ANN ARBOR, MI—It's past midnight on a chilly Wednesday, and the shabby, velvet-lined guitar case in front of 16-year-old Alyssa Vincent is empty, save for the occasional quarter or dime. Alyssa eyes the meager take from a night of begging, clicks her tongue-ring to her teeth, and contemplates her difficult situation.
"I'm trying to collect enough to go to the Marilyn Manson concert," she says, her heavy black eyeliner obscuring the eyes of a little girl lost. "They're playing the Civic Center on the 28th."
"If I can't get the money begging," Alyssa adds, her voice quavering with fear, "I'll have to ask my mom."
It's been this way for Alyssa ever since last Thursday, when she and a friend bravely left their parents' homes in suburban Detroit and headed off to Ann Arbor, where Alyssa could pursue her life-long dream of panhandling, piercing, and "just bein' me."
"Being poor is the bomb," she says. "It's, like, so fun to be homeless."
Though just 16, Alyssa already has seen and experienced more than most do in a lifetime. The whirlwind of shoplifting, hanging out, panhandling, body piercing, playing guitar, skateboarding, hair dyeing, and sleeping on the floors of strangers' apartments has left her with a wisdom well beyond her years.
"It's funny how people treat you sometimes," she says with a half-smile, knowing all too well how it feels to be on the outside looking in. "The other day, I was in Taco Bell getting a MexiMelt, and, like, the guy behind the counter started looking at me all weird. So I was like, 'Fuck you!'"
Aside from the occasional parental loan, Alyssa has been supporting herself fully during her time as a homeless person. Last Saturday night, she even went so far as to supervise the movement of amplification equipment into a local club in exchange for free admission.
"I just got this dope-ass new tattoo," Alyssa says, her eyes bright with the promise of a wide-open future. "It's a picture of this big bud, and then right across it, it says, '311.' My friends were so jealous. I didn't tell my parents, though, 'cause they wouldn't understand. They'd just be all like, 'What'd you do that for?' They don't get what I'm about, and they never will."
For the first time in Alyssa's life, she feels truly free. Still, for all the exhilaration that comes with freedom, there is no shortage of tough times on the streets of Ann Arbor. "Out here, you gotta fend for yourself," she says. "Like if you want to play a video game, it's pretty much, come up with the 50 cents yourself, or you're shit out of luck. Back at home, I could play Mortal Kombat II on Sega all day for free if I wanted to. Not out here, though."
"Crazy shit happens all the time on the streets," she continues. "Like just last night, I was hangin' out behind the head shop on State Street, skateboarding and shit with this guy Pete, and this other dude runs up out of nowhere and starts whalin' on him, saying he owes him $10 for this chain wallet he sold him. I was like, 'Shit, man.'"
Luckily, Alyssa has discovered a small coterie of friends who have made surviving the streets a little easier. Among them is 'Nazz,' an 18-year-old from the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills who writes poetry—her preferred scansion is free verse—and Whitney, a self-styled "refugee from Toledo" with her own tragic tale to tell.
"This asshole I was seeing said he could give me a nipple ring," Whitney, 15, recalls. "But he was drunk and he missed, and he just got me right under my tit." She lifts her shirt, bra and breast to reveal the oddly placed faux ruby. "It's a fuckin' rad ring, too. I don't know. I was hoping to show it off, but it's like, no one can fuckin' see it."
Alyssa's sweater has begun to fray, and the leather boots she put on her parents' credit card in preparation for her great trek have begun to scuff. Still, she has no plans to return to her parents' home any time soon, "unless it gets, like, freezing or something."
The problem is not so much lack of affection as lack of time. "I'm just lovin' the life too much," she says from Erica's brother's apartment, where she has managed to acquire a night's lodging. "Someday, I might go home. But for now, I'm just too busy scraping the crumbs off this futon."