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

As Dobson gets ready for his next stop, one of the North Side Boys approaches him, shaky and subdued, and murmurs. Dobson nods, reaches into a knapsack in his van, and passes the man a single can of Natural Ice beer. The beer, Dobson explains later, isn't from him. It was donated by Scotty, one of the old North Side Boys. Scotty's moved out of town into an apartment, but Dobson maintains contact with him. Through Dobson, Scotty has maintained contact with his old running partners. As Dobson sees it, passing along a beer in such circumstances isn't enabling. It's an act of compassion. "Some of my friends can't get up without having a beer," he says. "I offer them a sandwich at one o'clock and they say, I don't eat on an empty stomach. It doesn't matter to me. It has to do with an illness."

At 53, Dobson has been many things in his life: hippie, businessman, outreach worker, and, for a stretch in the 1970s, homeless person. He grew up an Air Force brat in Nebraska. Dad was a drunk. When young Kelly heard that familiar sound of his father's 1957 Ford pulling into the driveway, he knew that "whatever good was happening was about to come to an end." By the time he was 14, he left home to stay with relatives. Five years later, he was married for the first time. That marriage, which produced one son, fell apart pretty quickly, and so did Dobson. After his divorce, he lit out to see the country in a 1961 Rambler. Over the next several years, he worked a wide range of jobs, slept on couches and in his vehicles, and finally settled into an abandoned trailer in Fridley. He partied as much as circumstances and his paychecks allowed. "I hung around with a crew, not any different from the crews you see [on the streets] today," he says.

By 1982, Dobson finally had enough. He checked himself into detox, immersed himself in AA and, after a whirlwind romance, remarried. In the following years, he worked at a succession of jobs, eventually earning a living as corporate copywriter. But his interest and affection for the downtrodden never faded. For a few years, he says, he used to skip out of work at lunch hour a couple of times a month just to stand in line at Sharing and Caring Hands, a nonprofit shelter and service agency in Minneapolis. He was also deeply involved with AA. His outreach efforts with that organization informed much of what he does to this day. "When we did 12-step calls to people who were drunk, we always had a pint with us," he says. "It wasn't that we were trying to make friends. The reason was, they couldn't stand up without a pint."

Ultimately, Dobson found a job that was seemingly ideally suited to his interests: He became a chaplain with the Salvation Army. As part of the work, Dobson drove the "Sally Truck," delivering about 300 sandwiches a day to the poor and homeless. He loved the work—so much, he says, that he went in on days when he wasn't scheduled. But the dream job didn't last. As Dobson tells it, he was fired on the pretext that he violated his employment contract by taking photographs of his "clients." Dobson has a passion for photography and a large "family album" of his friends from the street. He thinks the real reason he was dismissed was a mounting set of medical bills related to a neurological disorder called dystonia, a ruined hip, and assorted other physical woes that now account for his disability status.

Whatever the cause, Dobson soon hooked up with another homeless-oriented nonprofit, albeit a much smaller one and in an unpaid capacity. As the chief volunteer for HOPE of Minnesota, Dobson pretty much picked up where he left off with the Sally Truck. These days, he says, he typically serves about 60 meals a week. He makes the sandwiches himself and relies on food distributors for donated chips, cookies, and pop. Churches and other charitable organizations supply him with gas vouchers for the van.

In his years of feeding homeless people, Dobson has had disappointments. He's been assaulted on occasion, so he always keeps his eyes peeled for troublemakers. "I know the best way to deal with bullies," he says. "Stay the fuck away from them, because they're around every corner." He's been shooed away by police. He's found himself estranged from some of the people he regarded as close friends, sometimes for reasons he could not comprehend. It hurts, he says, but not enough to outweigh the pleasures of his work. Sometimes, he wishes he could do more. Usually, he wishes others would do more. "People say it's hard to find good help," he says. "Try finding good volunteers."

As he drives the van to his next stop—the Dunwoody crew—he discloses a fantasy he's been harboring for years. "I'd love to pick up 18 people and drive to a barn on 40 acres, shut the door, let 'em stretch out and lay down and have some crappers in there and a place where they could take soaking baths if they wanted to. Let them have a few moments of peace. Then we'll all walk away changed. Maybe not right away. Maybe in 10 years," he says with a far away look. "You know, we're all in transition, we're all transients in a way. Some, right now, just don't look as good as others."

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