"Everybody says lies only make things worse, but when the truth sucks, how much worse can a lie make it? What if makin’ shit up is all you can make? What if lies are all you got left to spend?”
"Everybody says lies only make things worse, but when the truth sucks, how much worse can a lie make it? What if makin’ shit up is all you can make? What if lies are all you got left to spend?”
For more than a month a couch house sat against the fence across the alley from Peace House Community.
Several weeks ago, two police cars came by. A city mower had been unable to cut the grass along the freeway access because of trash tossed over the other side of the fence. (Much of the debris had come from a van that may or may not have been associated with the couch camp. I suspect a scheme to scrap out a bunch of electronics failed and the van's space was rearranged for occupancy.)
The cops ordered a clean-up of the makeshift shelter, but a week later the couch was still there, turned back on its feet after heavy rains must have made the small enclosure uninhabitable. When I last saw it more than a week ago, the cushionless couch was still a magnet for trouble.
I returned to Peace House on Friday. The couch was gone and a brown rectangle in the grass was the only sign anyone had lived there. Apparently the police told them it was okay to spend the night but they had to break down the camp each morning—an impossibility given the couch was the basic structure of the shelter.
Its presence had been an emblem of the challenges facing this section of the city, which has more or less been ceded to low-income housing, supportive housing, rehab facilities, poverty-focused mission churches, county detox and mental health services.
Concentrating in one area makes sense for service providers and for poor populations with limited mobility. It also makes sense for drug dealers and addicts. Some private property owners who rent rooms to tenants on public assistance make an effort to keep out people who don't belong, but the old houses don't have full-time security, so the squatters come in after the evening security sweep and leave before the morning check.
"Hardly anybody around here is sober," Calvin, a former crack user who now drinks beer, had told me. "Not being drunk doesn't mean you're sober."
But you can drink and still be on the right path, he suggested. The difference between the couch people and the people sitting in the room with us was a matter of constructive effort and being a contributing member of a community.
At Friday's meditation, we talked about managing depression during the approaching holidays, when maintaining good spirits can be especially challenging.
The group of roughly 40 shared a number of strategies and resources, including getting out of their rooms to centers that provide company, conversation or crisis services; exercise; and laughter.
Create your Pandora station to play only comedy that appeals to you, one man suggested. And take your meds, he added. Don't stop because you start to feel better.
Don't go looking for community under couches. Even in this forsaken corner of the city, it's around you if you ask.
On the street, even people sleeping out in the rain and waking up with a hangover can find someone else to look down on. Ranks of dissolution and recovery are further gradated by race, personality type, work ethic, degree of honesty, criminality or religiosity, etc.
Some of the Peace House Community members live in so-called sober houses, subsidized housing and low-rent rooms and apartments. Others sleep in parks, vehicles or camp in wild areas around the city. The best camps are hidden away from casual foot traffic and sheltered from the elements, but just about any place without a vigilant property owner will suffice temporarily.
People are alternately helpful, dismissive or scornful depending how these hierarchies shake out.
One of the clearer lines is drawn by the alley and how much time they spend on either side.
Across the alley from our back porch, there's a bare third-acre nestled in the armpit of the I-35W/I-94 junction. In the winter, the city dumps excess snow there and all spring, the pile slowly melts into a concentration of urban grit.
The parcel last sold for $2,100 in 2001 and is on the market now for $399,000, which shows that property-owners in this neighborhood tend to hallucinate, too.
This little wedge is where the folks congregate who aren't quite ready to join the community. They swoop in for the coffee and toast or hang around until after meditation to scoop up lunch. It's where someone can slip out of the community for a spell, sit under a cluster of trees and pass a bottle or a joint.
About a month ago, a beige faux-leather couch had been abandoned behind one of the rental buildings. (In this neighborhood, no one bothers to tape "Free" signs on things. It is assumed.) The couch migrated across the vacant lot and was turned upside-down against the cyclone fence that fronts the access ramp onto 35/94.
Imagine the fort you could have made if your mom would've let you tip over the couch. Now the seat forms a wall and the back is a roof.
The shelter stood that way for a few weeks, acquiring side curtains and some furnishings that include a red plastic dairy crate and matching red wooden chair.
In the past week it has obtained additional waterproofing and siding. Now instead of being an overturned couch that might just be, well, an overturned couch, the place looks like the last place on earth where you would go for happy hour.
However, some do.
A revolving cast of characters comes around there—some sketchy, some downtrodden, some who appear to look out for the sketchy and downtrodden. Others who profit from them.
Another ambiguity of looking across the alley: it's hard to tell whose place it is, who's invited and who's encroaching. Not that any of it is my business.
But today a mother came looking for her son. She'd gotten a call from him saying he'd be waiting for her on the front step of Peace House. Except he wasn't there.
Words passed around and it was determined the transgender kid who'd been here earlier was her child. Antoine, a muscular black dude in a black tank top knew where to find him.
Antoine, a man I guarantee would frighten you if you met him in the alley, ducked into the Happy Hour couch and roused the kid, who emerged looking more doped up than when he was with us.
The mom was remarkably cool. She could have been your realtor, your kid's teacher, your boss.
"Look at your hair," she said. "It's a mess."
I wanted to say, look at his/her eyes. There's the mess.
"I know where he hangs. Just call me if you're looking for him again." Antoine is in recovery and working through that final step of trying to carry the message and practice the principles.
The mother and Antoine exchanged contact information.
"I love you," he told the kid. "You gotta stay away from this."
But the kid was in a daze and there are more steps than you think to cross the alley.
"How do you like this neighborhood?" he asked. "Does it feel safe to you?"
I was locking my bike to a pole on his street. I knew better than to leave slack in the cable. Otherwise, an enterprising thief could lift the bike to the top of the pole and slip the cable around the sign. But that's a normal precaution. His block didn't worry me at all.
The grand houses nearby dated from the early 1900s, but they seemed in decent repair. A listless fiftyish man watched me from an Adirondack chair placed on the front lawn of a red brick mansion across the street. Supportive housing of some kind. Regular residences don't have those circles for smoking outside.
Next door, a woman with Down syndrome arrived in a Metro Mobility van. The driver escorted her to the oversized front door. A group home owned by the county, though you'd never know it from the street.
"You can lock it over by the fence and keep an eye on it out the window," my friend said, still projecting low-grade worry. He's a big guy, a former college athlete who played on a national championship team. The afternoon was bright. I honestly couldn't see any reason for his concern.
In fact, from where I stood I could see on the corner a house I had visited often for dinners and fundraisers. The owners are wonderful, generous folks who keep the mansion filled with generations of family, children of friends and foreign visitors, the kind of group home where people live because of affiliation rather than affliction.
My friend's building was out of character with the other architecture, an unremarkable yellow brick cube built in the Sixties, presumably after a big private home was demolished. With its vague mustiness, narrow hallway and thin, wrinkled carpet, it reminded me of my first apartment in Minneapolis, a neighborhood that raised eyebrows when coworkers learned I lived there. A place where people snapped their locks closed to drive through.
A place where nothing ever happened. Except once. Someone cut the lock on my bike and took off with it, but the manager of a nearby property ran down the thief and held him for the cops.
Now, of course, car doors lock automatically when you drive. You can search online for crime reports and have your feeds send by-the-minute updates of disasters from around the world.
We're assaulted with information that really has very little to do with our safety. With rhetoric and warnings designed to manipulate. We see stranger danger everywhere. Criminals. Terrorists. Random violence.
My friend was receiving signals I couldn't detect. I'm not certain they came from the external environment at all.
He thought he should have received his tax refund by now. Others had gotten them. He checked the mail, but nothing. The refunds can't all go out at once, I said. Give it a few days.
"I've got to get out of here," he said as we sat in his small, bare living room. "I've got to find somewhere else."
You realize I'm making up stories here, don't you?
I mean, I don't fabricate and I usually try to verify, but I'm still filling the blanks with some of my stuff, like we all do.
In fact, I specialize in stories about how often people tell themselves untrue stories about other people and the world, because they are so confident in their own experiences, perceptions and character judgment. I tell these stories to encourage others to look beyond what they believe to be the truth. And I accept that as an obligation in my own life.
Then, there's reality.
A few weeks ago, I told a poignant story about giving away a cherished but underused bicycle. If you haven't read it yet, you should go here and do so before you continue with this post.
This is where, if I had advertisers, I would insert an ad to create a little space so you don't just breeze on through.
[Post continues below]
Coming in October to independent booksellers, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
On Friday at Peace House, two weeks after I wrote the wistful account of the Sky Rider's fate—a fate, I might add, I accepted with grace—I saw Marsh again.
This time, he greeted me immediately when I entered the large common room.
And immediately, I knew why he was so much more effusive this time.
Because the Marsh I wrote about two weeks ago—the heavyset black man with the little beard evading me behind the sunglasses and hat—was not Marsh. As soon as I saw the real Marsh I thought, how could I be so blind, such a prototypical white dude, blending these two people into one, and inventing an explanation for the other Marsh's distance.
Oh sure, I thought I had the facts and a credible witness. But even more important, I had a story that satisfied my need to tell a story.
You gave me a bike that needs work, Marsh said.
I thought you got rid of it. Calvin said he saw someone else riding it.
Nah, nah, it's in my front room, Marsh said.
There were things he wanted to change on the bike but he didn't have the money because he owed a debt to Social Security thanks to his former case worker screwing him somehow. (A long story we will skip over, because at this point, Calvin appeared.)
You got me, I said.
You told me Marsh had unloaded the bike, that you'd seen it down on Lake Street.
Yeah, black, chrome fenders, with a big basket and its chain all rusty. A girl's bike, right?
Ah, man, I wasn't putting you on. I thought it was yours!
The peripatetic bike made such a compelling tale, wrapped up with a pretty good lesson about the perils of attaching expectations to the gifts we give. And I got to play the wise man, so that was cool.
But I suppose this story is just as good, if not better. And heck, it might even be truer.
One view was that footgear was unnatural, dirt and handshakes boosted immunity, and any grunge from the previous shower user was washed down the drain.
The other side held that sanitation was a great advance in civilization, a staph infection could result in amputation, and if you were in prison, clogs were not a bad idea.
The parties agreed that hand-washing was necessary in the surgical suite and broken glass should be avoided even if you believed in going barefoot. But Todd wouldn't relent on the dangers of infection.
His father flew helicopters in Vietnam, was exposed to Agent Orange and refused to talk about the war. He was not a bad man, Todd said. He was just messed up, and the government never helped him.
Out in the parking lot, Tosh (we'll call him) was raving about America's Jesus killing the Vietnamese, then the Arabs and now he was coming for the black people. This was not a popular topic of conversation and everyone ignored him because he talks to himself a lot.
Later, Tosh and Mac clashed antlers in the alley. Someone inside said the beef was over $5, but it could have been that Tosh was high or that Mac didn't want to take any crap from someone half his size. Security smoothed things out, but later Tosh came back. The doors were locked for meditation, but Tosh had a hammer in his hand.
This time three staff went outside to quiet things down and we paused our discussion about the importance of community.
"Why did he come back here with that?" Kat said. "He just wants attention."
Someone else said, let's talk about something peaceful, and everyone turned away from the windows.
We talked about how important watchful neighborhoods and family times had been to all of us, and how that sense of belonging seemed missing out on the street. We expressed appreciation for an oasis where all could feel equal and cared for.
"I decided I was wrong about Tosh before," Kat said. "I think he brought the fight back here because he knew someone would stop him."
Chances were fair that I would not see that bicycle again. It was a gift after all, and what of giving grants us the right of keeping?
I'd bought the Frankenbike long ago from the man who'd built it for himself out of parts from several cast-off bicycles—an old AMF "Sky Rider" coaster bike paired with a generic mountain bike fork and new Schwinn chrome fenders. A single speed with a moderately low gear that allowed you to climb any hill in the city, with fat tires that made it stable on snow and ice.
I kept it at the office for errands and downtown client meetings and once rode it home in a blizzard that locked down city traffic. Later, when we moved to a building that didn't allow us to bring bikes inside, I took it home, outfitted it with a newsboy basket and used it for grocery and beer runs. One spring I stripped it down to the bare steel and repainted it, but the rust from winter riding crept back again.
Adorned as it was with lost toys and stuffed animals I found on my rides, the bike never required locking when I went into a store. Who would want it? Or would risk the wrath of the crazy guy who rode it?
The bike had served me well, but a few weeks ago, I decided to part with it.
A fellow we'll call Marsh was looking for a bike to transport his stout self and shifting daily inventory of belongings. His previous one had either disintegrated or been sold for a few dollars. I told him I had an extra I scarcely used any more, and I showed him a picture. He was interested in the bike but not the rubber alligator, baby shoes and Barney Castle I employed for security.
He didn't have lock right now, he said, but he'd take the bike into his building at night. I knew he lived in a tower about a mile away and I warned him that the bike was heavy.
He told me he had an elevator, no problem, so we arranged for him to check out the bike the next week.
Without its decorations, The Sky Rider still looked cool, though Marsh was not particularly into its more subtle features, such as the rotary bell I bought from a Chinese street vendor, the vintage Mesinger seat and the front wheel's spokes braided by Namond, the Satanic Mechanic. I told Marsh the basket could haul forty pounds of groceries. He wanted to know why it was set at an angle and whether he could level it.
After cautioning Marsh to remember the bike had coaster brakes, I watched his slow test ride down the alley and back.
Yes, I thought, I'm ready to let it go. But I also realized I wanted to pass along the bike's history as well as the steel. I had loved that bike and I wanted it to have another loving home.
Duh. It was going to a former homeless guy, not a bike geek. To Marsh, my rolling repository of stories was a caravan of compromises.
A few days later I saw Marsh and the bike.
That bike bloodied me up five times! he said. My face, my leg, my arm.
You've got to remember to use the foot brake, I said.
You'll get used to it, I said.
He said he was taking it to the hardware store to raise the basket and get a hand brake installed on the rear.
After a week and half away from Peace House, I saw Marsh but not the bike. He wore dark wraparounds so it was impossible to make eye contact, and the fact he was avoiding me told me the bike was gone.
Calvin filled me in. He said Marsh complained the bike was too slow. Calvin said he told him, it's not the bike. You're too fat and carrying all that stuff.
The Sky Rider had passed through several hands already, Calvin said. He'd seen it on Lake Street the other day, still bearing the basket and fenders but without its Sky Rider gas tank. Marsh could never hold onto anything, Calvin said. He'll buy a bike or a DVD player in the morning and get high and sell it that night for a fraction of what he'd paid.
One day years ago I was riding the Sky Rider down Lake Street and I ran into the Satanic Mechanic himself. He told me he'd had no intention of selling the bike and now wished he'd kept it.
I don't regret giving it away. I knew this outcome was a possibility, although I'd hoped to follow the bike's adventures for awhile longer. I'd hoped it would give the next owner pleasure or at least make a small difference in his life.
But this is a story I can only tell. I don't get to write it.
Maybe the former Sky Rider will survive. Maybe it'll come back into Namond's hands as junk and he'll resurrect it once again.
The universe is an unpredictable place where things sometimes work out on their own.
[UPDATE: This story has evolved since I posted it. For more, read The Peripatetic Bicycle.]
Roxanne, a Native woman known to the Peace House Community, fell on some train tracks last weekend and had both legs severed. I'd heard about it on Tuesday and checked during the week for a news story with more information.
Searching, I found plenty of contemporary stories about a boy who lost a leg playing on tracks near Webber Park in April, and more about a Minneapolis lifeguard who had his lower legs taken in 2014. But nothing about Roxanne, even when I searched by her name.
Back at Peace House on Friday, I asked Ellie what she knew.
Roxanne was drinking with a guy on a hill above the tracks, she said. The guy shoved her when the train came by.
Did they catch the guy?
Roxanne says she doesn't remember who it was. Maybe she doesn't. Maybe she doesn't want to say. A guy tried to run over her in the park last year. His car hit the bench she was sitting on. If people hadn't seen him and pulled her out of the way, she could've been killed then.
What happened to that guy?
Oh, they caught him. He was driving on his rims by the time he left the park. But they were all drinking, and the cops didn't talk to all the witnesses. They let him go.
I told her I couldn't find out anything in the news about Roxanne being hurt.
They never report what happens to Natives, she said. Six people died of overdoses last month in the Cedar projects. It's getting real bad and nobody cares. Nobody says nuthin.
While the floors were being mopped, I went to the porch where the smokers can hang out. One of the men, who had a cigarette roller, made a cigarette for Ellie. He has a job on the cleanup crew at the new Vikings stadium and was waiting until three o'clock when he could pick up his first paycheck. He'd walked the seven miles from Richfield and would be walking back.
There was some stadium discussion up and down the porch about upcoming events. It eventually got sorted out as terms were defined: football vs. futbol, American football versus soccer.
A man came from the alley and joined us, sitting down and setting a small shopping bag at his feet. He pulled out a piss-colored liter bottle of Listerine and quickly upended it, glugging down a significant amount.
Hey, my friend, I said. You can't do that here. People come here to get away from that stuff. The others joined in, saying they wanted no part of it.
Oh, he said, this is my first time here. I thought you were just hanging out. He stood up, sheepish, not belligerent, and moved to the edge of the group. Maybe I'll come back some other day.
Come when you're not drinking, I said. You'll be welcome then.
The Listerine is 26.9 percent alcohol. Dollar store brands have less alcohol but are substantially cheaper. (Dollar General advertises a 1.5 liter bottle for $3.00.)
Someone said the drug stores in the vicinity wouldn't sell mouthwash to Natives because they knew it would be misused. I suspect a couple of the men looking down on the mouthwash drinker were nursing hangovers themselves. Drinking itself doesn't seem to be responsible for the caste lines that sometimes emerge.
Rather, it's knowing when to stop. How to avoid a fight. How to keep a room and a job.
How not to push a woman down a hill when the train's coming.
Come back next week, friend, and listen to some different people.
Calvin told me his brother was going for a job interview this afternoon. (Sometimes, I need to get to a job interview is a way of asking for gas money, which is a way of getting money for... you get the idea.)
But this is apparently legit. His brother just got out of prison and hopes to get the first job of his life at age 58. Technically, it's his second job. He was hired at a steel mill as a young man and a week later the company shut down the mill.
After that, he thought, what's the point of working for a company? Next he worked for Spot and Steal, Calvin said.
The job interview is in the housekeeping department in a hotel.
I used to work housekeeping, Calvin said. He told me about a contest for the staff. The worker who could make up bed the fastest and pass the inspection would win $100.
He practiced all week perfecting his technique, popping the sheets so they'd drop in place and he wouldn't have to fuss with smoothing them.
He scared off a few competitors by letting them watch him practice. There was one guy he knew was fast who he'd eventually face, so he didn't let anyone know about his secret weapon.
In the finals, the two men were close as they completed one side of the bed. As his competitor raced around to the other side, Calvin unleashed the secret weapon, leaping over the bed.
The move saved him a second or two, but it was the surprise factor and the whooping audience that made the other guy hesitate just enough.
Calvin collected the hundred.
I've met a number of intelligent people at Peace House during my first month. Their full-time job, it seems, is to manage an overflowing mind, thoughts that race, memories that won't fade, pain that sends signals all night.
The words come in long streams or they come out of nowhere, as from the man who sat down and wrote this one afternoon.
Tom is heading to St. Cloud where two twins are throwing surprise birthday parties for each other.
This makes total sense and it's crazy, too.
Yes, I'm at Peace House.
Bill hasn't had electricity in his room "for some time." It went out last fall, then came back on over the winter. Now it's out again. He stays out late rather than be in a room with no light.
Maybe the bulb's burnt out, said Calvin. You should get a ladder and check it.
I have a ladder, Bill said.
In your room?
Later I asked Bill why the landlord hasn't restored his power.
I haven't told them yet.
My room's in a bit of disarray, he said. You know, tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow.
On other weekdays, youngsters from local schools come in to get a dose of reality. They are sweet but they don't quite see everything.
One girl told Calvin it was her last day, and he said, it that case, you should go to Mel and ask him for your street name. He gives everyone their street name after they have finished here.
At the end of the day, she told Mel she had come for her street name.
It was a gentle prank, of course, aimed at putting Mel on the spot.
He didn't blink.
Snow White, he said.
The topic of guns somehow crept into our discussion about whether protests are effective.
One man said, "With my extensive mental record and extensive criminal record, it's easier for me to get a gun than it is to get an apartment or a lawyer to help me with my problems. So how do you think I am going to help myself?"
Do have a gun with you? Curt asked.
No, the man said.
Ellie says her sister was a bootlegger on the Pine Ridge Reservation. One day a man came in and screwed off his artificial leg as security for his purchase. A one-eyed man left a whole case of glass eyes in different colors. Yet another paid with his false teeth.
Why did you take those teeth? Ellie asked. What if he doesn't come back for them?
Someone will use them, said her sister.