Tuesday, March 12, 2013

WHAT IS A PLAZA RAT?

What is a Plaza Rat?
Plaza Rats on the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico - December 21, 2012
To the few people who have actually heard the term, the meaning is likely to be somewhat personal. The short answer is easy: A Plaza Rat is someone who spends, or has spent a lot of time hanging out on the Plaza while growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But, this rather vague definition fails to convey a much deeper meaning the term may have for many of the people who grew up hanging out on the Plaza.

There are several stories about how the term "Plaza Rat" first came about. Some say it was as derogatory term, invented by the locals as an insult. I had always believed it was just a nickname that the Plaza Rats invented for themselves: perhaps on some summer afternoon in Santa Fe, during a hacky-sack session, or at one of their raging parties, one of them might have coined the term...I personally know at least three people who claim to have invented it. For all I know, they may all be telling the truth, but the best story that I have heard on the subject came from Doc, a wizened Mountain-Man type Plaza Rat in his sixties.
"...the best story that I have heard on the subject came from Doc, a wizened Mountain-Man type Plaza Rat in his sixties."
"Doc"
I never hung out much with Doc...he was older than my crowd and I imagine he was too busy doing whatever it is that older Plaza Rats do to want to have much to do with us either. He claims to have been hanging out on the Plaza since before its streets were paved but it's difficult to believe he is old enough for that to be true. Anyway, during the summer of 2012, I was sitting with Doc on his favorite bench on the Plaza; he told me that during the 1960's there was group of hippy-kids in San Francisco who hung out along the wharves: these kids referred to themselves as "Wharf Rats". A population of Wharf-Rats came to Northern New Mexico with their parents or in communal groups. Once they started hanging out on the Plaza, "Wharf- Rat" just naturally morphed into "Plaza-Rat".
To take a deeper look into what Plaza Rat means, we must delve into the minds of the Plaza Rats themselves. I was a Plaza Rat...

Naturally, I tend to define Plaza Rat based upon my own experience. Born of hippie parents into the Southern California LSD culture during the mid-sixties, my childhood was far from what most consider to be normal. My parents split up when I was barely a toddler and, after a brief trip to San Francisco and a psychedelic stay on a Yuba River commune, my mother brought me to New Mexico. I was around three years old, but some of those early memories are still vivid.
"They created a 'Free School' on Airport Road..."
The Free School
We (my mother, sisters, and their friends) took part in organizing Santa Fe's first commune, a cluster of buildings forming a compound at the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and Arroyo Tenario. At that time Santa Fe was still a very small town, with only about 30,000 residents. The relatively small group of mostly Anglo hippies were a visible and close-knit group. They created a "Free School" on Airport Road, run mostly by John and Marie Kimmey, who were also very well connected with the Pueblo Indians in Northern New Mexico and a group of Hopi who lived in Taos, where the Free School eventually relocated.

This sub-culture of gringo hippies was a fun-loving group. They would get together often and throw wild parties. It was at these gatherings that many of the future Plaza Rats would meet for the first time. It was great to meet other kids with similar backgrounds... the children of "cool" people, not "straights". Hippy kids were often humiliated and ostracized by the more conventional children of mainstream society, so it was refreshing and redeeming to be able to hang out with kids they could relate to. Later, as they grew into teenagers, they would find each other on the Plaza in Santa Fe...perhaps, not even realizing that they had already met at some wild party their parents had taken them to when they were small.
"We banded together for comradeship; a sense of belonging; for mutual caring."
What was it that drew us together so strongly? The freedom and permissiveness of the hippy culture and the safety of a small community allowed us to wander the town while our parents were at work and we were not in school--some of our parents didn't really care what we were doing anyway. In the 1960's and 70's, the Plaza was the hub of Santa Fe; it was the natural destination for anyone with free time. When we arrived on the Plaza, we were pleasantly surprised to see we were not alone. We began to form bonds that are, in some ways, much stronger than family bonds. We formed our own extended family, perhaps to fill a need that couldn't be filled by our own. We banded together for comradeship; a sense of belonging; for mutual caring. We took care of each other when the need arose: even if it was just by providing a couch to crash on, or a ride to a job interview. We shared in each other's triumphs and tears.    

Santa Fe Demon
There was a dark side to the freedom and over-permissiveness that was part of the great social experiment that happened in the 1960's...many children were left under-supervised; had access to alcohol and other drugs; were molested or exposed to sex at an early age; or were generally just traumatized from a dysfunctional home-life. Some Plaza Rats were abandoned by one of, or both of their parents. Although some got to experience a world of things that other kids only imagined, many Plaza Rats didn't get the stability a child needs to feel secure in the world. They banded together for protection against the cold; racial violence; abusive caregivers, and insecurity...
"...it seems like they always come back eventually..."
As the archetypal Plaza Rat matures, he or she usually begins to spend less time on the Plaza: perhaps entering a vocational school or other institution. Some of them fall in love and have children; some of them become very successful and/or famous for their talents; often they move away from Santa Fe, "...because this place sucks!", but it seems like they always come back eventually; "I guess it didn't suck so bad here after all, eh?" Sometimes the Plaza Rat inherits a large sum of money from his or her hippy parents, who made a fortune on sales from Santa Fe real estate investments made back in the seventies.

Some Plaza Rats never change--they find themselves beating the same old Santa Fe side-walk in an endless circle, stuck somewhere in their glorious past, listening to the same music, taking the same drugs that they did when they were young, and wondering where all of their peers have gone. If they are lucky enough to avoid prison, suicide, accidental death, or disease, they may gracefully grow old and happy. You may find them sitting on a bench unnoticed, watching the next generation of Plaza Rats play hacky-sack on the Plaza.

Photo Courtesy of 27 Devils Joking
Of course, all of this is just my perspective. "Plaza Rat" might have a very different meaning for the child of a wealthy Texas oil-baron who moved to Santa Fe in the late sixties or early seventies. Some Plaza Rats were high-school drop-outs; others arrived on the Plaza just as soon as classes let out. There were the rich-kids who just wanted to be a part of the "scene"...perhaps feeling just as insecure and out of place as the hippie kids. There were Indian and Chicano Plaza Rats; the straggling "Johnnys" and the odd drifters. Which one were you?

"Tell us what being a Plaza Rat meant or means to you in the comment form below."
Lone Plaza Rat
If you are reading this you were probably one of us. I would love it if you would share your thoughts and feelings about your own time hanging out on the plaza. Tell us what being a Plaza Rat meant or means to you in the comment form below. Perhaps you are sitting on the Plaza, right now. Maybe you are feeling cold and alone. I want you to know that you are not alone. You are part of a great family of people who have shared a special memory. Life is a small drop in the ocean of time and I am honored to have walked this Earth with you for the short time we shared. 

Davene - March, 2013
http://www.plazarat.com

2 comments:

  1. The kids I was responsible for at The Fun Store, an arcade/rollerskate rental
    Also the name of my last band after P-38 and Holly Wood and vine.
    These were the people who came to my halloween shows behind Sanbusco in the lumber racks, and supported our slim music scene at that time.
    Who remembers officer Bob?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think we all remember Officer Bob...

    ReplyDelete

What does the term "Plaza Rat" mean to you?