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

On this day, Tall Joe is out of sorts. He's got a cut above his eye and doesn't know where or how he got it. "I don't remember fighting with anyone last night, so I must have kissed the pavement," he laughs grimly. Tall Joe harbors few illusions about the nature of his troubles. Next week, he says, he hopes to get himself into a treatment program. "I'm to the point where I have to drink. I have no choice. It's either that or I have seizures and them seizures ain't no fun." Also, he somehow lost his backpack and, with it, a new pair of jeans, clean underwear, and fresh socks. He's stuck with a pair of lightweight running shoes, which are not ideal for winter. But when you've got size 13 feet, free boots are hard to come by. For the here and now, Tall Joe just wants to make it to the end of the day, when he plans to ride with Dobson to Waconia. Scott—his "old running buddy"—has an apartment in Waconia and Tall Joe wants to spend a few days with him. Then, he says, he'll take another stab at the straight life.

Before checking on Willie at the Clump of Woods, Dobson and Tall Joe kill a little time in the garage. As Tall Joe is relating the saga of how he had to post bail to get out of the workhouse for his brother's funeral last fall, Terrible Tee arrives. Tall Joe tells Tee he is pretty sure they've met before. She doesn't remember him. She looks drained. She explains that her brothers kept offering to buy her shots at the bar last night and "Dumb me, I kept saying, 'Okay.'"

"I know the feeling," responds Tall Joe, "trust me."

Mike Mosedale

Tee is getting ready to leave town for the holiday. She says that her family always gathers for New Year's in Ponemah. At the stroke of midnight, Tee says, there will be a wild, 20-minute wrestling free-for-all in the family living room. It's a family tradition and Tee wouldn't miss it for the world. That's why she's made plans to take the four-hour drive north with her brothers in the late afternoon.

The conversation then turns to the subject of metal scrapping. It's been the main source of livelihood for Tall Joe for the past decade. With record high prices, scrapping has never been better. "These days, if you've got a truck, you can make 300 to 500 bucks a day easy. And you don't even have to steal. You just have to know where to go." Tall Joe doesn't have a truck, so he scraps mainly by foot. That usually means collecting aluminum cans. You can make decent money doing that these days, Tall Joe says. Just the other day, he and his two buddies gathered $35 worth of cans in just an hour and a half. Of course, he adds wryly, they had a head start with all the empties strewn about the house in which they are squatting.

Tall Joe says there are some new challenges for the truck-less scrappers in Minneapolis. Grocery carts—the preferred means of scrap conveyance—have become increasingly hard to come by. At the Cub supermarket on West Broadway, Tall Joe says, electronic sensors now disable the wheels on the carts once they exit the parking lot. And, he adds, some of the scrap yards on North Second have actually begun enforcing their pledges "not to do business with people with shopping carts." Beyond that, there is the issue of rising competition. "We went into one house, we were going to strip it," he says, flashing an if-it-weren't-for-bad-luck smile. "There wasn't a piece of copper left in the whole place."

New Year's Eve

By the time Tall Joe arrives at the Clump of Woods, around noon, a cold rain is falling. Dobson and Tee were expecting to find Willie in his tent. It's empty. Willie has abandoned his shelter for a scrubby little hillside about 100 feet away, in the shadow of a building everyone calls the Monkey Burner. Swaddled in blankets and quilts, Willie doesn't seem bothered by the pelting rain, which will soon turn to snow. Tall Joe calls out: "How you doing, man? Haven't seen you in a while." Willie struggles to his feet and lumbers to the campsite at the Clump. "You caught me half-drunk, man," he says, wiping his brow and awkwardly settling into a sitting position on the tent futon. "I was just about ready to go to sleep. I was nice and comfortable, wasn't wet at all."

Tall Joe casts an approving eye across the campsite. "This is pretty decent," he observes. "All the camps over north, they throw garbage all over. That's why they get kicked out." Tee says she thinks it's still too messy. At that, she gets up to collect some of her possessions. Damn. The Dean Koontz novel she's been reading, Mr. Murder, has been soaked by the rain. Tee is not impressed with the story but figures she may as well finish it, water damage and plotline be damned. Tall Joe says he enjoys Koontz. "He's got some good books. I read a lot of them in the workhouse. Ain't nothing else to do there," he offers. "I tried to read the Bible several times, but a lot of stuff in there I don't understand."

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