The Neighbors You Don't Know

The Clump of Woods, Terrible Tee's war club, and other stories from lives lived outdoors in the city

A first time for everything: An old man sleeps in a tent

William Siedlecki—white male, aged 68, no permanent address—can't say precisely how long he's been on the streets. When you've led a life like his, sometimes you can't recall all the details. When you've led a life like his, sometimes you don't want to recall the all the details. But, if he's in the mood, he'll tell you how he blew into Minneapolis back in 1977 with a heap of trouble in the rearview mirror. His life's arc has gone mostly in one direction: a hardscrabble childhood in Illinois, a stint at a boarding school for disadvantaged kids, a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, a failed marriage, an uneven work life, and, finally, two trips to prison on drug charges. After those ordeals, he pretty much gave up on the straight life. To his astonishment, more than a quarter-century somehow passed. Now, here he is: an old, half-crippled bear of a man staring down the prospect of yet another winter spent outdoors. "Can you imagine that?" he'll ask you. "Can you imagine what it's like to live like this for 25 years?"

Throughout his long odyssey on the streets, Willie (as his friends call him—or 'Ski, or Billy, or just plain Bill), has stayed in many of the city's better-known homeless camps: along the riverbank near downtown, behind the Basilica, under various bridges and freeway overpasses. For a spell, he says, he camped in the wastelands by the municipal impound lot. The beep-beep-beep of snow and garbage trucks kept him awake at night. And as the population of the city's homeless swelled, the prime spots under Interstate 394 became too crowded for his liking. "Too many people coming and going," he says. "If you find a place away from the commotion, that's how you can sleep."

Mike Mosedale

So Willie has usually sought spots away from the commotion. For a long time, he camped by Theodore Wirth Park, not far from the spot where his old pal, the late Muskrat Johnny, lay his head. Willie and Muskrat Johnny were scrapping partners. Muskrat Johnny—smaller and more agile—was assigned the role of climbing into dumpsters. Together, the two of them didn't have much trouble collecting enough scrap to pay the liquor bill. No one could put it down like Muskrat Johnny. "He could sit down and drink a case of beer and a fifth of vodka a day and have no ill effects," Willie remembers. "I used to say, wow, because I'd drink half a case and that was it."

In his time in Minneapolis, Willie allows, he hasn't always stayed outside. He's been to detox more times than he can count. He's been to some of the shelters, though he doesn't care to return. He's had two major hospitalizations. The worst came a decade ago after he was struck by a car while crossing Olson Memorial Highway on his way to Mickey's liquor store. He wound up with a broken arm and two broken legs. He still has a terrible kink in his right leg and it hurts like hell most of the time and makes walking a struggle. That problem worsened after he lost the tips of his toes to frostbite last winter. For seven years, he was marooned at the Glenwood, an 80-unit "wet" housing complex for homeless alcoholics. He didn't care for that much. He says he blew up to 450 pounds—about twice his current weight—and never felt like he fit in. "I get a jug and try to stay warm," he says by way of explanation, "but I'm no alcoholic, no drug addict. Not that I know of. I've never been a heavy drinker."

For most of his life in Minneapolis, Willie has slept outside. Summer or winter. Rain or shine. Sleet or snow. "I never had no tent," he says, as he takes a drag from a self-rolled cigarette followed by a top-of-the-morning tug on a can of Natural Ice. "I used to get soaked, man." He pauses, stares into the middle distance, and punctuates this remembrance with a final thought. "It was so drastic I can't even remember it." And then he lets loose a laugh, at once gruff and gleeful. Sometimes—often, really—his friends don't know what Willie is talking about, especially when he riffs about gremlins and auras, tree roots and animals, and how some buildings have personalities just like Mussolini or Hitler. "Death is an energy. It's a force," he'll tell you. "Certain people can see it. Holy men can see the aura on a body, the forces that govern the universe. I don't know what it is. But the animals recognize it. They feel it." Now that he's old, he says, he listens to the animals more. To his friends, it seldom matters if his musings fail to track. Usually, they'll just raise a drink and join in the laughter and say, "Oh, Willie."

In the course of the past year, Willie has spent the majority of his days and nights on a little plot of land in Dinkytown that he and his friends refer to as "the Clump of Woods." As the name suggests, the trees and shrubs at the Clump afford a measure of privacy. There isn't as much cover as there was before the work crews cleared much of the vegetation last summer. Then autumn rolled in and stole the leaves. But there is still some cover—a mountain of wood chips and scrap, a few trees—and that's better than nothing.

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