"A lot of people think that the youth can't do much in this world, that we can't organize something big, you know?"
The Punisher is sitting with a couple of friends in an office at the homeless youth drop-in center Project OffStreets, talking about their recent art project. Nobody's interrupting.
"So when something big like this comes along, they decide to look at it as something small. But this is something big. This is something the homeless youth have. And I'm sure all of us here are proud of it, because we started a movement."
What he's describing began as something very small, actually: pocket-sized sculptures. Two months ago, a bunch of young people at OffStreets decided to make clay versions of themselves. "Self portraits" was what artist Suzy Greenberg called the pieces, offering her expertise to the group. But the concept was loose: One girl made a naked female torso with a big belly button and no head. Another made a snail. The Punisher, who is tall and bulky in his skull-and-crossbones hoodie, made a tiny dog.
They ended up with 40 miniatures in all, then crafted molds for each one and cast hundreds of copies: one for each of the estimated 500 to 600 minors who don't have a place to stay or adult accompaniment on any given night in Minnesota.
Last month, the little white statues began turning up everywhere, like ghosts haunting the places where the kids had been. They appeared mysteriously on fast-food counters, among arcade games, between the heads of parking meters. On the back of each piece was a clue to their purpose: a sticker reading www.kultureklub.org, the web address of the organization that brought together Greenberg and the youth at OffStreets.
"What we're hoping," says the Punisher, "is that people go to that website and learn more about why we're actually doing this."
Run by part-time employees out of YouthLink/Project OffStreets at 41 N. 12th St. in downtown Minneapolis, Kulture Klub has been doing projects like this for 12 years. Nobody in the room has been here that long, including Michael Hoyt, the current director of Kulture Klub, who looks a little like a Hawaiian surfer and seems about 10 years older than the Punisher. Joshua and Lyle, the other two guys in the room, are about the same age as the Punisher, who says he just turned 19 and has been coming to the rec center since he was 17.
"It's a drop-in center, but they also offer services," he says. "They hook you up with a case manager, get you clothes and shoes and bus cards. Then they have groups like Out Group and Kulture Klub and a fishing group. I hope we can go fishing tomorrow, Mikey."
"Well, the season opener isn't until next weekend," says Hoyt, the voice of adult responsibility.
"We can fish in Loring Park for pan fish," the Punisher says.
"Fishing," says Josh, "is one of the most relaxing things I can do."
With his straight blond hair and oversized jersey, Josh seems slightly younger than the others. His favorite sculpture, he says, is "the naked lady." He likes to skateboard, and has a grandma he visits in a smaller town. The pieces he made were a snowboarder and a cow's head. ("That was you?" asks Punisher.)
Lyle, whose heritage is part Lakota, is quieter than the other two. He made a playing-card spade surrounded by swirls of energy.
"That's me," he says. "I'm lucky."
"Lately," says Punisher, "I think I've been lucky, Josh has been lucky, Lyle's been lucky. We've all been lucky with our stuff going on."
"The spade has been with me," says Lyle, nodding. "Back in the day, it wasn't that lucky, because I joined a gang, and was doing drugs. I got shot in both legs, under the kneecaps. Now that I look back, I just laugh about it."
All three left bad situations at home when they were younger. Lyle stays with relatives now, having worked out the kind of system where he leaves clothes here, takes showers there, stores things over here. Josh and the Punisher both live at the Hope Street youth shelter in south Minneapolis. When I ask if they know firsthand what it's like to live on the street, they all say yes without hesitation.
"I slept outside many, many times," says the Punisher, "Many times over the winter, I slept outside in the freezing cold. Out on Nicollet Mall in the bus shelters. Or I tried to stay awake all night at a hotel. That's the only way anyone would let you sit there, is if you could stay awake all night. But when you're sitting in a chair, dog-tired, and it's warm, you're going to want to fall asleep. Then they kick you out. I remember one night where I only had on these sweatpants right here, in fact, and a hooded sweatshirt. I didn't have no gloves, no hat, no nothing. I was cold. Nobody would let me in to sit anywhere, stand anywhere, nothing."
The silicone casting process is simple. You take two separate bottles of clear liquid, pour each into the mold at the same time, then let the chemicals combine. In a few minutes, the liquid begins to cloud and turns opaque.