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

What the fuck do you have to do with the sun?

On the day after Christmas, Willie is perched on a roll of snow fencing 50 yards or so from the tent at the Clump of Woods. He's catching the rays of late December sun, sipping a high-octane beer. The beer came from Monty, the same guy who brought C-Note to camp the day Terrible Tee lived up to her nickname. Monty is standing above Willie, casting a long shadow.

"Get out of the sun, man," Willie tells him.

Mike Mosedale

A scowl crosses Monty's face. "What the fuck do you got to do with the sun?" Monty says. "You see this foot? I'm going to bury it in your ass if you keep talking."

Willie looks baffled. "Isn't that pretty," he says sarcastically.

Monty turns nastier. "Now who are you?" he shouts at the old man. "You want to go down again? You want to? Maybe you'd like your other leg busted up. You fucking with me? Sit down or go down! You take the pick, chickenshit-motherfucker."

"What?"

"You heard me," Monty shouts. "You want your legs broke? Don't tell me nothing, old man. Zero." Willie rises unsteadily on his wobbly legs and Monty lets the words fly. "You ain't nobody," he tells him. "You didn't give nobody anything for Christmas. What did you give? Nothing! You didn't give shit to nobody! I gave you a beer, motherfucker! You didn't give me nothing!"

At that, Monty spots Kelly Dobson, who has arrived with lunch. He walks over to meet him. All three men return to the Clump to share ham sandwiches and jalapeño peppers. As everyone sets in on their food, the hostility between Monty and Willie seems to simply evaporate. After complimenting Dobson on the quality of the sandwich ("it's the bomb"), Monty relates the tale of his Christmas. The panhandling, he reports, was excellent, and he found himself flush enough to hit a West Bank bar for the holiday. As luck would have it, there was even a buffet—"that table was six feet long!" Monty exclaims—and $1.50 rail drinks.

Monty says an acquaintance at the bar got him high as hell, and he thought, God damn, this is okay for Christmas. Then he ran into a Native American guy from Nashville and, just like that, he had a drinking buddy for the night. "We closed it up, two in the morning. Last ones in the place," he says. "[When we were leaving], he told me how he scoped it out, and the Cub foods would be open at six in the morning and how he's going to buy some mouthwash." After that, Monty and his new friend split ways. "I'm not into that mouthwash shit," Monty explains.

Willie offers that mouthwash has strange effects on one's urine. "It kills brain cells by the million," Monty adds.

At that, the discussion turns to the subject of Terrible Tee and C-Note. "Yeah, she took the fire out of his ass," Monty says. "He got a little liquor in him and he thought he was the shit."

Later, Dobson reflects on the hard exchange between Monty and Willie. "That's camp politics. I try to stay out of that. It's got nothing to do with their souls," he says. "But I'm really sad people are fighting over shade and beer."

A port in the storm: Don's garage

It's the morning of New Year's Eve. Tall Joe, one of the North Side Boys, has hitched a ride with Dobson to Don's garage. Don, a retired car dealer from the western suburbs, keeps the garage chiefly for personal use. But with its high fences and relatively private setting on a dead-end street not far from the Clump of Woods, it also makes an ideal base of operations for Dobson. In the course of his rounds, Dobson usually stops at Don's garage—sometimes to prepare sandwiches or brew coffee, sometimes just to warm up or visit with homeless friends. Tall Joe, who is 40 but looks a decade older, isn't a regular here. He usually stays on the North Side. For the last five months, he and three buddies have been squatting in a vacant house in a rough quarter of the Jordan neighborhood. Thanks to the state's cold-weather rule, Tall Joe explains, the heat and electric are still running. But there is no water—the copper pipes were long ago stripped by scrappers—and Tall Joe worries that the house might become a target for an arsonist.

He also worries that the city or the bank might board up the place. "You never know what's going to happen when you're in an abandoned house," he says. "The police have been there once already. There was four of us in there and we were being pretty rowdy." Despite the illicit nature of his existence, Tall Joe holds a surprisingly positive view of the Minneapolis cops. He says one particularly sympathetic officer gave him and his buddies a little weed and a six-pack on occasion, and frequently turns a blind eye on public consumption charges. "He still comes over to check on us, just to make sure everybody is okay," Tall Joe says appreciatively. "He's a good guy. He'll say, 'I'm not going to write you guys a ticket today, but I'm going to drink one of your beers.'"

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