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.