Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Deplorables


by Arlo Hennings 

I followed the address deep into the bowels of the inner city to an area of Minneapolis called Taco Town. Part of the neighborhood was essentially an abandoned strip of land that served as the foundation for a large bridge that spanned the Mississippi River. Most of the houses there were boarded up with Do Not Trespass signs nailed over the doors. Long overdue for development, the derelict neighborhood had dilapidated buildings that felt haunted.

The house matching the address was tilting sideways from rot. I gave the gray, paint-flaked door two hard knocks. A tall, young man soon appeared in the doorway. He was wearing an army helmet with an American flag painted on it, no shirt, and a black leather vest. He looked at me over his pink eye bags, studying me suspiciously as he pulled at his stringy, shoulder-length hair, and proclaimed, “You don’t look like a narc.” I replied by looking him straight into his eyes and shaking my head no for reassurance. 

“Is this the place where I can find a ride to L.A?” I asked.
“Come on in,” he welcomed me, “the ceremony is about to begin.”

I followed my host into a combat zone, stagnant with the stench of cigarettes, beer, garbage, and ammonia. The kitchen sink overflowed with dirty dishes. The walls were full of fist holes. In the center of the living room was a splashing puddle made by a steady stream of water coming out of the ceiling fed by a broken toilet upstairs. Blankets covered the windows, and bed sheets were stretched over four chairs to replicate a MASH tent.

I continued following him across the room, while noticing fast-food wrappers and crumbs all over the floor, haphazardly discarded. As my eyes adjusted to the room, five more shoulder-length-haired men wearing headbands and military fatigues came into view. They were sitting on the floor in a pow-wow circle, around a legless table inside their make-believe MASH tent, passing a joint. In the table’s center was a small multicolored, Day-Glo painted trashcan. A badly scratched Kid Rock record album was playing in the background. I guessed them all to be in their 20s.

“Who’s the recruit?” questioned one of the young men wearing a red bandana.
“Who gives a shit?” another guy shouted, “We’re all brothers in the lockdown.”

The guy who let me in nodded toward me with a thumbs-up in acknowledgment then continued to glance and nod at each one in the circle, as he exclaimed, “Any brother of the anti-stay at home revolution is automatically in... right?”  

All six hands, including the guy who let me in, rose with the goal post fingers. My fingers went up in agreement with a nod and a grin. They gave me the impression that I was being sworn into an important mission. My host gestured toward a spot for me to have a seat, and so I did. 

“I found a post on the wall of the old West Bank community free kitchen with an address that led me here,” I explained, loud enough I thought they could all hear. I went on to ask, “Are one of you guys planning to drive to L.A?” And making sure I attempted eye contact with everyone in the circle, I added, “I’m looking to hitch a ride.”

“That would be me,” answered the guy who let me in. “Let me introduce my friends.” He extended his hand to offer a handshake, but when I tried to shake his hand he jerked it back. “Your mother,” he joked, as he poked his large thumb into my chest.

“They call me Spaghetti Man,” he continued, “and to my right here, is Crazy Dave.”  He went around the table with the introductions, “Rodent, Silly Billy, P.T. Barnum, and Sgt. Screw.” 

The troupe each flashed a goal post sign when their name was announced. Spaghetti Man pulled a flask out of his vest pocket, took a hit, and passed it to me. “Aye, those bastions,” he chortled like a pirate, with a jeering look on his face, followed by a loud long belch. Then my jolly host added, “Nurse! Bring me a drink from Bacchus’s private stock for my new friend.”

After my eyes were feeling more well adjusted to the dimly lit room, I saw that Spaghetti Man’s face was the shadowy white color of washed marble. Up close, he had a just-woke-up glaze over his flaky, crimson eyes- similar to eyes I’d seen on the face of roadkill. I later learned, Spaghetti Man was so named, because when he was high on barbiturates he’d crash into things and fall a lot, then get back up to reenact the fall — thus, resembling a wet human noodle. 

 “Aye, it’s a fine day in the lair of the minotaur,” Rodent sputtered, while his head seemed to shake uncontrollably. The Rodent had bright white, straight hair, and a sharp nose that protruded from a chunky face. Because he was prone to being unscrupulous with money, the gang called him by that which he resembled — a rat. Rodent grew up without a father. His mother and his sister, who was impregnated by her stepfather, were both midgets and collected state aid. The Feds had Rodent’s welfare number and were questioning his mother regarding his whereabouts.

Crazy Dave patted Spaghetti Man on the back, as he grabbed the flask, and had a big gulp. Crazy Dave earned his nickname by hiring the gang to drive him insane while under the influence of Lysol-laced cough syrup, so when interviewed by Social Security Disability they would see that he was, in fact, crazy and issue him benefits.

“When did you get out of the hospital?” he asked and took another pull off the flask.
“Three days ago,” Spaghetti Man replied, raising his head like a heavy shield. He picked up a cane and began jabbing at the air, and explained to me, “I beat the cops by jumping from a second-story window. They’ll never get me into their fake news.”

“How do you feel? Does it hurt?” Crazy Dave inquired while examining his legs.
“Well, I can’t bend my legs...” Spaghetti Man groaned, “and I’m supposed to go back and have the plates removed.” I felt sad when I saw his damaged legs. In trying to outrun the law, this heavy, muscular man would never be able to run again. 

“May I propose a toast?” Crazy Dave blurted-out robustly, raising the flask, “Hail the revolution.” At an imaginary line between Earth and heaven, he made a high sign.

The group responded unanimously. The conversation changed to a raid report.
“I scored,” Spaghetti Man proclaimed, producing a tattered envelope from inside his coat. He read out loud, “Department of Internal Revenue Service, $1,200 stimulus check,” then added, “Congratulations, Rodent, your idea worked.” He dropped it into the center of the table as his contribution.
“Right on. That’s good for three months,” Crazy Dave nodded, as he grabbed the check and held it up to my face.
“All right, did anyone else score today? Remember the plan? If we’re going to meet David Duke at the rally we need more money.” He cleared a swath of the beer-stained table with his hand. “All right, who got what? Time for inventory... lay it down here.” 

Jobless due to the pandemic economic meltdown the group supported themselves by petty thievery, with a half-crocked idea that they were modern-day Robin Hoods and social distance freedom fighters. The stealing could be anything from bakery throw away, running out on a restaurant bill, working an unemployment scam, or selling phony pot. The group was as mixed up about their political beliefs as North Korea. They had deluded themselves into thinking that the ends justified the means. They waged battles against a system that was concerned for their lives. Although they were too radical for me I liked their Zeus energy and humor. Besides, I had nowhere else to go — and these guys had a record collection and plenty of free beer. 

“I stole six tubes of airplane glue and sold them to some kids on the corner,” Silly Billy proudly announced. Silly Billy was opposite the man’s nickname because he was hardly silly. More accurate, he was a fearless lunatic. With his wild mashed-up eyes and half-smile, he had a cold, killer stare like a character right out of a Clint Eastwood movie. He could walk straight into a shop and rip them off because the clerks were too afraid to try stopping him. 

Sgt. Screw contributed, “I scored bread from a bakery.” He laid out two loaves. The largest and oldest one of the gang, Sgt. Screw wore a bushy brown caterpillar mustache that had made a nest over his top lip. I wasn’t sure whose fists created the rat holes in the wall, but Screw’s hands were big enough to take down the whole house. He had the demeanor of a gentle giant, however. It was hard for me to believe that he had been a real sergeant for an Afganistan search-and-destroy unit of the U.S. Army. He told me it was his job to take a team into the mountains and kill whatever they found, even women and children. He told a story of how he killed a young farm peasant in the name of duty. A story repeated so many times while I was around him, it felt like I knew every square inch of the desert field where it happened. 

P.T. Barnum shouted, “Viva the fucking revolution!” He was absent in making his contribution but wasn’t criticized for it. P.T. was the youngest of the gang. He looked like a circus clown with his bright red face on fire with acne. His hair was an electric Brillo Pad of coiled madness. He wore green Army fatigue pants and a tan fishing vest. His brothers and sisters enrolled at the Air Force Academy to escape the life of want that his suicidal father left them in, but he would hear none of it. The most well-read member of the gang, P.T. slept with a book in his hands and talked endlessly about buying a travel bus. 

The group shouted together in unison like pirates, “To the revolution!”

I didn’t know what these guys were high on, but if they shouted about the revolution one more time — I thought I might turn into Paul Revere and warn the town that the British were coming. I was given a musketeer-styled hat that had a long pink feather stabbed through the brim, and it was decided my spot at the table was on Spaghetti Man’s right side. 

“Can I borrow your belt?” Spaghetti Man asked Sgt. Screw. 

Without questioning the purpose, he removed his belt and handed it over. On the table lay several spoons. He bent the spoon’s handle back so it would balance on the table and hold liquid. Then he filled the spoon with water. Adding a packet of white sparkly powder, he mixed it into the spoon and said excitedly, “Come on, baby, light my fire.” 

He told me that he was hitting Pine-Sol. There was plenty for me, too, if I wanted. “It’s their high of choice because it offers the best protectant against the bug,” Spaghetti Man said as he produced a syringe. 

With the syringe, he carefully whipped the powder into a milky-white soup. He pulled the plunger and the plastic cylinder filled with a liquid that looked like sour cream. He held up the syringe and flicked it, like a nurse, to make sure there was no air in the chamber. 

“Give me your arm, Crazy Dave.” He strapped the belt around his right arm and pulled it tight. Roller-coaster eyed, he injected him with the syringe. He drove the syringe halfway between his hand and elbow into a large blue vein. 

“Sweet Jane,” Crazy Dave spit out as he watched a line of blood trickle down his arm.
Two more times he jacked the plunger into Crazy Dave’s arm. And then, refilling the syringe, Spaghetti Man stabbed it into his glowing vein. 

The group watched with thrill-filled eyes as they waited their turn. One by one they shot up with the same syringe. I had never seen anyone shoot up before. I was both terrified and fascinated at the same time. The idea entered my mind to stick my arm out and be as daring, but I chickened out. I couldn’t do it. Rodent, who was the last to use the syringe, dropped it on the floor, without noticing, as he said with a wavering voice, “We need an airport for all these goddamn flies.”  

There was one fly, I think, or just an imagined buzzing insect. 

Spaghetti Man called out, in orgasmic, short-of-breath stutters, “I know what to do with those fucking flies.” He pulled Crazy Dave onto his lap and rubbed the top of his head. “Right down the middle,” he chuckled, and the room filled with laughter. Pointing to a brown paper bag, he added, “Hand me my barber kit.” Someone handed it to him, and he dumped the contents out onto the table. A roll of toilet paper, razor, and shaving cream fell out of the bag. 

Crazy Dave sat there like a wooden dummy, too stoned to resist. With trembling fingers, Spaghetti Man parted his hair down the middle. Pointing the shaving cream can over his head he let a white foam snake loose. “A whipped cream Mohawk,” he shouted. “Now for the finishing touch.” Bemused, everyone watched as he drew the razor down the center of Crazy Dave’s scalp, and then rinsed the razor in beer. He pointed at a new one-inch-wide flesh canal down the middle of his head. “Now we have a landing strip for the flies,” Spaghetti Man announced. The remark solicited a round of belly laughs. Next, he placed a row of what appeared to be tubes of lipstick on the table.
“No ceremony is complete without war paint,” he slurred and drew a red line underscored by blue across his cheekbone. Everyone followed by making similar markings on their foreheads and chins. The war paint was placed in my hand, and they all eagerly waited for me to decorate myself, as well.
“Give me your pinky finger and swear,” Spaghetti Man commanded me. “Let’s swear from this point forward that we never keep the truth from one another. Okay?” 

I agreed with an interlocked pinky finger.

“To be a member of the anti-stay-at-home resistance you must have an alias name. Here in the underground, we all go by nicknames. Therefore, I think we should call you Arlo because you look like that folk singer with your guitar and you seem to be a witty guy.” Spaghetti Man went on, “All those in favor, give me the high sign.” He put his right hand up in the air, and the rest of the guys each raised their own, and the whole group said, “Arlo,” in agreement... and so, from that day forward, I’ve been known to go by that name.
My new identity as a patriot fighter was mostly that of a spiritual scavenger sent on urban search-and-find missions. My hustle options were few. I could go with Silly Billy, who said the gays in the park would blow me for $20. I could sell fake pot to the suburban kids on the West Bank, stick food down my pants at the grocery store, sell my blood at the blood bank, or dine and dash. My favorite option, however, was to panhandle with my guitar.

On most weekend nights, the main drag on the West Bank was taking a beer bath. Hundreds of university students packed the cafés and bars with loud conversation and cigarette smoke. Between a café and a bookstore, I headed down an alley, which ended at the first bakery. Inside a large, green dumpster, I found several bags of donuts and bread that were sealed in clear plastic. One bite almost broke my teeth, so I spit it out. Before I could place my hands on a loaf of bread from the next bakery dumpster, I discovered that maggots had beaten me to the plate.  

Defeated at dumpster diving, I decided to put my pillowcase on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop and started to play my guitar. To my surprise, a nickel, quarter, and even a dollar or two landed at my feet. 

Robin Hood’s merry junkies started fighting with each other and the nightly party ended in blood and bruises. Arguments ensued about their plans. I overhead talk about joining the KKK, taking out the Minneapolis DNC office. I didn’t want to participate in any plan they hatched. L.A. was no longer part of their discussion, anyway. So, I packed my things and wished them well with the Revolution.
The Revolution, however, wasn’t so easy to walk away from. The day I had planned to hit the road, the house was invaded by a different kind of war party.

Seven, large ICE agents busted through our door like charging buffalos and pinned each one of us down.
“Where are you I.Ds?” demanded one of them.
“We got nothing,” Spaghetti Man sputtered, as he choked on the buck knife pressed to his throat.
Another one from the group, decorated in medals, “You got pot? I can smell it. Don’t lie to me, or you die!”
P.T. was knocked to the ground, Rodent was pulled by the hair, and Crazy Dave felt a blade across his face, instead of the top of his head.
“Wet backs want to steal our land?” One member of the bust nearly broke off Rodent’s arm.
Silly Billy’s nostrils flared as a knee thrust into his back.
Two of the party began to kick furniture around, looking for anything of value — guns, stereo, money, or drugs.  
We needed the oldest and biggest of the gang, Sgt. Screw to the rescue. Unfortunately, he left earlier. He’d know how to fight back.
Amid the chaos, two more agents entered the house. They were dressed in casual business clothes and wore a crew cut short hair. They looked around and frowned at the men holding us down.
“We thought they were illegals,” the largest of raiders said, still holding his knife firmly to Spaghetti Man’s Adam’s apple.
“Let them go. They’re nobodies the suit said.
Then the day ended as I headed out to find a way to L.A. and the group said they were marching for their anti-quarantine rights. 

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

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