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

The coming night will not be a quiet one at the Clump of Woods. As Tee later tells the story, she returned to the camp later that evening in spite of her misgivings about C-Note. The next morning, a far more subdued C-Note, nursing a beer, is seated in a semi-circle with a few of the regulars. They are all eating ham sandwiches and jalapeños provided by a frequent visitor to the camp, Kelly Dobson. A Christian outreach worker who feeds homeless people in Minneapolis out of his van, Dobson is a longtime friend to both Tee and Willie.

C-Note is not saying much on this morning, which hardly seems surprising considering how busted up his face is. Ugly hues of blue, green, and red spread from the bridge of his nose like a blossom, or an exploding flash pot. After a few minutes of general conversation, Tee decides to move on. Once out of earshot, she explains what transpired the previous night. "We were sitting over here and I was taking a drink from a bottle and he [C-Note] punched me in the face," she says with disbelief. "I'm like, 'All right, you should have never did that.' Then I'm putting the cap on the bottle and he punches me again. So I'm like, 'You want to see blood, motherfucker?' Oh, I went off on him. I used the club on his body, not his face. After I was done, I told him he hits like a bitch."

Tee relates this tale in a light-hearted manner, punctuating the details with robust laughter and the wry observation that her "war club is no longer a virgin." In her view, the smack-down was entirely justified. She observes that it seems to have had a corrective effect on C-Note. "I'm sorry, but he hit the wrong person," she explains. "And did you notice he minds his manners now?"

 

Some of my friends can't get up without having a beer

As he pilots his green Dodge van through the back streets of Minneapolis on a gray Sunday morning, Kelly Dobson hits the usual spots in the usual order. The first stop: a visit to the North Side Boys. There are about a half dozen of them on this day. They know Dobson's schedule by heart, so they're already milling about by the time he swings into the designated meeting spot. It's a parking lot situated off an industrial corridor on the North Side. There are no houses around, so on Sunday mornings, regular citizens and prying eyes are in short supply. That's just how Dobson likes it. Like the people he serves, Dobson prefers to remain out of sight.

Cool Harley, one of the regulars, is bundled up in his insulated coveralls, cheerful and wild-eyed as ever. Everybody loves Harley. They all think he's crazy. He's got a streak of shoe polish in his beard, which is an improvement. In the old days, Dobson says, Harley used roofing tar to take the gray out. Harley, who has an informal arrangement with the owner of the parking lot to provide off-hours security, keeps two of his three old vans on the lot. Only one of the vehicles still runs, but Harley has grand plans for the other two, which are packed sardine-tin tight with lawnmowers and tools and furniture and bicycles and all manner of other detritus Harley has accumulated over the years. He is happy to deliver a soliloquy on the topic of his vans and the value of their contents. Truth be told, he is happy to deliver a soliloquy on pretty much anything.

As usual, Harley—the sole teetotaler among the North Side Boys—has set up half a dozen folding chairs for the conversation circle. And as is his custom, Dobson has already brewed the coffee and prepared the sandwiches. He doesn't like to make sandwiches while he's on his rounds because that would mean he'd have to turn his back on his friends. That's rude, he says. One by one, amid amiable and low-key chatter, the men are served. Dobson has also collected a few donated items—socks, long johns, gloves—which he distributes. While the North Side Boys swig down their coffee, a latecomer, accompanied by a bleary-eyed woman, staggers into the parking lot. "Looks like somebody's been enjoying some adult beverages," cracks Tall Joe, an affable string bean who could give a team of dentists steady work. This triggers a round of knowing laughter. The latecomer confesses that he's been drinking hard—not booze but "Listo."

In his haze, Listo Guy begins apologizing effusively. He's sorry he showed up drunk, sorry he drank mouthwash. Dobson will have none of it. God loves him and God forgives him, Dobson says. He doesn't have to apologize to anyone for anything. He pats the guy on the back and hands him a cup of coffee and a sandwich. In Dobson's view, there is no point in judging drunks for being drunks. They're hurting, he'll tell you. They're sick. Maybe they're nuts. And then he'll add that maybe he's nuts, too, and that he doesn't really care because he's having such a good time. Then he'll flash his big smile and let loose his folksy cackle of a laugh.

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