It’s a simple enough target: a single family dwelling that was boarded up with plywood and painted over. Nothing fancy, just the standard white paint that’s supposed to cover up the fact that it’s plywood instead of wrought-iron keeping you from entering. It’s innocuous enough that I figured no one would mind if I stop by one day and peek my head in.
The front gate should be the first sign it wouldn’t be quite as simple as I had hoped. When I drove past the first time around, it was wide open, leading into an overgrown walkway. By the time I came back, it was locked.
That front gate was going to be my first point of entry. But no matter, I’ve been doing this long enough to know I shouldn’t give up at the first sign of trouble. I pull my hat down to obscure my eyes, and I furtively glance at the property as I walk past. There’s a side yard that goes down about half the length of the house. Sure.
Without raising too much attention to myself, I casually walk into the side yard. Two concrete steps lead up to a single door with a brass doorknob. The window inside isn’t boarded up, unlike the rest of the house. Weird. I look out to the busy street this house lies on. No one’s looking my way; it’s flanked by apartments on either side, and traffic is moving too fast. What the hell. I grab the doorknob and turn.
I stick my head in. The door doesn’t open far; a bike is in the way. The door leads into a side room, probably used as a laundry room, the washer/dryer hookups exposed. I stand there for a few seconds, taking in what little I can see, and then:
I freeze. My mind races. Who the hell would be in here, the owner? This place IS abandoned, right? I haven’t made a mistake? My intuition for finding abandoned places has finally gone kaput? Fuck. All I can muster is:
“Oh man, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know there was anyone here. I’ll go!”
But before I finish my flustered sentence, the same voice calls out:
“Nah man, it’s cool. Come on in!”
So I close the door behind me.
He hasn’t been there long. Couldn’t have been more than a week. Long enough, though, to leave his mark on the place. The floor is covered in old, tattered clothes, ripped bags of Mickey D’s, and cigarette butts for days. I can’t see much beyond that; I stay at the door frame leading to the living room, where my caller calls home.
“Charlie”, as he introduces himself, is incredibly friendly and welcoming. He scarfs down a burger while he regales me with his tale: from losing his job to getting into drugs to moving from house to house the past three years, never staying longer than a couple weeks.
At one point, however, he had stayed in a mansion a few blocks up the street with a dozen other people, all squatting in its 4 bedrooms, 3 baths of glory. Their stay lasted three months, before the cops caught on to one man’s constant fumbling through bush and fence. The police ran everyone out, but no one was arrested.
He hasn’t seen those folks since.
“How long you been looking for a place, man?” Charlie asks, eyes earnest as he takes his first real look at me. I stare back in confusion, and it hits me.
He thinks I’m homeless, too.
“Been looking for a year now,” I sputter. Not a lie, technically.
“We started out on the Westside when I lost my job. Been making our way inland since,” he says. He motions the last bits of burger in front of him.
There‘s ’someone else sitting across from him. A tall, slender white guy in a hoodie and beanie. Can’t be more than 16. And I haven’t even noticed him. He hasn’t made a peep.
Beanie teen looks up at me, gives me a “sup” nod, and turns his attention back to a book he grasps tightly. I don’t think he’s turned a page since I arrived.
“What y’all do for money ‘round here?”
“Whatever we can get. Y’know how it is.”