Spring may be cause for celebration in every other corner of Vermont, but at the intersection of Church and Cherry in downtown Burlington, it brings up a perennial “problem” — loitering teens who scare off suburban shoppers. Despite still snow-covered rocks on the pedestrian mall, a klatch of young people gathers in front of Old Navy to soak in the late-winter sun. Smoking butts and exchanging “f” words, they are idle enough to look vaguely menacing. But while most people walk studiously around the group, one man heads right for it.
The approaching adult is himself a quasi-dangerous-looking guy. He’s short, but sports a pocket knife on his belt, a biker-style black leather jacket and a roguish beret. Instead of breaking up the teens, he swaggers over to join them, shaking hands, slapping backs, sucking alternately on a freshly lit Marlboro and a cup of joe-to-go. He seems to know everybody — even the people who pass the posse by — and greets them by name with gruff affection.
“Hey, Highway, how ya doin’?” a sullen boy with lip and tongue studs mumbles in his direction. At least today, the greeting seems to be a mantra among the minors. On any given day — when he is not out of town working his concert security job — “Highway” is out on Church Street, listening to and advising teens, who also call him “dad,” “uncle,” “pop” and “grandpop.” The 39-year-old uses a combination of tough love and street smarts to talk kids out of what he describes, in a thick mobster accent, as “doing stupid shit.” That includes fighting, vandalism, stealing, unsafe sex and using or selling anything stronger than marijuana.
Employing old-school methods off-limits to cops and professional social workers, Highway is a one-man volunteer mission to keep the peace on Church Street. Sometimes that means assisting in law-enforcement investigations or protecting downtown business interests. But mostly it involves keeping track of about 60 to 80 kids, he estimates, who make the Marketplace their second home. Even when he’s out of town, Highway counts on “moles” to keep him current.
“I have a perspective that nobody has,” he claims with a braggadocio that sounds almost self-delusional. “That’s why cops come to me, that’s why kids come to me, that’s why shop owners come to me. You’re going to see a whole bunch of it when we go walking down that block.”
Eighteen-year-old Faith Gaudette of Burlington says she found “another dad” in Highway when her parents kicked her out of the house. “When I screw up, Highway yells at me and then he gives me advice,” she says with a smile, her blue eyes flashing. “It means more because he sees what goes on down here. He understands. I remember one really bad day, he took me out for coffee. He told me he’d be there for me. He really cares about us.”
Another teen pipes up, “He’s the psychiatrist of Church Street.”
Still more kids confide in Highway when they could — and perhaps should — be getting guidance at home. “They come to me before they go to their parents because they know I will shoot from the hip with them,” Highway says. “Some of the poor parents are still Donna Reed. Some of the poor parents are still Robert Young. They ain’t got a clue.”
Those words ring sad but true in light of recent crimes involving the exploitation of local minors. In February, the death of a Burlington girl in New York City exposed a drug-related prostitution ring with direct links to Vermont. This month came the news that a Burlington businessman had been taking nude photographs of underage girls, in some cases indirectly funding their drug addictions. Between the unsavory allegations about Christal Jones and Irv Abrams, and almost daily reports of drug busts and overdoses, it’s safe to say the Queen City has more secrets than it’s telling.
Highway is privy to more of them than most. And although he suggests painful punishment for the photographer — “a hot poker up the prick” — he does not seem particularly shocked by the news. Speaking hypothetically, he says, “I would tell those girls, ‘Make sure somebody goes with you. But if you come to me telling me you are going to be in a room with a man and a camera and you’re not going to have no clothes on ... After I’m done with him, I’m going to come have a nice talk with you.”
It may not be the advice you’d give your own little girl, but Highway is realistic — and remarkably intuitive — about the limitations of talking teens out of risky behavior. “When I was a kid, if I was going to do something, I’m doing it and I don’t give a rat’s ass what you tell me,” he explains. “She says ‘I think I’m going to sleep with my boyfriend,’ so I reach in my bag, pull out a condom, put it in her pocket and tell her, ‘If you don’t you don’t, but if you do, you got one in case he don’t.’
“A parent,” he adds, “would try to talk her out of it.”
A parent might also have some trouble understanding how an ex-con, who refuses to divulge his real name, could possibly be a positive influence on a wayward child. Once you get past the multiple earrings, the tattoos and the transience — Highway is phone-free, earless and lives on somebody’s couch — there is the gangster rap. A Jersey accent roughened by a steady diet of “nicotine, caffeine and THC” makes him sound like a Soprano-in-training.
Connecting the dots of Highway’s bohemian life is no less challenging. “The eldest of eight kids” who “got smart” in Newark, New Jersey, actually had two families. He was the only child of his mother and father, who were divorced shortly after he was born. Highway and his mother went to live with her parents in Keansburg — resulting in a very close relationship with his maternal grandfather — until she remarried and had seven more children.
Highway claims his senior status in the family accounts for his comfort around kids. But he attributes his “values,” which he describes as “harder-edged” than most, to his father’s side of the family. “We weighed everything in terms of cause and effect, crime and punishment, because my father did not like people to do stupid shit, and when we did stupid shit, he let us know.”
Pointing to his bottom lip, which is fuller on one side than the other, he recalls one disagreement that was resolved with his father’s fist. The blow broke the elder man’s hand and left Highway bleeding all over his aunt’s kitchen. “I wouldn’t call it violence. I would call it putting me back on the right road,” he says, never missing an opportunity to build on the metaphor of his name. “It showed me there are times when you can sit there and talk about it, and there are times when you gotta knock the shit out of people."
No doubt this sort of tough talk sets Highway apart from the Spectrum youth-services workers on Church Street. That, and his own admission that he has been to jail at least twice. Alternately hyperbolic and cagey, he explains his visit to a Rutland lock-up by saying, “I took something that didn’t belong to me.”
With pride, Highway offers the exact fine for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, which also sent him to the slammer. “It’s $267.50 — $250 for disorderly conduct and $17.50 for the court fee.” On one occasion, when he was incarcerated for contempt of court, he says his “kids” passed around the hat to raise the money to bail him out.
By all accounts, though, Highway is a lot less shady than he seems. “He’s the type of person who makes you a little leery at first,” says Burlington Police Detective Art Cyr, “but once you get to know him, he’s not a bad guy.” Cyr met Highway several years ago when he used to walk the Church Street beat, and reports none of their interactions has ever been negative. “He has helped, and done some good things,” Cyr says.
“People who don’t know him, or don’t know the kids, might look at him and think he’s part of the problem,” says Colleen Montgomery, a Burlington accountant who relied on Highway for information about her troubled teenage daughter. “But I don’t think he is.”
In fact, his ex-outlaw status may give Highway a credibility that none of the other “legitimate” peacekeepers on Church Street can claim. Negotiating the gray area between adolescence and adulthood, “He isn’t part of what the kids are rebelling against, or trying to escape from,” says Montgomery. “He is not part of the establishment in any way.” Furthermore, “He has definitely lived a life that many of these kids are contemplating, and he has had those experiences. He definitely has smoked pot, been to jail — all that.”
Or as Highway puts it, his voice straining with emphasis: “I ain’t no saint. I have either been there, done that, seen it, been part of it, heard about it or been connected to participants of whatever it was.”
A diploma from the school of hard knocks gets this grad respect on Church Street. “The cops? I’ve seen kids say ‘fuck you’ right to their faces,” says owner Rich Draizin at Liquid Energy Café. “They don’t treat Highway like that.”
If it’s possible to work a shadowy past to your advantage, Highway does, speaking in riddles about his “background in certain things and connections to other certain things.” But what is remarkable is that his moral code is mostly aligned with the law.
“He may feel that pot is okay, but he is very adamant that the kids shouldn’t be doing stronger drugs. For some of us, that is comforting,” says Montgomery. “I guess it’s reassuring to know there is someone out there the kids feel comfortable with who is maybe going to give them the same advice as a cop or a parent.”
Well, maybe not exactly the same advice: In many respects, Highway is better positioned to counsel kids who are experimenting with adult-size issues. “When they are not blood relatives, I can be more objective,” he says wisely, “I have scared kids out of their first sexual encounter. I have talked three kids out of doing a bag, doing a bundle, doing a hit. Heroin, crack, the whole deal. Why? If they are telling me what they are going to do, they want me to stop them.”
He also tries to avoid judging his advisees: Instead of telling kids not to do something, he suggests ways they might protect themselves, by using condoms, checking sources and “knowing who, where and what you are partying with.”
Matt Young, a roving case worker for Howard Community Services who handles people with mental illness in the downtown area, observes, “He focuses on people's survival skills instead of their self-destructive skills. He sincerely believes people can do better, they can work things out, they can work and play in a healthy manner.”
And when they can’t, he has other solutions — ones that no uniformed officer could ever get away with. “Sometimes I think two kids should kick the shit out of each other — just once, to get it over with, get it out of their system, awright? If I work for SRS or Spectrum or an outfit like that, I can’t tell you, ‘Come on, I’ll take you up to the parking deck and I’ll watch for the cops while the two of you go at it, mano a mano.”
The other night he dispatched two friends to help a disabled man get rid of an unwanted houseguest, who ended up getting arrested. In a more creative diplomatic moment, he once brought two dueling teens into the food court at the mall, bought them huge sodas, and refused to let either of them go to the bathroom until they shook hands. “I wouldn’t let them leave until I had an understanding between the two of them that the bullshit out there on the block would not happen anymore. The last thing I want is mom-and-pop-in-public and a baby carriage getting run over by two kids chasing each other down the block.”
When it comes to Church Street, Highway definitely feels a sense of ownership. Some might say he also has an inflated sense of his own influence and importance downtown. He knows the numbers of all the public phones, frequents a handful of favorite coffee shops and makes his “office” at a table against the rear wall at Uncommon Grounds, “because nobody gets behind my back.” He fills in as a clerk at Record Town whenever he’s around.
Even his cosmic view is shaped by the four blocks between Pearl and Main. “If the state of Vermont was considered a universe, Church Street is the center,” he offers. “Everything that goes on from here to Essex to the smallest podunk town the other side of Bennington is talked about on this block.” Although he has a leadership role, he seems to enjoy hanging out as much as the teens around him. He scolds them, plays with their babies, tells stories. The only thing missing is a stoop.
To Highway, this Church Street crowd constitutes a “family” — even though he has a real daughter, and grandchild, of his own. “While I’m home, while I’m here, these kids are my world, 24-7,” he insists. For whatever reason, he cares about these teens, addressing them in mock conversations to show how he interacts with them. “I shouldn’t give a shit what you do with your life, but I do. And outside your parents, I may be the only one on the face of the fucking planet that does.”
It’s a convincing argument, and usually achieves the desired result: getting young people to share problems and feelings they would never bring to their parents. In Highway, kids see an adult with authentic interest in them, who is not earning a paycheck by keeping them out of trouble. On this particular point, cops, shop owners and kids all agree. “I think he is trustworthy and the kids pick up on that,” says Skip Blakely, co-owner of Uncommon Grounds.
Montgomery adds, “I think how he thinks of himself, and how he functions, is like a street worker but without any official title.”
Highway makes it perfectly clear he has no interest in turning his volunteer job into a paying one. “Because then I’m required to do it,” he explains. And he might have to learn some official mediation skills. His vision for Burlington is much more grand. “I want to be able to walk down my block one day and have total frigging harmony. It’s very utopic, and I don’t expect it to happen in the not-too-distant future. As long as these kids need me to listen to them, counsel them or hold their hand, I’m gonna do it.”