I love street urchins. That much is clear. Every Friday I post a picture from my collection of vintage street urchin photographs. This Halloween I dressed my nine-month old daughter as a soot faced guttersnipe. Street urchins, guttersnipes, newsies, bootblacks, ragamuffins, street arabs, waifs, riffraff, offscourings, dock rats, street rats, lil' imps of darkness: whatever you want to call them, I love them.

Mrs. Helen Campbell, a late nineteenth-century progressive activist, provides us with a worthwhile taxonomy: "Homeless boys may be divided into two classes, the street arab and the gutter-snipe. The newsboy may be found in both of these classes. As a street arab he is strong, sturdy, self-reliant, full of fight, always ready to take his own part, as well as that of the gutter-snipe, who naturally looks to him for protection. Gutter-snipe is the name which has been given to the more weakly street arab, the little fellow who, though scarcely more than a baby, is frequently left by brutalized parents at the mercy of any fate, no matter what. This little chap generally roams around until he finds some courageous street arab, scarcely bigger than himself, perhaps, to fight his battles and put him in the way of making a living, which is generally done by selling papers. In time the gutter-snipe becomes himself a full-fledged arab with a large clientele, two hard and ready fists, and a horde of dependent and grateful snipes."

Years ago I moved to Dublin, Ireland just to get out of my hometown. I enrolled at Trinity College and rented a flat on Lower Mount Street just off the canal. On my walk to class every day I detoured down an old Victorian alley that connected with Fenian Street through a few blocks of rowhouse tenements that were the closest things to the hutongs of Shanghai that I have seen in any western city. They looked like the set of a Chaplin film. I lived in Dublin before all that Celtic Tiger crap, before Dublin became rich and fancy and expensive like it is today. From what I've heard, all the tenements on Fenian Street were seen as a blight by the Corporation and they've since been torn down and replaced with hotels and office buildings. But praise the lord I got to experience old-school Dublin characters on this street every day, the kind of people they have probably shipped out to the suburbs by now. Those cobbled streets were always filled with urchins. They weren't homeless, you could see their mothers hanging laundry outside their windows or watching television on stools set up on their stoops. But they were urchins in adidas runners and dirty jumpers. And a gaggle of them would follow me around when I walked through their neighborhood, peppering me with questions about America in their little Dublin accents. They were always breaking things in the deadend alleys or lighting things on fire or writing things on the bricks with magic markers. I loved those kids. They were the only people in Ireland who would talk to me. Despite the bullshit "friendly" stereotype, the Irish really are a bunch of unfriendly cunts if you're an American. I took to buying these kids toys at the pound stores on the northside and when I'd walk through their neighborhood they'd swarm me and I'd emerge from the alley onto Lower Mount Street smiling and empty handed. One time I bought them all yo-yos and they took to calling me the yo yo man. If I ever return to Dublin it's going to break my heart to see fancy hotels and offices on that street. I just hope the Ginger Man pub is still there.

There was a lot of poverty in Dublin then, and I would take long walks north and out past the circular roads to the places where poor people lived. Generally I found they were much friendlier and nicer than the contemptuous Dubliners and snooty Kerry bogfarmer's kids at Trinity. I thought about how these were the people who had distant cousins and great-uncles who'd immigrated to America. We got the dregs of Dublin, the people who found hope for the future in a distant place. Living in Ireland gave me a great deal of perspective on what it means to be an American.

A few years ago, while visiting New York City for the first time I headed straight for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, described by a friend as "the greatest museum" she'd ever visited. Basically, they take you into an old tenement on Orchard Street that hasn't been renovated or changed since the 1930s. For my $15, I expected greatness. I expected young actors dressed as street urchins and bootblacks to pop out of the shadows offering me a shine, guv-nuh! I expected to see haggard rows of moppets huddled together in a single bedroom. I didn't expect it to be just a bunch of empty rooms with moldy wallpaper. I expected more than the stories the docents dished out about Sicilians sewing and Jews taking on lodgers. It was cool, but I left disappointed . I missed the streetfight fisticuffs of Fenian street. I missed the laughter of the kids who must have lived there despite the depravity and lack of light.

Some people like the "idea" of pirates. Some like the "idea" of ninjas. I like the "idea" of street urchins. I generally think that people who like pirates or ninjas don't need to explain it (beyond "ninjas are cool.") but because Llamaschool has asked, I will try. I love the silent films of Mary Pickford and Hal Roach. I love the urchins in the writings of Dickens and Dreiser and Crane. I love the photographs of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. I own all kinds of progressive literature from around the turn of the century that describes the terrible conditions of their lives, but also the general sweetness and innocence in their dispositions. It may all have been bullshit. It may have just been spin that the WASPy activists put on the miserable lives of these pint-sized waifs. But the pictures don't lie. These were kids. They managed to still have fun, to save pennies to visit the freakshow theaters on Bowery or in the early days of the 20th century see Fatty Arbuckle films. They managed to survive in a society that left them to sleep on hay barges and fight like sea lions for space on steam grates. Eventually the progressive movement began giving them homes and educations and even shipped them off to adoptive families in the midwest on the orphan trains. These kids are part of our history. They are part of the fabric of this country.

My wife never fails to remind me that there are still street urchins in this world, that all this may not be all that funny or cute. She's right. Her actual job is to help today's street urchins (she spends her days fighting the state on behalf of foster youth and homeless children). I know she's right. I make up excuses. I say I'm not laughing at their cute little clothes or smudgy faces. I say I love the old Lewis Hine photographs simply because I am an advocate of "contextual parenting," meaning that if I look at those pictures of immigrant families living ten to a room in squalor without running water or jobs to put food on the table, that makes our little one bedroom apartment feel like a palace. I say, "that little urchin didn't have an exersaucer and neither did Abraham freakin' Lincoln!" I tell her I look at those little urchins and how hard their lives were and I don't feel so bad if we've already fucked up little things with Juniper, that we're giving her a good life. But these are only half truths.

As I've written before, I love Chaplin. I consider him the greatest genius of the last century---greater than Joyce or Einstein. I love the way he was able to take that familiar and even contemptible stereotype to contemporary audiences---"the tramp"---and use his trademark pathos to transform himself into a universal everyman. Did Chaplin use humor to translate this life into something palatable for his audience? Of course he made fun of the tramp and of course he relied upon stereotypes for aspects of that humor. We laugh at the tramp. But clearly there is something more to it. We identify with him. We love him.

I see the same thing working in the idealized street urchin, the plucky Horatio Alger waif who struggles with poverty and homelessness only to get on a train and get transplanted from Manhattan's harsh five points to the farmland of Missouri or Michigan. In their pictures you see that they are still children, bright eyed and so full of hope and humor. Ever since I saw a little three-foot tall fellow hawking newspapers in my U.S. History book in the eleventh grade, I wanted to know more about this time in history. How did these kids get from there to us? I love them, these castoffs of a snooty old world ready to start fresh and survive in a new one. They are a part of our history, with the cowboys and Indians and the Pilgrims and the Chinese guys who built the railroads and the Spanish conquistadors looking for El Dorado. They are part of our heritage, a legacy that still exists with the integration of thousands of immigrants from other parts of the world today. I find them iconic in that way. I love them. Do I laugh at the pictures of street urchins? Sometimes. Do I think they're cute? Hell yes I do. But there's more to it than just that. I promise.

Here's my list of the greatest street urchin movies of all time.