - she was in Portland, and she had gone down to Northern California with a set of friends, is what she said, and that is indeed what she did.
And she was traveling around and just seeing the sights, you know, just wanted to get out there to have adventures and see the world.
CONAN: She didn't tell you, though, she was riding the rails.
JARAMILLO: Well, at that point she wasn't, and you know, and I have received her journal since her death, and that confirms that. And I don't think she had done that until maybe she got to San Diego or Arizona. But no, she never did reveal to me that she was hopping trains from time to time.
CONAN: And how much about her life did she tell you?
JARAMILLO: Well, she told me quite a lot. A lot of her talk was mostly in philosophies, you know, and things that I have learned from her journal that she - that I got after she passed.
CONAN: One of the things I gather confused you a bit is she told you that she'd learned how to cook over an open fire down there in New Orleans.
JARAMILLO: Exactly, yeah, and I would ask her: Well, Katie, why would you have to cook over an open fire? And why would you have to learn how to make coffee over an open fire? I wasn't clear on that, and anytime I would question her, she would, you know, become sharp and say, Mother, I don't have time for these questions, I only have a short time on the phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And the other thing was you kept hearing trains in the background.
JARAMILLO: Yes, exactly. I was like, why, why do the trains - I mean, you sound like you're on a train. No, we're just really close to the tracks. And of course after seeing all the videos and the fire and whatnot, I noticed that they were definitely right next to the track.
CONAN: For greater access, I guess, and the warehouse was a convenient place to live, and a bunch of kids, not just your daughter, were living there, and she was really, I guess, part of a - I'm not sure community, but transient group of people who connected and reconnected and knew each other sort of. But what did you learn about this kind of life from her writings?
JARAMILLO: Well, if you would allow me to, I could read a short excerpt from her journal.
JARAMILLO: OK. Well, it starts off - it only takes about a minute or so. It says: Time has flown by so fast. It's easy to get swept up in the lack of normal responsibility. In the last week we stayed in an amazing squat, so much good food and living room picnics, seven of us at one point, as well as a dog named Hamburgers.
We were on the fifth floor of a very nice apartment complex, making it easy to keep our filth and debauchery hidden from our society and police. The fancy apartments across the way could see straight in, and I wondered what they must have thought of us. Maybe some envied us, some disgusted. I'm not sure.
I know I felt a little sorry for them. Most of them must have been trapped in work and bills. They are the kind of people that take 20 pills a day and ignore their kids. I wanted to tell them they don't have to live that way, but who was I to say what they should do? Maybe they were happy that way.
That was just a little excerpt from, you know, what she was thinking at the time, which I always found was kind of ironic because, you know, that's just how other people look at other people.
CONAN: Sure, she mentioned her own - the depravity and filth that she lived in, and I think to some degree ironic, but I think there's some truth to that too.
CONAN: Do you think she was happy?
JARAMILLO: Oh, I know she was, and I can remember one of the last conversations I had with her. She said, you know, Mom, please don't, you know - what did she say? Don't frown on my lifestyle, please. If you did, I just don't know what I would do. And I said, well, Katie, as long as you're happy, that's all I care about. And she's like, I am happy. I'm happier than I've ever been. So what's a parent to do?
CONAN: Well, worry, I suspect.
JARAMILLO: Yeah, I suspect, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JARAMILLO: But you know, her motto – her motto that she always stuck through to was I promise myself to never stop living life as an adventure. I want to wake up every morning with a smile on my face and go to bed every night exhausted. And I know she lived her life completely that way, and all that came - everyone that came in contact with her remembered her, remembered her beautiful smile and her bright spirit, and it lives on to inspire all of us to live our life to the fullest and to love your family and to accept them for who they are and just be grateful for each and every day.
CONAN: Marty Goslee Jaramillo, thanks very much for your time today.
JARAMILLO: You're welcome, thank you for sharing the story.
CONAN: Well, if this is your story as a parent or as a runaway, give us a call. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a case for Turkey's government as a new normal in the Middle East. But first, Katie Semianer's story came to our attention through journalist Danelle Morton. Her daughter was part of this tribe and agreed to be her mom's guide to allow her to tell the story of the people who died in that New Orleans warehouse fire.
She published her article in the Boston Review, and Danelle Morton joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. And it's good of you to be with us today.
DANELLE MORTON: Thank you.
CONAN: And I have to ask, I'm sure you've talked to your daughter. Was she happy when she was a transient?
MORTON: I think most of the time she was happy. I think she was happy to be completely free. I know there were many an evening when it was uncomfortable for her and where she wondered where she was going to get her next meal, but as they always say, as many of them said in New Orleans, you're looking for your survival, and you're doing it with your friends, so every day has this kind of intensity that you can't get in the regular world.
CONAN: And intensity that blossoms friendships much more quickly than you could find in the quote-unquote real world.
MORTON: Almost like being a war correspondent, where there's danger all around, and you form a very tight bond with the people that you can depend on.
CONAN: War correspondents know what they're getting in for. Do you think all these transients do?
MORTON: I do. I think, you know, there's a difference between being part of this group and being just a homeless teenager who lives on the street. This has a society, it has a community, it has a structure to it. It's almost like a tribe. And when the kids travel across country, they do so in groups of maybe three or five or six sometimes.
And when they roll into town, they always - one of them knows like the bar or the cafe where you can go and hang out and find a warm couch to sleep on or a place to throw down your sleeping bag because you're all connected in this kind of underground world.
CONAN: After the fire, the local papers described those who were killed as homeless, as runaways, and you talked to people afterwards when you went back with your daughter to find out who they were, that others of this tribe resented that. They said no, we're artists, we're musicians.
MORTON: Well, and many of them are. But I think mainly they were concerned about the notion that people were dismissing them as just sort of drunken, tattooed bums when in fact this is an affirmative choice. This isn't something they fall into because they make a mistake. They actually say I want to live this way. This is a - this life has its own - I don't think many people from our world would say values, but it does have its own sense of structure and value.
CONAN: There seem to be a lot of drinking and tattoos, though.
MORTON: Well, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORTON: I think they go together.
CONAN: And other drugs as well. I mean one of the kids you wrote about was in fact someone who was prescribed medication, and his friends cheered when he stopped taking it.
MORTON: Right, you're talking about Jonathan Guerrero(ph). He was diagnosed as bipolar, and he had - was taking lithium. And you know, when kids start to flirt with this lifestyle, their parents become very concerned, and many of them take their children to therapists, and the therapists put them on antidepressants.
So a signature act of rebellion when you leave home to embrace this life is to say I'm not taking those drugs because they just dull you. They make you unable to experience the world around you, and I'm just going to break free of all of that. But illegal drugs and alcohol are very commonplace.
CONAN: And people self-medicate, and sometimes those prescription drugs are necessary. I mean they're...
MORTON: Well, we think lithium for bipolar is pretty necessary.
CONAN: Yeah, so - there is also, as you said, an element of real danger in this. You kept worrying all the time your daughter was gone that she would die in a fire in a squat.
MORTON: Well not just a fire in a squat, although that was one of the major things I worried about. The train yards themselves are very dangerous. There's about 500 trespasser fatalities in the rail yards every year. They tend to cluster in the ruined parts of the country.
In New Orleans, there's 42,000 abandoned houses. They live in these abandoned houses in the worst crime area of New Orleans. So it isn't just the danger of the squat, but it's also the crime and the railroad, mistakes that can be made because you're drunk on a train. So there are many, many ways that one of this crowd can end their lives.
CONAN: But that danger, you say, is also part of the attraction.
MORTON: Well, I don't know if danger - yeah, danger is part of the attraction, but it's also this kind of radical freedom, where they're not responsible to anyone. Their money is not important. They live for free in squats, or they - and they get their food out of dumpsters. And they have no need of money.
There was one young woman that I interviewed in a squat who pointed to three dollars that were sitting on a crate next to her mattress and said that that three dollars had been on that crate for three days. She had had no need for money.
CONAN: Need for a clinic from time to time, though.
MORTON: Well, there's - you know, it's an unclean world, and it isn't easy to get a bath if you're living in a squat with no water. So very virulent infections like MRSA are common. And so there are frequent emergency room visits.
CONAN: We're talking with Danelle Morton, a freelance journalist, author of "A World on Fire: Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat," published in the Boston Review. If you go to our website at npr.org, there's a link to it there. We're talking about the lives of transients with Danelle Morton. If this is your story, if you ran away, if your child did, call and tell us about it, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The eight young people who died when the New Orleans warehouse they used as a squat caught fire, and their fellow transients who survived came from all over the country.
For the most part they were homeless because - they weren't homeless because they had no choice. It was a wildness that led them to the lives of nomads, hopping trains, diving in dumpsters and skirting the law. If this is your story, if your child ran away, if you're a runaway, we want to hear from you, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Danelle Morton is our guest. She wrote "A World on Fire: Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat" for the Boston Review after her daughter Marissa shepherded her through that world two weeks after the fire. And let's see if we can get a phone call. We'll start with Linda, and Linda's with us from Charlotte.
LINDA: Hi there. I'm a physician in my late 50s, and just after college, in the mid-'70s, I went to New Zealand with no money, no plan and no idea other than I wanted something entirely different than what I'd had. I'd stayed in New Zealand for roughly a year, taking very odd jobs, taking trips by way of hitchhiking or walking or borrowing bikes.
I stayed on communes. I slept under bridges. I slept out in wood breaks. I slept in people's barns. And I would say, in fact, it was the best thing I ever did (unintelligible) for myself. I learned more about being resilient, about problem-solving, about surviving, and in fact about appreciating everything around me and living in the moment.
I also genuinely became inspired to become a physician by that experience, in part because I was exposed to so many different types of people, so many different lifestyles, so many different stories and settings that it was that that actually stirred me to come back and do medicine, because I thought I would be surrounded by fascinating stories, and I have been.
CONAN: That's interesting. Why did you decide then to go back to school?
LINDA: Oh, because of this annoying need to be successful at something.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORTON: What did your parents think about this?
LINDA: My parents were terrified when I did this and I think embarrassed and deeply, deeply concerned. But after I got back and after I had been so capable for the first time in my life of being completely independent and managing my - everything that I needed to manage, they bragged about the experience in New Zealand for years afterwards, much more than they bragged about me being a physician.
And I would have to emphasize, I think the outcome, looked at in hindsight, changes whether you think it was a risk or a benefit.
CONAN: Linda, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Good question too. You talked about what did the parents think about it, and Danelle Morton, you write in your article: The radical freedom my daughter embraced imprisoned me. I was locked in the feeling that I'd failed her.
MORTON: Yes, I know the other parents felt the same way. You know, you raise your child and you spend 18 years demonstrating what you want them to be by your example and by what you support and what you tell them to ignore. And I felt like I had not presented an effective view of the world to my daughter, that she felt like this kind of radical departure from what I expected was preferable, this danger was preferable to what I wanted for her.
At the end of the day, though, I think it is a great lesson for me in loving the daughter that you have rather than the daughter that you thought you wanted to create when you first had that baby. You don't get that much control. So you have to learn to love what you have.
CONAN: Joining us now is Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard, a communication system for homeless youth. She's with us from her office in Chicago, and it's nice to have you with us today. Hello, Maureen Blaha, are you there? Hello, can you hear us?
All right, we'll try to get back with her in just a moment. In the meantime, let's see if we can get another call on the line. We'll go to Forest(ph), and Forest is another caller from Charlotte.
FOREST: Yes, hello. My name is Forest, and I live here in Charlotte. My daughter is living this lifestyle, and it's totally her decision. She didn't need to go. She - we worry about her immensely. We didn't have any idea that these kids were doing this around the country.
And when I initially heard she was hopping trains and learning to cook birds over a tin can, I was just - was completely devastated. And now after hearing some people on your show and realizing that these are choices that these kids are making, and this doctor from Charlotte, it's really opening my eyes.
My comment is my family is always - she'll call me from time to time, and very seldom will she ask for any money. And the first thing as a parent I want to do is of course send her money. She'll ask for $15, and I'll send her 50. But of course with no checking account, it has to be done through the Wal-Marts and Western Unions of the world.
Well, my entire family is telling me to stop this practice, that I'm only helping her live this lifestyle. So not too long ago, shortly after Christmas, we decided to kind of put the stop to the funding, and I was always concerned about her not calling, but the calls still come, and she's as happy as she's ever been and completely understands that I don't want to send her money. And it's very puzzling as a parent but - and very concerning, but it's tough to deal with, but it's something that you do have to live with.
CONAN: Forest, I don't envy you trying to get to sleep at night.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FOREST: I shall try to do so.
MORTON: Forest, from my point of view, I think send the money because there is nothing that you can do that will persuade them to do one thing or another. They will make this decision on their own. I think every parent who I spoke with recognized that the only power they had was the power of expressing their love to their child and that that love would bring them back.
Some parents were like I'm going to be strict, and I'm going to do this, and I'm going to set higher rules and higher standards. Other parents were like I am going to open my heart to you and approve of whatever you do. And neither approach has any effect.
So $50 is $50. She's going to eat that night. Maybe she'll stay in a hotel. Maybe her friends will all eat, you know?
FOREST: That's exactly it. And she is a musician. She could - and there's no need for her to be anywhere but home, but - and every time I speak with her, it's just this unbelievable happiness and...
FOREST: It's tough to understand as a parent, but it's nice to know that it's not something that I did wrong or that her mother did wrong. It's just her lifestyle that she's chosen.
MORTON: It's a Woody Guthrie phrase. The devil was scratching her heel.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FOREST: She actually plays that song.
MORTON: Oh, no.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Forest, thanks very much for the call. We wish you daughter the best of luck.
FOREST: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And Maureen Blaha is back with us from the National Runaway Switchboard and with us from her office in Chicago. Nice to have you with us today.
MAUREEN BLAHA: Thank you, it's great to be here.
CONAN: And we're talking about people who are self-resilient, who've made choices, who are living a kind of lifestyle. Nevertheless, a lot of people who run away from home and become transients are very vulnerable people.
BLAHA: Absolutely, yeah. What happens when kids run from home, and especially if they end up on the streets, is that initially they are very vulnerable to become - you know, for criminals to pick out, and vulnerable to crime. And then after a while, just for a means of survival, they often become perpetrators of crime.
You know, they'll do anything for a warm bed, a hot meal, from panhandling to selling drugs to selling their bodies. So it's a very scary situation for kids to be alone and on the street.
CONAN: Not everyone finds the kinds of friends and support groups that the kids we're talking about did. And it is important to remember that parents too have resources, and I know you try to help.
BLAHA: Yes, we do. About - the National Runaway Switchboard has both a hotline at 1-800-RUNAWAY; we also have great online services at www.1800runaway. And when we handle calls - last year we handled over 100,000 calls - about half of them are from adults, and that would be parents whose child has gone missing or parents who might say she was adorable at 12, and now she's 15 and we can't communicate.
And we are there to listen to anyone who calls, either a child or a parent or someone else concerned about a child, to help focus on really what is the main issue and to help come up with a plan of action so that the caller at the end of the call has somewhere to turn.
CONAN: Now, most of the kids in this fire, I think all of them, in fact, were over 18. That changes things, doesn't it?
BLAHA: It does a bit, except at the National Runaway Switchboard we are here to support kids, and we define them even into adolescence and up to age 24, because a lot of youth are not really able to be on their own, even though most states have 18 as the age of majority. A lot of them are still struggling, you know, depending on perhaps what their family background was, depending on their education and job situation. And so we are here to support those that are even over 18, and for parents of children that are in risky and vulnerable situations.
CONAN: Maureen Blaha, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
BLAHA: Great. Thank you.
CONAN: Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard. And we have to emphasize, again, Danelle Morton, this is not the situation your daughter was in. It's not the situation Katie Simianer was in. But it is the situation some kids do find themselves in.
MORTON: Well, they're not the - I agree with you, but it's not the population that I was involved with. They were mostly 18, and had tried a number of ways to connect with the world, and it hadn't worked, you know. My daughter was in her second semester of her freshman year of college when she said, I'm out of here. And there are a lot of young people who have that same experience. They're in college, or they're in a job like at Pizza Hut, and it just seems like they can't make it in the world. And every time they come home, people are scowling at them. And so the urge to shake off the scowls with this kind of blind act of daring is something that appeals to them.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Justin in Boise: As a former member of the transient community in the Northwest and a current member of the corporate real world, I often struggle with which of these worlds is really more productive to real human happiness. The ability to keep yourself alive and to enjoy every moment of it seems invaluable. Thanks so much for this conversation today.
Let's go next to Topher(ph), and Topher's on the line with us from Des Moines.
TOPHER: Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: OK, Topher. How are you?
TOPHER: I'm doing great. I wanted to say, first of all, that I feel bad about what happened in the fire, and we all feel bad about what happened, and we all feel the loss.
CONAN: We also - you're part of this transient community?
TOPHER: I am. I have been for a few years.
CONAN: And you're calling from Des Moines, but I gather...
TOPHER: No, I'm actually calling from California.
CONAN: Ah. Oh, you're originally from Des Moines.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: OK. And have you been through New Orleans?
TOPHER: I have actually avoided New Orleans. I don't drink.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORTON: Topher, that's a very perceptive decision on your part.
TOPHER: It was a personal decision, mostly.
MORTON: Yeah. You're right.
CONAN: And where are you staying right now?
TOPHER: I'm actually at a friend's house. I have many friends. I've made connections all across the country in that way.
CONAN: And you obviously have a phone? So you stay in touch with your friends that way, too?
TOPHER: Actually, I'm borrowing their phone. I don't like phones.
CONAN: You don't like phones and you don't like drinking.
TOPHER: I do listen to NPR, though, every day.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, thank you for that. And as you - this is your choice. It is - is it something you plan to do for how much longer?
TOPHER: Until I feel that I'm ready. I'm actually saving up right now so that I can leave the country and travel the world for a while.
CONAN: And travel the world for a while. So where would you start if you have the choice?
TOPHER: Probably Nepal or Tibet.
CONAN: Good luck.
TOPHER: I'm not entirely sure.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
TOPHER: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Danelle Morton, a freelance journalist, author of "A World on Fire: Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Ron's on the line, Ron calling us from Saline, Michigan.
RON: Hello. Good afternoon.
RON: Yes. I left home when I was 15 from Michigan, and moved to Los Angeles. I lived there for about a year. And I think that from the age of about 14 until 18 or 19, most people don't have any idea what something like that does to their families. It's so destructive. And it's actually only - I have a son that's 15 now. And that's certainly put a lot of what I've done in my past into perspective. So I think that a lot of what happens when you're younger that appears (technical difficulties) great adventure can be - you know, can, if you go with it, can cause people a great amount of pain. And you need to be careful that young people understand what it - when indeed that happens.
CONAN: Danelle Morton?
MORTON: I agree with you that it caused the families of those who left a lot of anxiety, many sleepless nights. But I think that, as you probably remember from being 15, that's like the - a lower - a lot lower down the list of priorities at that point, you know?
I mean, the fact - OK. Most of the kids that I know of, their parents pay for their cellphones and have insurance on them so that they can stay in touch. And so that's what makes this different than, let's say, the kids who were hopping the rails in the Great Depression. There's still that way to stay in touch with your parents. And then I think, in that way, a lot of the kids that I met felt like, well, you know, I'm still in touch with my mom and dad, so, you know, they don't have to worry.
CONAN: Well, they're going to worry anyway, aren't they?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORTON: They're going to worry if they're going to college.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: That's true. Ron, thanks very much.
RON: Can I have one - make another comment?
CONAN: If you make it very quick.
RON: Just in answer. Sure. Yeah. I actually got a job and got an apartment and lived, you know, very, very comfortably when I was in Los Angeles at 15. So - but it was still - yes, I think that - what I'm saying is that it's important for - to let - for - to let kids know - because every kid talks about running away - what that actually means.
CONAN: All right. Well, again, there's a distinction. I think this email will help us out. And, Ron, thanks very much. Jess in Oregon writes: I am - have been part of this culture. I disagree with your use of the word runaway. Dropout might be more accurate. Most of the people who are part of this legitimate structure - subculture are not teenagers running away from their parents, but legal adults choosing to leave mainstream society and have a different lifestyle. There are many gross or uncomfortable parts of the alternative traveler/squatter lifestyle, but it is a free choice, one that makes sense to many people and is extremely valuable in learning to make choices and decisions and decide what is most important, not just what society says what your values should be.
We also want to read this email from Elaine in Huron, South Dakota: On your story on runaways, Katie Simianer was my niece and goddaughter. She was as far from being a runaway as some may think. I would describe her as a free spirit, a joyful soul, a delight to be around, quick with a smile or a helping hand, and a contagious laugh that would touch your heart. She was a very talented artist and welder by trade, used both of those abilities to help others at a Denver art program that served the underprivileged youth and repair bicycles for the homeless in NOLA. She was an extraordinary person in unlikely circumstance. We will forever be grateful for her in our lives. And we miss her dearly. And, Danelle Morton, I have to ask quickly: What's your daughter doing today?
MORTON: She just started a job on Monday, and she got - she's getting a driver's license, I hope, the next Monday from there. So I think that she's kind of making a new way in the world.
CONAN: Danelle, thanks very much for your time today. Interesting piece.
MORTON: Thank you.
CONAN: Danelle Morton joined us from member station KQED. Again, you can find her link to a piece for the Boston Review at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. When we come back, Turkey as the new normal in the emerging Middle East. Jackson Diehl will join us, from The Washington Post. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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