Sunday, November 07, 2004

Hanging Out In Alleys

My little house has a detached garage that opens onto an alley, well sort of opens into the alley. The garage, like my house, is quite old; but unlike the house there doesn't appear to have been much of an effort made to at least keep it functional. The roof is sagging and the shingles are only half there, with the remaining ones curled up like a snarled lip. There are two sets of swing-out doors, one I've made permanently unusable after a break-in and the other is barely hanging on...I've sort of rigged them to stay shut.

There were two couples that lived here between 1920 and 2001, and then the yay-who who bought it as a rehab before selling it to me after one year (he is supposedly a contractor, but based upon the quality of the work he did in here I would say he will be out of business soon). Until today I only knew that the last couple (before the yay-who) lived here for about 40 years. But today I learned a whole lot more from an 83 year-old German man named Otto Schwartz.

I decided to try and get my car in shape for the impending cold of winter so today I went to the auto parts store and picked up an air filter, some fuel injector cleaner and some anti-freeze; I then headed over to Costco (don't ask me how I can justify shopping at Costco but swear off Wal-Mart)and grabbed a new battery. It was a nice afternoon so I came home, dug out the dirt in front of one of my garage doors and parked in the alley. I had tunes playing as I was working on getting the old battery out when I first noticed this huge wolf-dog combo and his tiny companion, a sort of raggie mutt. They were strolling down the alley towards me, stopping to sniff garbage cans and the scent of their kind, depositing their own to mark their passage. It was the strangest pair of dog-friends I'd ever seen and was cause for a pause. The big dog strolled past me without hardly acknowledging my presence, but his scrappy friend came right up for a pet. As I was watching them stroll off, an old pickup truck, its' back end stacked with cardboard idled by me and stopped about 10 feet away, behind the dumpster of the gas station that occupies the lot behind me. Out came a scruffy character with full bushels of blackish hair coming out of each ear. His eyes were as blue as the ocean and the hair on top of his head was white as white can be. He had scratches on his nose and wore layers of clothes, all in various stage of decay and covered with dirt. I wasn't sure whether to greet him or ask him if he needed help. He did the honors, telling me he was there to get the discarded cardboard and aluminum cans. What transpired over the next hour was a rambling conversation about his "hobby", the state of city government, the corruption at the BFI landfill, the construction of dams in North Dakota and Montana, "girlie" magazines and other high priced-booty obtained from dumpsters, German homesteading in North Dakota and the former Italian immigrant railroad worker who used to live in my house.

The source of all this information and a majority of the talking was Otto Schwartz, the disheveled dumpster diver described above. Otto is 83 and has lived in Missoula ever since he finished his last dam building job in Idaho. He took a job at the city landfill and eventually became director of the landfill, losing his job after BFI purchased the dump from the city. A flamboyant character, otto is probably the type of guy that the Mayor's office considers a pain in the ass. otto frequently goes to city hall to complain about whatever is on his mind...from our conversation I gather what is on his mind quite a bit is how the city manages development, parking, trash collection and the treatment of the elderly. He had a great time telling me about dumpster diving, which he says is a result of the years he spent at the dump. He collects a little bit of everything that he can sell or get paid to recycle. He was quick to tell me he owns a Toyota Camry and a house and that at one time he could have bought every house in his neighborhood...he obviously did not want me to think he was a bum. Apparently the old Italian that used to live in my house came over to the United States and moved west, taking advantage of opportunities with the railroad system. Otto told me he could never pronounce his name correctly but that he was sort of a big wig in the freight yard here, but in his later years was on a "machine" all the time and only came out into the alley every once in a while to shoot the bull. Otto's parents were German homesteaders in North Dakota and his father mixed plaster by hand for the state teacher college in Dickinson. Otto said the best thing that came out of North Dakota was the road heading west, although he crossed into Montana on a ferry. Just when I was ready to tell Otto I needed to go, he said he'd love to stay and shoot the bull, but he had two more alleys to hit before dark, because the garbage trucks would come through on Monday and he was happy to take money away from BFI whenever he could. He rambled back into his truck and headed out, moving so slowly I could imagine his foot may have not even been on the gas pedal.

As I walked back to my car I thought to myself that I needed to start hanging out in the alley a little more.
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