Elias Stamback is sitting at a picnic table with his back to the Pithlachascotee River. I'm fascinated by this 16-year-old Gulf High School sophomore. He's smart, witty, fun.
He gives a vivid account of what it feels like to be on the fringe — how teachers and other so-called "normal" adults look at him and his friends with dismay. They don't dig the piercings or tattoos or the purple hair or shaved heads. Cops hassle them.
As Elias talks, I am distracted. It's not often you can watch a boat drift down a river — through a hole in an earlobe the size of a penny. Rings keep the holes perfectly round.
Elias and his friends enjoy music that would make most of us squirm. They call themselves "Juggalos," after one of Insane Clown Posse's songs. You know, ICP. Okay, so you don't know.
These kids, including several who met with me at Sims Park, don't care whether you like their music, which is loud and profane and full of violent lyrics. Think clowns in face paint swinging hatchets. The music and flailing helps get rid of aggression, Elias explains, to direct anger at the universe instead of an object. If you get that, you probably also know some of the Juggalos' other favorite bands: Twiztid, Dark Lotus, Blaze.
Just when you think you have these kids' number, they throw you a curve. They exude indifference, yet they don't like being stereotyped. You want to call them freaks? Elias will point to his 3.5 grade-point average, his membership in the school's multicultural club. His mother, Sherry Stamback, offered the kids this advice: "If you don't like what they call you, show them what you are."
Which is how they came to be cleaning up the town.
Four times this year, the Juggalo Cleanup Crew took to the woods and highways of West Pasco to pick up trash. Nobody made them. They just did it. They liked the way it made them feel, especially toward each other.
The most recent cleanup, Feb. 28, was to honor a friend and classmate. Stephanie Harris, a Gulf High sophomore, had been a brittle diabetic for years. She died in her sleep on Oct. 5 when her blood sugar level dropped too low. Four days later, at a memorial service at Dobies Funeral Home, her Juggalo friends filled chairs on one side of the aisle, teachers, parents and even the superintendent of schools on the other.
Stephanie would have turned 16 on Feb. 24, so her friends planned their cleanup appropriately. And keeping to form, they came up with a name that would shock most of us: The Dead Stephanie Memorial Cleanup.
Stephanie's mom, Peggy Harris, was right there with the kids as they gathered trash for almost eight hours. Fourteen teenagers attacked the obvious debris dumped along Rowan Road just north of Massachusetts Avenue, but they also pushed deep into the woods. They hauled back a dozen tires, county road signs, building materials, bicycle frames, a shopping cart. They found a car that had been abandoned many years earlier.
Before Stephanie died, her mom had viewed her friends with skepticism. A 49-year-old nurse raised Baptist isn't likely to easily embrace kids so removed from the mainstream.
But at the funeral, one by one they came to her. They hugged her. Then came the cleanup and Mrs. Harris was hooked. "I love these kids," she said last week.
The next formal gathering for the Juggalo crew will be April 18 as part of the Great American Cleanup.
They'll be easy to spot, but perhaps now a bit harder to judge.