Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter


Escape from the Night

This is how I defer cleaning my apartment for the coming inspection. The year of this story was 1997.  A small coastal town north of Mendocino, Calif. called Fort Bragg.

 Rooftops behind my Apartment

Rooftops behind my Apartment

With an oblique view from my bedroom window overlooking the parking lot behind Paul Bunyan’s thrift store, I stood just out of sight, watching the parade of night people coming and going. Some came to drop off donations; many came to pilfer. A sense of desperation and greed and wrong-doing pervaded the scene with people scurrying about in the dark under cover of dark clothing and hoodies. They didn’t want to be seen. They didn’t want to be recognized.

The thrift store provided employment and financial support for developmentally challenged and disabled people. After a night of thievery, it’s a wonder the worker volunteers find anything left in the morning that is worth selling. But the night people didn’t care that it was a community nonprofit organization created to help people, even those people who were stealing from the organization. For them it was a first-come first-serve help-themselves-buffet-of-goodies game. It was free and up for grabs, and that’s what counted.

People used the parking lot to dump their trash to avoid paying their own refuse fees.

After a night of pilfering and damage, the thrift store had to pay to clean up the area. They had to pay to haul damaged goods to the refuse site. As a consequence, they had few good donations left to sell for profit. All in all, it cost them precious monies used to help community people.

Every night, one by one, all through the night, people crept into the parking lot searching for the better donations—clothing, children’s clothes and toys, stuffed animals, a large stuffed purple Barney, electronic equipment, furniture, bicycles, exercise equipment, televisions, bed frames and old mattresses, and even stoves and refrigerators.

Dressed in big coats with hoods and carrying tiny flashlights, they scurried around in the dark. They tossed items from one spot to another, good items to good piles and the rest, just tossed. When they were all done it looked like a tornado had ripped through the parking lot – the concrete floor littered with junk, clothing, old toys, everything now dirty, wet from rain, or broken and unusable. Worthless. Profits for the thrift store transformed into scattered bits and pieces.

Some people tossed their own garbage in the bin behind the building. PB’s eventually put a lock on their dumpster, but even that wasn’t fool-proof. It only served to intrigue. The first night, two wily hooded gentlemen hammered for an hour to break the lock. Perhaps in their minds the padlock meant the bin was full of jewels. When they got it open, I heard them say, Shit, it’s nothing but garbage!

From my bedroom window every night, I spied a one-legged man waiting across the alley behind my apartment in his black Volvo with its darkened windows. When a person dropped off a donation, he moved his car the short ride from one parking lot to the other, got out, hopped on one leg around to the trunk, pulled out a wheel chair in which he sat and wheeled around while rummaging through the piles and boxes of donations. He found and took all the electronic equipment – radios, cassette players, TVs, stereos – and stuffed it all in the trunk of his Volvo, stuffed his wheel chair behind the front seat, and hopped back into the driver’s seat. He drove back to the other parking lot to wait again, waiting, night after night after night, sitting like a spider on the edge of his web ready to catch the next fly that flew into his sticky trap.

At the time I assumed he had an electronics repair business and was gathering material from the donations, making an illicit profit from items that might well have brought money to the organization. It dawns on me only now as I write this that maybe his purpose was altruistic, to collect the valuable equipment, clean it up and repair it for Paul Bunyan’s so they could sell it for a tidy profit. Maybe, just maybe he was a good spider, if there is such a critter!

Awakened bright and early one morning by a loud screeching sound, I got up to see a young man dragging a refrigerator down the alley. He was alone. All he could do was drag it, the metal scraping and screeching in protest. Someone called the police. They came, talked to the man, and left. They may have called the director of Paul Bunyan’s and received permission to help the guy move the refrigerator, for very soon they returned with a dolly and a truck. They loaded the fridge and the young man into the truck and took off. I thought it was the most kind and generous act of compassion I saw on that alley the whole two years I lived there. Kind to him, and kind to my ears and my night’s sleep. And the benefit to Paul Bunyan? They didn’t have to haul it to the dump or worry about little kids getting trapped inside an abandoned fridge.

Just in that moment’s musing of the good things we humans do for each other, a man teetered in a drunken stupor into my vision and urinated on a wall below my window. Damn! Why doesn’t he just go home to pee? Or find a gas station? He may have been homeless, or more likely, too drunk to know he had a home. At that time I wasn’t feeling too compassionate. Just don’t pee on my building! Oh, the indignation.

The alley was a convenient place for all kinds of odd and nefarious human and animal activities. It was dark and hidden, not patrolled by the cops, a no-man’s land on the baby-scale of no-man’s lands. And, as always looking for cheap rentals, I had landed in the middle of it.

I had moved to Fort Bragg on the California coast to find peace and quiet after my mother died. After having lived in hot valley towns like Chico, where it was often over 110 degrees in the summer,  and San Jose for eight years while I was a student, I longed for cool light and the majesty and power of the ocean. I wanted to paint the ocean and beaches and bridges in all their grandeur.

I soon discovered I had rented an apartment smack-dab in the middle of the movie Escape From New York, starring Kurt Russell and Lee Van Cleef. Although Fort Bragg was not a city prison as was New York in the movie, the events of the movie take place in the future and that future was 1997, exactly the year I had moved to Fort Bragg and discovered my nightmare neighborhood.

In the movie, the prisoner scavengers and rival gangs scurried about like rats during the day in the sewers and subways, living underground in the great maze of New York’s underbelly that WW III had left almost in tact. By night, they were above, out in full force, lawless, pillaging, killing, raping and torturing. It was a raging battle for survival and political power among the inmates. They controlled the night.

Like in the movie, the Fort Bragg night people came alive under the shroud of darkness and their hoodies, while I stood at my window watching it unfold, the light of flashlights flickering on the dark screen in the dark places of my mind. During the day, I looked out that same window, gazing over the rooftops into the distance to the ocean’s white light, the glare almost too much to bear as it returned me to sanity.

I must leave this place, I remember thinking.


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