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

Lately, Willie has enjoyed a more novel form of cover. For the first time in his 30 years in Minneapolis, he's been staying in a tent. It's a jerry-rigged four-person job that has no anchor poles to hold it in place, just a tangle of ropes tied to the surrounding trees. Willie didn't set up the tent. That was the work of his friend, Teri—or Terrible Tee, as she's also called. For a long spell this summer, Terrible Tee stayed in the tent. Once the weather turned, she took to couch surfing, so Willie's had the place to himself most of the time. Tee, assuming the role of camp den mother, still stops by regularly to check on Willie.

There are two pallets under the tent, which form a fairly level surface. Inside, there is a discarded futon, scrounged from a dumpster, along with a collection of couch cushions, some pink egg-shell foam padding, and a heap of blankets. Outside, brown tarps tied to the trees create a windbreak and add some additional privacy. Folding metal chairs and milk crates are scattered around a fire pit form. And, as in most homeless camps, there is a little library, with works of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz currently occupying the lending shelf.

After years sleeping in a bedroll, fully exposed to the elements, Willie reports that his shift to tent sleeping has been a marked improvement. "It's nice," he says, assessing his surroundings with an approving nod of the head. "Nobody coming and going, nice and cool and dry. No problems."

Mike Mosedale

First blood: Terrible Tee's war club makes its debut

It isn't noon yet and Willie has been joined by the boys at the Clump for a morning of serious drinking. Terrible Tee, who brought the liter of vodka to camp, can tell pretty quickly that things are going to turn ugly. She was only gone an hour to make a can run to a scrap yard over on the North Side. By the time she got back, Willie and a newcomer—a 29-year-old day laborer who, on this morning, gets tagged with the nickname "C-Note"—have already found their way to the bottom of the bottle. All the way to the bottom.

C-Note's eyes are glassy, his mood foul. Perched on the edge of a milk crate, he is talking about stealing copper pipes and how "fucking Mexicans are stealing our women" and, besides that, driving down wages. Then, abruptly, he is overwhelmed by the impulse to set himself apart from his newfound companions. "I never sat down here and drank with these fuckers before," he declares to no one in particular. At this, Terrible Tee casts a sidelong glance in C-Note's direction and decides to leave. "I can't believe they drank the whole bottle. Them guys were chugging," she whispers as she walks away. "You know, Willie doesn't usually drink that much." She doesn't know C-Note very well. She hasn't partied with him before.

A lot of the time, Tee's manner is sweet. She has a 100-watt smile, a pleasant, unlined face, and a hearty laugh. But among those who know her, she also has a reputation for considerable ferocity, which explains the nickname. Now 37, Tee has spent much of her adult life on the streets of Minneapolis. For two straight years, she says, she lived under a bridge with a guy because "I thought I was in love." She had a "beau" on the streets named Back Track, whose baby she carried. The baby died. So did Back Track. Someone broke his jaw and he walked out of the hospital with a bottle of liquid codeine and that was it. "I told him, 'Back Track, you drink a lot, don't be overdoing it,'" Tee recalls. "He said, 'I won't.' That was the last time I seen him. He passed out in the sun by the Basilica and died."

Tee grew up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, one of 10 kids in a family that lived in Ponemah, the reservation's most remote and traditional village. The best times of her life—"so far," she adds hopefully—were on the reservation. She laughs when she talks about how she and her sister used to get wild during the long bus rides to high school, how they jerked around the tribal cops at any opportunity, how they raised hell. But by 1991, Tee was both bored and looking to escape a problematic marriage. "If I would have stayed, we'd probably still be together," she says of her ex-husband. "That man can sweet-talk me." Though she remarried since, and remains married, she considers herself an independent operator. She doesn't want any man ruling over her.

As a woman in a rough world, Tee had to learn to take care of herself. She's had her share of scrapes, has been arrested for bar fights and trespassing and once did a 60-day stretch in county up north. She says she's made just one trip to detox, which was enough. But she says she has had surprisingly little serious trouble on the streets. "I guess it's the way I carry myself," she theorizes. Nonetheless, she takes precautions to protect herself. When she was sleeping at the Clump this summer, she stashed sticks and rocks in various spots just in case. "Every little nook and cranny has something there for me to use. It doesn't matter what side of that Clump of Woods I'm on. If I'm fighting I can reach something. But usually it's quiet here."

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