Caveman draws an unsteady circle around the letters "usa," which fall smack-dab in the middle of the word he just scrawled on a notepad: "Jerusalem." Middle America, you see, is the new Holy Land, he says, though it doesn't quite look like it from here.
He gazes out at the degradation around him. About 50 feet above on the Hermitage Avenue Bridge, tires pound seams in the asphalt in iterations of axles.
"See, His sons and daughters are living under the bridges," Caveman continues, gesturing with a tanned arm at the collection of plywood hovels and post-modern tarp wickiups staved into the dense undergrowth and stands of ash. "Most people here are fatherless."
A rock layer by trade, Caveman's hands are like sandpaper. They call him Caveman because he used to mine limestone in caves. His blue eyes dart from beneath a palm-leaf cowboy hat as he rubs his thick, reddish beard.
Up against the bridge's graffiti-covered pylons, Caveman's tent has a blue tarp draped over its tiny dome. He takes it all in, then delivers his assessment with all the gravity of a traveling proselytizer: "And the meek shall inherit the earth."
But for the 30 or so who inhabit Tent City, their rent-free inheritance will be coming to an end soon.
A recent stabbing here has drawn the scrutiny of police. The place is swarming with rats and strewn with garbage and raw sewage, forcing officials to declare it uninhabitable.
Outreach workers have asked for time to relocate the squatters here, with the city granting a temporary reprieve. But sooner or later, Tent City will be no more.
This at-times violent, besotted collection of cast-offs, criminals, working stiffs and would-be prophets seems ripped from the pages of Cormac McCarthy's vagabond epic, Suttree. But aside from the politics swirling overhead, the washed-out reality of Tent City life is one that must be seen to be appreciated.
Head from the bridge down a wood chip path, past mildewed foam cushions and sprawling piles of malt liquor bottles, past the five-gallon buckets filled with shit and commensurate reek, and the staccato rumble of the bridge dissipates into the trees.
In a clearing, you'll find Ed inside a shotgun shack covered over with some sort of vinyl billboard tarp. Depicted on it is a handsome man with rakish hair grinning hugely, his teeth clenching a cigar. Inside, Ed lounges in a tattered recliner. The air smells of wood smoke and damp cloth.
By Tent City standards, this place is considered opulent. He has a wood stove the former fabricator welded himself out of a 55-gallon drum.
It was after losing his job that he came here around seven years ago. Back then, it wasn't quite so crowded in Tent City. But when word spread of a place where the police don't hassle, where man or woman can take a leap off of the radar, and where the rule of law is about as indistinct as some punk's faded tag on the overpass above, more showed up.
"People come down here to hide out from the law, to hide from bounty hunters," Ed says. "Should they close this place? A part of me says yes and a part of me says no."
Ed shakes his head. The 52-year-old diabetic says that when the sun goes down, this place changes. Crack and cocaine stir up heads and booze aggravates old grudges. "A couple of women were beaten down out here and nothing was done."
Down here, the law has knuckles and steel-toed boots, justice and equanimity be damned.
A fire crackles nearby, fueled by dead limbs and cloth-covered plywood. Two aluminum pails sit on an iron grate above, with socks and a sweatshirt steeping in boiling water.
A young buck named Sosa strides past with an armload of firewood. He is lean, almost skinny, but his neck is thick. His sleeves are rolled up around sinewy forearms. Sosa was about 50 pounds heavier when he got here, but tent living eats you up, he says. On his nose sit a pair of hip, square-rimmed glasses—though one lens has a hairline break.
He's the antithesis of the hard-luck story that proliferates in these ragged shelters. Sosa chose this. He talks of growing up in a militia, a martial culture of outdoorsmen who sought exile.
Though born in Iowa, he's lived in 17 states, and was indoctrinated and trained in Wyoming, Tennessee and Arizona. It's an insular world of strict constitutionalists, he says, who would bleed for the right to bear arms and their obligation to overthrow corrupt governments.
Sosa will also tell you frankly that he's a racist, though his hatreds are wrought of irreconcilable cultural differences, he says, not color.
When he arrived in Tent City five months ago, he saw it as a chance to continue that self-sustaining outdoor lifestyle. What he found was disorganization and all the lawlessness of a gold mining camp. So he says he attempted to band this ragtag group together.
Sosa became the unofficial enforcer, someone who'd bust heads to right inequity. Others in the camp see it quite differently. They see Sosa as the bad element that brought about the end—a ruffian who dealt nothing more than booze-fueled beatings.
Sosa grips a hatchet in one hand. His misshapen knuckles bulge like a street fighter's. "If you have at least a low-level government it can function with peace...homeostasis, I guess."
Equilibrium, though, won't be found here.
After a drunken brawl some say Sosa was a part of, a man was stabbed just down the trail. And so the curtain began to close on this community. The spotlight of public attention was fixed on them, and the police were forced into action.
The militiaman has since given up on bringing order to Tent City, if that was ever his intention to begin with. He's getting out.
He and a few friends plan on getting a house early next month. Sosa's striped pit bull comes barreling through the camp. It tosses a 20-pound plastic spool around his feet. Its teeth are worn to nubs. Its last owner, Sosa says, trained the pit to attack boulders—just another misfit in a city of misfits.
"This could have been a great place to live," he says, eyeing the detritus littering the ground, the air heavy with excrement. "But people didn't keep their shit clean. I hope it rots in fucking hell."
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