Laurie Notaro Has a Hobo Problem

Laurie Notaro is an author, crafter, and expert at finding a good cocktail. She grew up in Phoenix, but is currently based in Eugene, Oregon. Each week, she'll be joining us to share a crafting adventure, draw a flowchart, or remember a few of her favorite things about Phoenix. Today, she tells the story of her recent encounters with hobos and yoga people.

"Holy shit, there's a body in there!" my husband said as he looked at me with wide eyes and backed away from the bushes he had been poking at a moment ago.

I just shook my head and closed my eyes.

"You know what?" I yelled loud enough for all of our neighbors to hear me. "I HATE THE YOGA PEOPLE! I hate them! This is all of their fault!"

I was enraged. It was all of their fault; after all, I was certain to a reasonably certain degree that someone from the yoga studio behind my house had reported everyone on my side of the street to the city and we all received warning letters of complaint as a result.

Apparently, the hedges that lined the back portion of our yards became something of an inconvenience to the people who decided to start using our alley as a short cut into the yoga parking lot, and they wanted the problem addressed.

If the bushes were a little overgrown and a branch had the yearning to reach out and scratch a Range Rover driven by a woman in a tank top and jeggings, I wouldn't know, but I sure would laugh if I did. The alley is not some place that we wander freely, mainly because it is not territory that belongs to us.

Once you step out of the back gate and into the hinterlands, it's like stepping into Narnia, but one that smells like urine and constantly has the clanging of glass bottles knocking together as they jostle about in a freshly stolen Safeway shopping cart, which I have since learned is the native call of the hobo.

I'd like to mention here that some people have insisted to me that "hobo" is an impolite term, and that I should use something a little more politically correct, like "residentially-challenged" or "free-range tenant." But frankly, I don't see a problem with the word hobo, nor do I understand why some people believe it to be derogatory.

I believe "hobo" to have a genteel, jaunty connotation to it; I believe it to be a jocular reference to someone might have fallen on hard times but is making the very best go of it. I would much prefer picture my hobo humming to himself, happy all the time, carrying around his stuff on a stick and taking a sip from a flask every now and then than opening my eyes to the fact that a residentially challenged squatter is shooting up methamphetamine between his toes roughly 30 feet from my back door.

All of the neighbors knew we had a something of a diverse population in our alley due to our proximity to downtown and a Safeway, a hub for cashing in glass bottles for five cents apiece.

Due to their serve-yourself soup bar, Safeway also became the hobo restaurant of choice, and that was evident by the amount of folks with bits of grass stuck to the backs of their flannel shirts gulping down a cup of minestrone under the cover of a Pepperidge Farm end cap.

As a result, I will eat foodstuffs shipped directly from China before I eat anything from that store that hasn't been hermetically sealed by a machine, and that's not elitist. That's just called being adverse to open sores on or about the mouth area. I don't have them now. I don't want them later because I defied the odds and carelessly dove into a vat of Tuscan Tomato Herpes Bisque.

Even the day that I went searching in the back hedge for my dog's ball and found something quite different didn't really upset me all that much. There, tucked into an open space in between branches, was basically a hobo RV -- a piece of cardboard, a Little Caesar's pizza box, and a bag of empty soda cans that were undoubtedly headed for return at Safeway, followed by a bacchanalian chicken noodle feast.

You know what I did? Nothing. I left the stuff there. I figured that if the hobo needed a place to store his stuff, I was okay with it.

Then came the day a year later when I noticed something odd in my garlic bed. There were "deposits" in uncouth places.

I put a lock on the back gate and I moved on.

The following week, after a week of rain and freezing temperatures, I discovered a structure of sorts under my back gate, bridging the muddy span between the alley and the backyard for easy, unencumbered passage consisting of boards probably ripped off of my neighbor's fence. It was work unfettered by details and constructed by someone who subsisted on a strict diet of soup.

The week after that, my little dog woke me up at 6:30 a.m. to alert me that something was amiss at our front door. After I stumbled down the stairs, I found a man I had never seen before standing in front of my neighbor's house, who turned and ambled across the street with the speed of a threatened silverback as soon as I opened the door. Within three seconds, he was quickly on my porch as clouds of frost shot out of his mouth and he waved his arms boldly about.

"I need gas!" he demanded, his eyes bulging. "I need lawnmower gas right now! How much do you have? I'm going to the Four Corners!"

"We don't have a lawnmower!" I replied quickly, which was equally insane because he should have known that. There was no doubt in my mind that he'd been in our backyard. A hobo doesn't go very far without his stuff, maybe a block or two, so that meant that his base camp was nearby. Very nearby.

Aside from that, I would never give a hobo gas, even if I did want him to relocate to another state.

In Phoenix, a hobo arsonist tried to set out backyard on fire in the middle of the night and there I was when the fire department arrived, holding a hose and wearing just a tank top and a pair of Fruit-of-the-Loom white cotton briefs. You only need to make that mistake once.

I shut the door quickly and couldn't help being disappointed. He didn't have a bandanna on a stick, he wasn't humming and he did not seem jolly in the least. My hobo was mean. And high. He was just a crack head that really would drive a lawnmower to the border of Arizona and Utah without a picture ID and like someone who was not at all bothered by the fact that he had become unaccustomed to using toilet paper.

That was the last time I encountered the hobo or any sign of him, except when I saw him at Safeway several months later, pushing a stolen grocery cart full of stuff including a lampshade I thought I could really do something with.

Clearly, his dreams of reaching the Four Corners on a lawnmower had not been realized, and he had replaced that reverie with spitting at traffic instead.

Then the complaint letter arrived, giving us ten days to maintain the bushes in the alley or face a fine from the city. We bought a pole trimmer, unlocked the back gate, noticed the bridge was gone--clearly if you lock out a hobo, he takes back his gifts-- and crossed the border into hobo Narnia.

We were halfway done when my husband shut off the trimmer.

"What's in there?" he asked, pointing hesitantly to the portion of the bushes he had just cut.

There was a large mass of something blue, several bags of empty soda cans and a pair of jeans.

"That's the hobo's apartment," I said nervously, shooting a glance down the alley in case was coming, even though I knew I'd hear the clatter of beer bottles before the spitting started.

"There's something in there," my husband said, leaning in closer. "Holy shit! There's a body in there!"

Now, I suppose it would be different if this was the first body my husband had suddenly found this year, but it wasn't (although I'm not allowed to write about it because it's "still not funny, Laurie," I just checked). The thought of an expired open-air tenant filled me with dread, fear, and most of all, anger. I couldn't believe this was about to happen again. After the last body (still not funny; I checked again) it took two weeks of watching the entire catalog of Pixar movies and eating Dominos pizza every night before my husband had calmed down enough to resist poking me every time I closed my eyes.

This was really unfair. I didn't want him to go through that again, and personally, I can only watch Cars 2 once a year. If the yoga people didn't insist on using the alley as their own personal street and then feel they had the right to complain to the city that our bushes were scratching their cars, we wouldn't be back here in the first place.

My anger turned to rage

"You know what?" I yelled loud enough for all of our neighbors to hear me. "I HATE THE YOGA PEOPLE! I hate them! This is all of their fault!"

"I agree. I hate them, too. Now help me," my husband said as he reached toward the mound, and with gloved hands, we each pulled the bundle of blue out. It wasn't heavy, but then again, it's not like you can't stick a mummy in a backpack and hike out of a tomb with it.

I shuddered. The wave of anxiety swallowing my insides grew larger when we had pulled what turned out to be a filthy blue comforter out of the bushes. Under it, I saw the outline of a body on its side, bent at the knees and one arm under what the head.

I took a deep breath. "How do we do this?" I asked my husband, since he was the one wit the experience. We pulled the comforter back at the same time, expecting to see our hobo, now done in leather.

But there was nothing. Just leaves. Lots of leaves and dirt. The comforter was empty. No body. No dead hobo. No Ratatouille and a large Meat Lovers on the menu for tonight. It had been undone.

We simply looked at each other as we dropped out respective corners and exhaled huge sighs of relief. From behind me, I heard a crunching sound, like tires on gravel, then a short honk of a car horn. I turned to see a Volvo, a nice, new shiny Volvo, stopped and waiting for us to get out of the way. I waved slightly, and as the driver drove slowly past toward the parking lot of the yoga studio, she waved back.

"Sor-ree!" she grinned in a huge white smile. "I need to get to class."

I shook my head. "No problem! We were in your way," I said as I smiled back, then quickly added, "Hey! Would you like some homegrown garlic?"

Stay tuned for new adventures with Laurie Notaro, and catch up on a few classics in any of her books including The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club: True Tales from a Magnificent and Clumsy Life,It Looked Different on the Model, I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies), There's a Slight Chance I Might Be Going to Hell, and An Idiot Girl's Christmas at Changing Hands, on Amazon, or through her website.

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Laurie Notaro