The Neighbors You Don't Know

A first time for everything: An old man sleeps in a tent

William Siedlecki—white male, aged 68, no permanent address—can't say precisely how long he's been on the streets. When you've led a life like his, sometimes you can't recall all the details. When you've led a life like his, sometimes you don't want to recall the all the details. But, if he's in the mood, he'll tell you how he blew into Minneapolis back in 1977 with a heap of trouble in the rearview mirror. His life's arc has gone mostly in one direction: a hardscrabble childhood in Illinois, a stint at a boarding school for disadvantaged kids, a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, a failed marriage, an uneven work life, and, finally, two trips to prison on drug charges. After those ordeals, he pretty much gave up on the straight life. To his astonishment, more than a quarter-century somehow passed. Now, here he is: an old, half-crippled bear of a man staring down the prospect of yet another winter spent outdoors. "Can you imagine that?" he'll ask you. "Can you imagine what it's like to live like this for 25 years?"

Throughout his long odyssey on the streets, Willie (as his friends call him—or 'Ski, or Billy, or just plain Bill), has stayed in many of the city's better-known homeless camps: along the riverbank near downtown, behind the Basilica, under various bridges and freeway overpasses. For a spell, he says, he camped in the wastelands by the municipal impound lot. The beep-beep-beep of snow and garbage trucks kept him awake at night. And as the population of the city's homeless swelled, the prime spots under Interstate 394 became too crowded for his liking. "Too many people coming and going," he says. "If you find a place away from the commotion, that's how you can sleep."

So Willie has usually sought spots away from the commotion. For a long time, he camped by Theodore Wirth Park, not far from the spot where his old pal, the late Muskrat Johnny, lay his head. Willie and Muskrat Johnny were scrapping partners. Muskrat Johnny—smaller and more agile—was assigned the role of climbing into dumpsters. Together, the two of them didn't have much trouble collecting enough scrap to pay the liquor bill. No one could put it down like Muskrat Johnny. "He could sit down and drink a case of beer and a fifth of vodka a day and have no ill effects," Willie remembers. "I used to say, wow, because I'd drink half a case and that was it."

In his time in Minneapolis, Willie allows, he hasn't always stayed outside. He's been to detox more times than he can count. He's been to some of the shelters, though he doesn't care to return. He's had two major hospitalizations. The worst came a decade ago after he was struck by a car while crossing Olson Memorial Highway on his way to Mickey's liquor store. He wound up with a broken arm and two broken legs. He still has a terrible kink in his right leg and it hurts like hell most of the time and makes walking a struggle. That problem worsened after he lost the tips of his toes to frostbite last winter. For seven years, he was marooned at the Glenwood, an 80-unit "wet" housing complex for homeless alcoholics. He didn't care for that much. He says he blew up to 450 pounds—about twice his current weight—and never felt like he fit in. "I get a jug and try to stay warm," he says by way of explanation, "but I'm no alcoholic, no drug addict. Not that I know of. I've never been a heavy drinker."

For most of his life in Minneapolis, Willie has slept outside. Summer or winter. Rain or shine. Sleet or snow. "I never had no tent," he says, as he takes a drag from a self-rolled cigarette followed by a top-of-the-morning tug on a can of Natural Ice. "I used to get soaked, man." He pauses, stares into the middle distance, and punctuates this remembrance with a final thought. "It was so drastic I can't even remember it." And then he lets loose a laugh, at once gruff and gleeful. Sometimes—often, really—his friends don't know what Willie is talking about, especially when he riffs about gremlins and auras, tree roots and animals, and how some buildings have personalities just like Mussolini or Hitler. "Death is an energy. It's a force," he'll tell you. "Certain people can see it. Holy men can see the aura on a body, the forces that govern the universe. I don't know what it is. But the animals recognize it. They feel it." Now that he's old, he says, he listens to the animals more. To his friends, it seldom matters if his musings fail to track. Usually, they'll just raise a drink and join in the laughter and say, "Oh, Willie."

In the course of the past year, Willie has spent the majority of his days and nights on a little plot of land in Dinkytown that he and his friends refer to as "the Clump of Woods." As the name suggests, the trees and shrubs at the Clump afford a measure of privacy. There isn't as much cover as there was before the work crews cleared much of the vegetation last summer. Then autumn rolled in and stole the leaves. But there is still some cover—a mountain of wood chips and scrap, a few trees—and that's better than nothing.

Lately, Willie has enjoyed a more novel form of cover. For the first time in his 30 years in Minneapolis, he's been staying in a tent. It's a jerry-rigged four-person job that has no anchor poles to hold it in place, just a tangle of ropes tied to the surrounding trees. Willie didn't set up the tent. That was the work of his friend, Teri—or Terrible Tee, as she's also called. For a long spell this summer, Terrible Tee stayed in the tent. Once the weather turned, she took to couch surfing, so Willie's had the place to himself most of the time. Tee, assuming the role of camp den mother, still stops by regularly to check on Willie.

There are two pallets under the tent, which form a fairly level surface. Inside, there is a discarded futon, scrounged from a dumpster, along with a collection of couch cushions, some pink egg-shell foam padding, and a heap of blankets. Outside, brown tarps tied to the trees create a windbreak and add some additional privacy. Folding metal chairs and milk crates are scattered around a fire pit form. And, as in most homeless camps, there is a little library, with works of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz currently occupying the lending shelf.

After years sleeping in a bedroll, fully exposed to the elements, Willie reports that his shift to tent sleeping has been a marked improvement. "It's nice," he says, assessing his surroundings with an approving nod of the head. "Nobody coming and going, nice and cool and dry. No problems."


First blood: Terrible Tee's war club makes its debut

It isn't noon yet and Willie has been joined by the boys at the Clump for a morning of serious drinking. Terrible Tee, who brought the liter of vodka to camp, can tell pretty quickly that things are going to turn ugly. She was only gone an hour to make a can run to a scrap yard over on the North Side. By the time she got back, Willie and a newcomer—a 29-year-old day laborer who, on this morning, gets tagged with the nickname "C-Note"—have already found their way to the bottom of the bottle. All the way to the bottom.

C-Note's eyes are glassy, his mood foul. Perched on the edge of a milk crate, he is talking about stealing copper pipes and how "fucking Mexicans are stealing our women" and, besides that, driving down wages. Then, abruptly, he is overwhelmed by the impulse to set himself apart from his newfound companions. "I never sat down here and drank with these fuckers before," he declares to no one in particular. At this, Terrible Tee casts a sidelong glance in C-Note's direction and decides to leave. "I can't believe they drank the whole bottle. Them guys were chugging," she whispers as she walks away. "You know, Willie doesn't usually drink that much." She doesn't know C-Note very well. She hasn't partied with him before.

A lot of the time, Tee's manner is sweet. She has a 100-watt smile, a pleasant, unlined face, and a hearty laugh. But among those who know her, she also has a reputation for considerable ferocity, which explains the nickname. Now 37, Tee has spent much of her adult life on the streets of Minneapolis. For two straight years, she says, she lived under a bridge with a guy because "I thought I was in love." She had a "beau" on the streets named Back Track, whose baby she carried. The baby died. So did Back Track. Someone broke his jaw and he walked out of the hospital with a bottle of liquid codeine and that was it. "I told him, 'Back Track, you drink a lot, don't be overdoing it,'" Tee recalls. "He said, 'I won't.' That was the last time I seen him. He passed out in the sun by the Basilica and died."

Tee grew up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, one of 10 kids in a family that lived in Ponemah, the reservation's most remote and traditional village. The best times of her life—"so far," she adds hopefully—were on the reservation. She laughs when she talks about how she and her sister used to get wild during the long bus rides to high school, how they jerked around the tribal cops at any opportunity, how they raised hell. But by 1991, Tee was both bored and looking to escape a problematic marriage. "If I would have stayed, we'd probably still be together," she says of her ex-husband. "That man can sweet-talk me." Though she remarried since, and remains married, she considers herself an independent operator. She doesn't want any man ruling over her.

As a woman in a rough world, Tee had to learn to take care of herself. She's had her share of scrapes, has been arrested for bar fights and trespassing and once did a 60-day stretch in county up north. She says she's made just one trip to detox, which was enough. But she says she has had surprisingly little serious trouble on the streets. "I guess it's the way I carry myself," she theorizes. Nonetheless, she takes precautions to protect herself. When she was sleeping at the Clump this summer, she stashed sticks and rocks in various spots just in case. "Every little nook and cranny has something there for me to use. It doesn't matter what side of that Clump of Woods I'm on. If I'm fighting I can reach something. But usually it's quiet here."

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.

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."


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.

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."


"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.'"

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."

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."

Tee hands Willie the remainder of a day-old cocktail, a fruit juice and vodka mix. Willie tucks it into the corner of the tent for safekeeping. Tall Joe takes a tug of beer. He looks at Willie and urges him to get dried out. "All the drinking and partying we're doing is just a slow way of committing suicide," Tall Joe says, tossing an empty into the trash heap. "And there goes another one."

After a little while, Dobson, Tall Joe, and Tee go on their way. Willie stays behind. "It was nice of you to drop by," he says. "Happy New Year."



The first week of the new year did not bring much in the way of good fortune to Willie or Tall Joe. Willie went missing for a few days. When he finally surfaced back at the Clump of Woods, he told Dobson that he woke up at Hennepin County Medical Center with no idea how he wound up there. He remembers that his bad leg was hurting terribly and that he was drinking hard. Then nothing.

On the first Sunday of the new year, Dobson made his regular stop to visit the North Side Boys. Tall Joe was there. In the middle of the fellowship, he went into a convulsive seizure and was taken by ambulance to HCMC. "My alcohol level got too low," he explained a week later when he was back on the streets. In the interim, he reported, the city boarded the house where his buddies were squatting. He'd been couch surfing, still hoping to get into treatment.

For Terrible Tee, the new year brought a better sort of change: She got an apartment of her own.