Above the tunnel where we're sitting, cars rumble across the blazing asphalt on the northbound Stemmons Freeway access road. I can see flags on the Medieval Times towers from down here, blowing in a strong summer breeze. The wind sends cooling gusts down the length of the tunnel, picking up a stale stink on its way past the row of chairs, the double cot mattress and the two men who tell me they've lived down here for three years.
Leaning back with a leg slung over the arm of a weathered plush chair, Rusty Shotwell stops mid-sentence. "Stop scratchin'," he urges, and Jesse "Gypsy" Ramirez, sprawled across their two-cot bed, caught in the act, lays the offending hand against his sore-covered arm. Gypsy says it's poison oak from the neighboring camp around the bend in the Trinity Strand.
That camp around the corner is what drew me down here in the first place -- it's visible from one of the new lookout points at the end of the Trinity Strand Trail by the Meddlesome Moth. A homeless camp that size at the foot of a big castle seemed like it demanded a closer look, and after climbing down from the Medieval Times parking lot Tuesday afternoon, that's where I was headed when I noticed a string of lawn chairs in a tunnel to my left. Ducking inside, I met two guys who've made their home in huge drain along the Trinity.
The two are putting the place back together after each spent about nine months locked up for assault. When Rusty got out in April, their old bed, coffee table, carpet and sofa were gone and the tunnel was trashed. I took a few pictures of the two while we talked, and more than once, Rusty apologized for the trash farther down the tunnel where he hadn't cleaned up yet, asking me to keep it out of the shot.
"I'm peaceful long as I got my radio, my books," Rusty says. "Take someone who's been homeless for so long, you can't put them in an apartment."
Rusty found new furniture and put a yellow coat of paint on the wall behind the bed, covering up tagging left by two guys who lived down here years ago, Frank and "Demon Dave." Friends painted flowers and "welcome back" messages on the wall for Gypsy, who'd been jailed until early this month.
They lived together in a house in Oak Cliff for 16 years, Rusty says, until it burned down a few years ago. Today, the Packard Street address he mentions is just one in a row of overgrown empty lots on a dead end lined with abandoned houses.
As long as they stay out of sight, Rusty says the cops don't bother them, and some nights, he says, Medieval Times security guards come down and they all play dominoes. They've learned to wait and take baths out in the murky riverwater only when nobody's parking for a jousting show at the castle. They say they watch out for the parking lot and let guards know when a strange car parks in the lot after hours. Two Christmases ago, staff from up in the castle surprised them with a pile of wrapped gifts: a flashlight, shirts, Medieval Times sweatpants.
"It's like we're in the dungeon," Gyspsy says, but he's not complaining. "It's quiet, and it's peaceful."
They make the money they need panhandling on the corner for less than an hour a day, up where the northbound access road hits Oak Lawn Avenue. They take turns, Rusty says, so if one of them gets hauled to jail, there'll still be someone left to watch the tunnel. "It's just 12 hours and we're right back on the corner again," he says. "With the cops, it's just a waste of time."
Rusty says Gypsy used to be a headliner at clubs in the early and mid-'90s and got some press around the gay nightlife community. "She had hair down to her waist," Rusty recalls.
On top of the poison oak, Gypsy says he's been coughing up blood lately. Rusty's got skin cancer on one shoulder and across his forehead; last Sunday they both went to Parkland Hospital for check-ups.
Even with their health problems, they say they've got an ideal setup down here, even considering the biggest problem with life in a drainage tunnel: what happens when it rains.
Rusty says they've lived in two feet of water before. He remembers one of the last big waves that came through, caught him lounging around one afternoon. As he was swept out into the open, a group of people yelled down from the parking lot to offer help. He just leaned back in his lawn chair, waved and took another sip of beer.