Blame it on Kon-Tiki, the handmade raft in which Thor Heyerdahl navigated across the Pacific Ocean in 1947. The documentary about the voyage won an Academy Award, but perhaps more importantly, it launched a whole movement of modern-day, streetwise rafters who have found hearth and home afloat.
It was the story of the Kon-Tikithat inspired David Pearlman — now known as Poppa Neutrino, the patriarch of the Floating Neutrinos, who have crafted an estimated 15 rafts as a means of shelter, mobility, and independence.
Poppa Neutrino gained acclaim and a cult following in 1998 when he sailed his raft, the Son of Town Hall, across the Atlantic Ocean. The journey was the subject of a National Geographic feature, and the story of his diverse and amazing life will be released this spring in a new book by Alec Wilkinson titled The Happiest Man in the World. Neutrino and his friends in Portland are now working on a new raft to sail the Pacific Ocean, as part of a personal quest and vision, and to inspire homeless people around that world that a great adventure awaits all of them beyond the barriers of poverty.
“We’re going to go do the voyage, and hopefully other people will see it and say, ‘Mmm, I can do something.’ It doesn’t mean they have to go across the Pacific, but they can do something,” says Neutrino.
The new raft is under partial construction here in Portland with the help of “Tiny” Neutrino, a.k.a. Michael Lane, but Neutrino is traveling the West Coast drumming up interest in the project and spreading his message: that escaping homelessness is more about realizing a vision than rent, and that the quality of a man’s life isn’t measured by income and consumption, but by creative fulfillment and empowerment.
“We want to do a circumnavigation to show that homeless people aren’t homeless, just without vision,” Neutrino says. “There is no such thing as a homeless person on this planet. If you have a vision of carts, of rivers and treehouses, we can take the power from these corporate strangleholds.”
In science, neutrinos are subatomic particles in constant motion throughout the universe. The Neutrino movement has taken the name to symbolize freedom from the obstacles that block people from reaching their dream. In the Neutrino lexicon, anyone struggling to be true to their deepest desires, trying to live according to their own script and not one written by outside forces, is a Neutrino.
Poppa Neutrino has been living — happily — out of boxes and carts for 30 years, making his living as a street musician and traveling coast to coast before settling in New Orleans. He and his wife raised five children on the streets, all successful, sweet, and “tough as dirt,” he says.
“Nothing frightens them. They came from the streets and they don’t want to live there, but whatever this economy is going to do, whatever this world is going to do, they know they can make it. They’re survivors. Not only survivors, they’re doers, because they have a vision. The worse thing about being homeless, I believe, is having absolutely no hope. You’d go to a mission and it would be so horrible. Homeless people have to have a place to nurse, to recess, to have seclusion.”
And it shouldn’t have to be a conventional home, according to Neutrino philosophy. Four walls and a roof can come in the form of a box, a cart, or a raft, made from cardboard, plywood, or foam.
“People think they need a house,” says Tiny Neutrino. “We’ve been given this vision that to not be homeless you need to have a house. You have to have something. When, in actuality, you can build a little box and live in it.”
After decades of living off the land in boxes and carts, Poppa Neutrino began looking to the vast spaces of the sea.
He was in his 50s when he started working on his first raft, Town Hall, in 1989 while living in New Orleans. He had never been a sailor, but he and his family successfully sailed the vessel — a reconditioned old barge stuffed with Styrofoam — to New York, where work began on a new ship, the Son of Town Hall. He had found a new vocation, born of struggle and necessity, he says.
“I’m peripatetic, I’m ambulatory,” Neutrino says. “I love movement. Some people, they like to stay in one place. That’s OK, we can’t change that. But I love movement.”
Son of Town Hall was an unsinkable beast, according to Neutrino, made entirely from scrap taken from the streets of New York. It took 100 days to sail it to Ireland, where they enjoyed a tour of Europe and the Mediterranean.
“All we needed for the homeless people was to turn it from a tragedy into an adventure,” Neutrino says. “Once we changed our mindset, we were out there like Vikings!”
The story was picked up by National Geographic, which paid Neutrino $50,000 for his film of the trip, and offered him another feature if he followed through with a plan to sail to Cuba. With the money from National Geographic, Neutrino and his crew left the Son of Town Hall in Europe (where it is still used today as a homeless squat) and flew back to the United States to begin work on the trip to Cuba. Three years later, they made the journey, but the money and film of the project had been canned for political reasons, Neutrino says.
Now the Pacific awaits.
“Once you climb a mountain and you get to the top of it and say, ‘Wow, this is great,’” Poppa Neutrino says, “there’s another mountain to climb. I can no longer live in a house now. If someone gave me a house, an apartment, I wouldn’t live in it.
“We’re going to show that you can live off the streets like a king — an absolute king,” Neutrino says. “Vikings, if they came to this country and found those garbage cans and those dumpsters, would build themselves castles and rafts and treehouses. We can do that. The government cannot stop us from building these carts.”
Neutrino describes himself as a lumpen proletariat, someone who makes his way through the world outside of the capitalistic and conventional realms to make a livelihood. Now in his seventies, he doesn’t use drugs or alcohol and espouses a diet of brown rice, vegetables, and fruit. Politically, he drives a hard line against the economic structure that pits the rich against the poor, and targets landlords as the root of all evils.
“No matter how much money the city or the state or the government gives, the landlords are going to jack rent up. As soon as that money comes in, they’re going to take it right out of the person’s pocket.
“Of course you want to have a nice apartment, but first you need to have a place where you can lay down, rest, take a body bath. And if you get $3, that’s your $3. If you get $5, that’s your $5. Now, if you get $1,000 dollars, that’s not your $1,000, that’s the landlord’s. And whatever is left is for the medicine, because you’re so overworked and overstressed to get that $1,000. We break it by not having to pay the landlord. He is our enemy.”
By JOANNE ZUHL, Street News Service
[Neutrinos in print]
The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino comes out in March. See www.randhomhouse.com for details.
All about the Neutrinos’ odysseys, plus the inner voyage of self-fulfillment of the scrap raft mariners: www.floatingneutrinos.com.