Living on the streets of Minneapolis for a week

More than 9,000 Minnesotans are homeless. I decided to join them.

Despite these psychological tribulations, this method is well worth it if you're truly in a bind: It's much more efficient than the sitting-on-a-street-corner mode of attack, as I'd soon discover.

Barely 15 minutes had elapsed before a maroon Dodge Intrepid honked its horn down the line, an arm extending out of the rolled-down window and waving a dollar bill. I shuffled up and accepted the charity from a woman in her 30s. As I trudged back to my post (a "No Turn" sign), another window opened from which a curvy woman in a Winnie the Pooh sweater offered two—two!—dollar bills.

A pattern was emerging. For whatever reason—perhaps having something to do with their superiorly developed nurturing instinct—middle-aged women were my best marks. Not a single male had been moved by my faux plight.

Nick Vlcek
Nick Vlcek


EXPANDED CONTENT: Follow along with an annotated GOOGLE MAP and a SLIDESHOW!

An exception to this rule rolled up to the stoplight 20 minutes later in a white Jeep. The driver, a mustached Latino fellow, added yet another dollar bill to my cup.

Five minutes later came yet another donor, a woman again. "Would you like some Pringles?" She held out a small, travel-sized can.

"Yes, thanks!" I said.

"Have a good one," she chirped, which I thought was a pretty passive-aggressive thing to say to a shivering pauper, even a fraudulent one, but I certainly wasn't going to call her on it, being indebted to her as I was for the Pringles.

At that point, I called it quits. In less than an hour, I had "earned" four dollars and a snack to boot—enough, I reckoned, to get me through the next day. It was time to find a place to crash.

I plodded south on Lyndale through the freezing drizzle, my eyes searching for what in hindsight was an improbable ideal, the criteria being 1) sheltered from rain/snow, 2) safe from criminals, and 3) safe from cops. (Granted, two and three would be hard to reconcile.)

The CenterPoint Energy power plant, tucked between Lyndale and I-394, seemed promising. I hiked along the premises and came to an open double gate leading toward the underbelly of I-394 and myriad on/off ramps. In the dim light, I could make out dozens of immense pillars supporting the byways above. The collected corpses of fallen streetlights lay strewn in the uncut, browning grass on the far side. By the looks of it, I was far from the first person to take up residence under this overpass. Scattered along the ground were a pair of discarded loafers, a snow-sprinkled stuffed dolphin, and a trucker hat stomped into the muddy earth. On a flat surface atop the slanted slab ascending to the freeway lay a frayed mattress.

For the time being, though, I was alone.

I came to a pillar and dropped my pack to the ground. A pile of gravel had been dumped around the column's base. This would be my bed for the night: The gravel was dry, fine, and, with a few layers of thick clothing between us, promised to be reasonably comfortable. Like a nesting animal, I arranged the gravel to even out the incline. I crawled into my sleeping bag as innumerable tires went thump-thump directly above, unpacked the bottle of rum, and took a pull or three. It set my empty stomach ablaze.


Day Seven

The early-morning hours under that overpass were nothing short of hellish. Not necessarily because of the cold or the paranoid, scared-shitless certitude that I'd be robbed and/or mutilated in my sleep (though these factors certainly didn't help). No. What made the morning so damn ghastly was a recurring nightmare.

It took place back at the shelter, but it wasn't really the shelter. The dream had morphed it into something akin to a dank cellar, its size and scope ratcheted up to absurdity—it was, in fact, an entire endless field of bunk beds, stretching out beyond the horizon like the crosses of a World War II cemetery. Something just outside the walls had us all up in arms and flailing about. Just what, exactly, I don't know—a monster, you could say, only it wasn't so tangible or childish as a bogeyman; some kind of amorphous beast, doom distilled, roaring and clawing and braying, reeking of carrion, and—oh, God, why?!—everybody slipping on their blankets and leaping over fluorescent bonfires trying to escape. There was Cowboy hurling his books (I think they were books) out the window at the beast, emitting inhuman shrieks as he did so. He turned to me and said, "Throw me some fever!" and I didn't know in the slightest what he meant, but I threw him some fever anyway—as much as I could spare, that is—and then walls started crumbling and that's the last I saw of Cowboy. The last image I recall was a green hot air balloon, either just landing or about to take off, in the middle of the field-cellar, and all of us swarming around it. And the screaming.

I spent the late morning in the Barnes & Noble's adjoining Starbucks, utterly bloodshot, trying to ignore the humming no one else seemed to hear. Patrons chatted idly or read newspapers or scribbled absently, smug in their monsterless world, as if —

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