07 September 2008

The Night Before the Convention: Back Window Story I

Stuff happens outside my back bedroom window.

My window looks out on the alley, on a nexus of nothing and darkness and nothing. Right at the head of my bed, right above my head as I sleep, the window shows a view of a kind of no-man's land, unclaimed property where one end of an apartment building parking lot meets the alley and forms a dark corner behind the hundred-year-old house in which I live.

Because this is such an odd forgotten spot, strange things happen there. It is tucked away and dark, even during the day, and people think they can hide there and do things.

Little do they suspect that I might be lying on my bed, listening, and that if I raise myself up on an elbow, I can get a good view of parts of their hiding place.

Several cars have been ditched there over the years. Bums call the corner home for short spans. And of course there have been amorous episodes, the most memorable clinch in broad daylight and mercifully brief.

Some of these Back Window Stories will appear here from time to time.

For now, I'd like to tell you what happened out my back window on the Sunday night before the Democratic National Convention.

The town was tense in the run up to the convention. People were telling tales of hundreds of police in riot gear on average stretches of Broadway south of downtown. At a party that weekend, there was much discussion of what was going to happen, with the slightly older folks hoping that nothing seriously violent would occur and the younger folks just so sure that it would, and kind of hoping so.

I tend to go to bed early on a Sunday night, in order to go to work early on Monday morning. So there I was in the cozy dark of my bedroom, there below the window, at a bit past ten.

I woke with a start to some noise in the alley at 12:46 am. Some crash out by the dumpsters woke me.

I keep my glasses close to me in bed, and I took them out of their old battered hardshell black case and put them on and looked out.

In the summer, the window is shielded behind the fronds of some rank luxuriant weed. This serves two purposes: it shields the south-facing window from the hot summer sun, and it serves as a blind when I choose to spy on the world outside. I can see out, but mostly from the outside people see the green growth in front of the window's screen.

At least I hope that's what they see.

As I looked out that night, I saw the scene at the dumpsters immediately. Two young men had pulled up their small black pickup truck in the apartment building lot and were loading something into the dumpsters. They had black plastic bags, I saw, and were dumping something from the bags into the dumpsters.

This would not have even caught my attention, except for the fact that it was just before one in the morning. The world was very still and quiet. Most people were in bed, or at least inside. And here were these two guys dumping stuff in the dumpsters.

That also struck me as odd. It was not just one dumpster, the one nearest the window, that they were using. They were distributing their dumping among not one, not two, but three dumpsters down the alley. This would suggest that the dumpsters were full, and they had to use more than one.

The scene just struck me as weird. Middle of the night. Two guys dumping something from black trash bags into three separate dumpsters.

It's not like I thought about it very logically at the time. My brain was muddled by my interrupted sleep, so I didn't think very far into the situation. I just saw what I saw and knew that the pieces weren't adding up somehow. The time of night was the oddest thing, certainly. And the three dumpsters, that seemed weird. Mostly, it was just an interruption of my sleep that should not have happened, so I kept watching and my brain kept chewing at it like a dog's chew toy.

When the two guys were done at the dumpsters, they disappeared somewhere. They didn't seem to be at their truck, and I figured they had gone into the apartment building.

My brain was simmering with it by now. Normally I am a person who has no trouble going to sleep. Only very occasionally is my mind so occupied with something that it keeps me up. This night was one of those occasions.

I kept thinking about what I had seen. That, and the fact that I could vaguely smell some kind of planty, agricultural sort of smell from the dumpsters across the way. That and the fact that the Democratic National Convention was beginning the next day.

Call it paranoia. Go ahead. I won't be hurt. Call it.

OK, now that we have labeled it, we can describe it a little further, or show where it was carrying me.

I thought in the dark of that night of the Oklahoma City bombing. I thought of how such a bombing was carried out with a truck full of fertilizer. And I smelled something from the dumpsters.

Now, dear Readers, I have to say that I didn't really BELIEVE that the dumpsters were turned into potential bombs to wreak random anarchic havoc on the eve of the DNC. I didn't. Not really. But you know how it is: the thought did go through one part of my brain.

I find such states of mind fascinating, actually. How your brain can encompass these two things at the same time, and 13 other odd flavors layered in there to boot. Know what I mean? At the same time you can be filled with enough fear and credulity over a simple event in the alley, another part of your brain knows that it is just brainstuff going on and knows it's just stories you are telling yourself.

So, while one part of me knew that the most outlandish ideas I was making up were just that, outlandish ideas, another part of my brain still thought that it was at least a bit suspicious that these two guys had loaded stuff into three separate dumpsters at near one in the morning.

I was fully awake by this point and decided to get up and go into my front room. I considered calling the police, but was not at that point yet.

I wandered around a bit, sat in the chair in my front room. I thought about my brain and the stories I was making up. Knew they were stories. But I like to tell stories. My brain likes it a lot.

Wandered back to bed again.

And just as I had settled into bed, the two guys came back out to their truck. One was carrying something long and thin. I won't say my brain didn't make it into a gun. He put the not-really-a-gun thing in the back of the black pickup truck. The two guys got into the vehicle and pulled out and drove down the alley.

Now I had more to think about. While they had been away, I could imagine that they lived in the apartment building. Now it was clear that they had just done their mystery dumping here, and now, at one-thirty or later, were on their way away from the scene.

The heat on the stove of my brain went up a notch or two.

This was ridiculous. I was getting all flamed up for nothing. This was a very simple and logical scene. There was a perfectly understandable explanation. I needed to go to bed. I needed to be up now in less than five hours. Sheesh. Why am I letting my mind lead me on this dance?

I got up and called the police.

Yes I did. I did it to set my mind at ease if nothing else. I told them just the facts of the "suspicious activity," of course. I wasn't crazy enough to start in with the stories. I didn't even believe the stories. Just the bare facts of what I had seen. I couldn't really see either of the fellows that well, I mean, not their facial features. They were young white males. One large, wearing a light T-shirt and light shorts, the other thin and tall, wearing dark clothes. That's about all I could say. I told them which way the truck had been heading and when. Answered all the dispatcher's questions. Gave my name. Said, yes, they could contact me again if they needed to.

And went back to bed.

Still I couldn't sleep, though. I had to wait to see the results of my call.

I guess actually I did fall asleep a bit, because I woke to the sound of a vehicle coming down the alley. It was a police car.

The cop car stopped right at the nearest dumpster. One of the cops got out, shined his flashlight in there. Made a muffled comment. Got back in the car. And drove slowly away.

Fine. That actually made me feel much better. The police had come and looked and declared the situation no big deal. Nothing to worry about. Said to me, in effect, Herm, go back to sleep.

Which is what I did.

Slept just fine until my alarm went off, the first one being the news from National Public Radio, at six a.m., and the next one, the annoying beeping one, fifteen minutes later.

I got up and got ready to go to work. Thinking some, but not a lot, about the events of the night before. When I was nearly ready to walk out, I was in my front room and I heard some noise.

Some noise from the alley. Through my back bedroom window.

I went into my bedroom, stepped up onto the bed and went and leaned over and peered through the slats of the mini-blinds.

And saw two guys walking this way down the alley. One large guy dressed in light T-shirt and shorts, the other, taller fellow dressed in dark clothes.

There was no doubt that it was the guys from the night before. They walked past the dumpsters and past my place and out to the street. I didn't see where they went.

But a few minutes later I went outside myself. It was quiet, early morning. No one was around. I looked up and down the streets and the alley across the way but saw no one.

Now the weirdness of the night before was with me again, the suspicions and the gnawing fear. Mostly the oddness of this newest element of the story: why were these two guys from last night's story walking down the alley in the early morning? Where was their truck? What were they doing? Why were they near these dumpsters again?

OK, OK, calm down. This is perfectly reasonable. These guys live in the neighborhood. Just as I do. They could just as well ask what I was doing out in the street at that time of morning, peering down the alleys and up the streets.

What was I doing, approaching the dumpster, the one I regularly use, the nearest one? Why was I walking up to the dumpster here in the early morning, reaching up and lifting the lid? What was I expecting to see here at a quarter to seven?

I lifted the black plastic lid and looked in. A familiar smell assaulted my nose before I saw it. Grass clippings. A pile of grass clippings, loose, dumped, and under them a black plastic bag.

The dumpster was about half full. And up near the front, on top of some black garabage bags, loose grass clippings.

And peeking out from the corner of the pile of grass clippings, something. What? Something that shouldn't be there. Just like all the other jangling pieces of last night's story that did not make sense for one reason or another. It just shouldn't be there.

Peeking out from the top of the green pile of grass clippings was some kind of electronic component, like an old VCR or a stereo receiver, something like that.

I only saw the corner of it. I didn't dig in the clippings to see more. I was too nervous about being out here in the first place, peering into the dumpster. I looked around. No one.

So I went to work. As I drove to my first stop, Whole Foods, I thought of calling the police again, and kept thinking of how ridiculous it would all sound now, in the light of day: "Hi, I am the guy who called last night and told about the guys in the alley at the dumpsters, and the police DID come last night and looked, but this morning when I looked I saw something strange, buried in the grass clippings. . ."

By the time I pulled into our parking lot at work I felt really silly about the whole thing.

And I called the police.

This story can't really have an ending. It can't go any further than that. That is all I witnessed. No followups, no conclusions. Only questions.

Did I do the right thing, calling the police? Twice? What was so odd about what I saw? Or was it just me? But why in the middle of the night? And why three dumpsters if the one I looked in was nowhere near full? And why loose grass clippings on top of full, sealed bags? Why empty the grass clippings out of the black plastic bags in the first place? And where were the guys going, why were they near these dumpsters again early in the morning? And why, why bury an old piece of audio or video equipment in grass clippings?

My brain, of course, has come up with some stories. . .

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