After moving from Baltimore to NYC, and then to Seattle, I noticed one peculiar thing. NYC doesn’t have alleys. This is why the trash is always on the sidewalks.
I find alleys, both in Baltimore and in Seattle, quite beautiful. There is a sort of ‘alley life’ that happens. When I go on my morning runs through North Capitol Hill, an affluent neighborhood, I see families using the allies between homes as places for the kids to ride their bikes and razor scooters away from the dangers of oncoming traffic. In Baltimore it was mostly a haven for cats and rats, and urban ruin porn with ivy-straddled garage doors and forgotten patios. In my neighborhood alleys are mostly used to access garages and home to the many dumpsters Seattlelites require to sort their trash responsibly. The alley behind my house is my primary access to my home—my apartment lies in the back of my building and the back door is the quickest way to enter. My alley is also home to its very own ‘alley life.’
There is a large house directly behind my building—we share the alley and we are its life. When I first moved in I often noticed large groups of men gathered on the back porch. They looked like what at the time I considered ‘sketchy but non threatening.’ I later came to find out that this was a home for folks who lived with AIDS or mental illness. I kept my distance.
According to my calculations, I have walked the length of that alley at least 3,000 times by now. During my first few months living there I started to get acquainted with my alley life. At first I was guarded, I often saw people smoking pot, rummaging through the dumpsters, or hanging out late into the night. Over time some faces became familiar, but one in particular. You could not miss him. I still remember my first sighting—a heavy set woman was rummaging through a dumpster, torso-in, in a gown that barely covered her ass, revealing a set of fleshy hamstrings. When she emerged it was a he. It was Darren.
My photographer senses were ringing through the roof. All I could think about was that he looked like a great picture. I was objectifying and dehumanizing him almost immediately.
I immediately made a judgement. ‘Stay away,’ I thought to myself, whilst at the same time being utterly fascinated by this character. Darren was always there and I always avoided his gaze—he made me feel uncomfortable—and I didn’t really want to engage a potential ‘crazy,’ specially one that knows where I live. As the months went by I started to notice his outfits where quite something; sometimes it was just gym shorts and a t-shirt, but most definitely with a cute pair of earrings and some eye shadow—this was clearly just a quick cigarette break. Other times it was a crop-top and a denim skirt, and every once in a while a gown with a regal fur pelt and a tiara. Jewelry was his favorite, and he had loads of it, mostly cheap plastic rings, earrings, and necklaces with lots of sparkle value. He also loved nail polish. I started to notice the pride and care he put into his image and I realized perhaps I was too quick to judge. Maybe he was just like all of us and wanted to look his best before leaving the house.
As time went by he noticed me too and was never shy to make eye contact and say hello. My passive-aggressive smile turned into a hello back, and then into a small compliment, then into an exchange of our names, and later into a conversation. It turns out he was just a lovely person. There were traces of mental instability so I kept a certain distance, but he just wanted company. He rarely left either end of the alley, the dumpsters were his shopping mall, and he repurposed almost anything other people would toss. I found out he was from Tacoma, and that he ‘used to be a model.’ He sometimes ventured out to the thrift shop or the gas station to buy some chips. Sometimes on the weekends he would visit his mom, and every year during Pride he would ask me if I had gone out, because he used to walk the parade and hang out at Neighbors when he was younger. He almost always asked me if I had pot or if I wanted pot. I told him I didn’t smoke and he just smiled and said ‘that’s probably for the best.’ When my relationship ended he asked me what happened to my boyfriend, he noticed he wasn’t around anymore.
I stepped out of my comfort zone in getting to know Darren and discovered, in the extent of our interaction, a person with depth: with sadness, with addiction, with a positive attitude towards life, with resourcefulness, with mental illness, with pride and creativity, and with a smile. I asked him once if I could take his picture and he said yes. I realized pretty quickly that he liked being photographed; that’s when he mentioned to me that he used to be a model. I took this as a green light, and every time I came home and the light was nice, or his outfit was special, or the conversation warranted it, I asked him if I could make his portrait. He said yes almost every time and sometimes even told me how he wanted to be photographed.
This last winter I saw less and less of him, which I attributed to the cold weather and rain, but over time I became curious and slightly worried. After several months of not a single Darren sighting I assumed he had been transferred to another home, but I also feared that he had fallen ill or something of the sort. There was no one in the back porch, because it was the middle of winter, and I didn’t feel comfortable knocking on the door and asking. A few weeks ago I saw this guy who is always dressed like a super hero, with a cape, arm bands, an eye mask, combat boots, and crazy hair. He was Darren’s friend and I saw them often together sitting on my building’s back stairs sharing a joint. I chased the guy down the street and asked him what happened to Darren and he said the house had been sold to some rich guy who was demolishing it to build a few fancy townhouses. A few days later the windows and doors were boarded up.
I don’t know where Darren is now, but wherever he is I hope that he has an alley—a runway, a shopping mall, a safe place to smoke pot. I know that the outfits will only get better. So this is my little homage to him, not someone I knew very well, but someone I judged too harshly too quickly.