Thank You for A Tribute to Life in My Alley

I recently moved from the alley side of my building to the front, where the sun does shine and reveals a more optimistic view.

Somehow the alley seemed to be a life lesson for me, a reminder that there is always a secret path behind the path we choose to focus on.

Today, now all moved into my new apartment, I went down to the alley that I used to see from my old window.

I sat down on a milk crate outside the flour mill next door (under the only gay bar in our fair city) to ponder the things I used to observe.

As fate would have it, the Can Man came by to forage for cans from the dumpster belonging to the bar. He looked at me and said “This is the best place to find Red Bull cans. The people who come here need energy because they like to dance.”

I wrote about him in 2007, when I saw him from my window.

Today, I met him face to face.

We indroduced ourselves and he walked away from the dumpster as the recycling truck came down the alley.

The man I previously wrote about is now a distant memory.

The Can Man now has a name; Joseph Michael.

He also has a smile and a kind voice.

It is not ironic to me that I had to move to the sunny side of the street to finally see the Can Man in a new light from the alley.

I hope some of my other posts about living on the alley also take on new light.

Thank you for The Can Man

December 24 2007

This morning I woke up to the rummaging sounds of “The Can Man”.

He is an individual who frequents the alley next to my building in the early morning, foraging through the dumpster for cans to put into a shopping cart which he pushes to some undisclosed location, then returns in a couple days to fill it up again.

I have only seen him a few times, when I happened to be sitting next to my window as he  arrived.

At first, I felt sorry for him, pushing his shopping cart in the dark and cold, digging through other people’s garbage for precious metals.

When I realized I was experiencing pity, I became ashamed of myself.

Pity seems like a blanket soaked in arrogance, tossed over a situation from which I wished to be separated.

Pity felt like a condescending arrow that I was shooting toward  a man who reflected my own fear that I was as vulnerable as he was.

I am.

And the arrow returned to penetrate my own arrogance and shatter it into fragments of compassion, empathy, and sympathy.

I am the Can Man.

I just happen to have a Jeep instead of a shopping cart.

I am the Can Man.

My job of survival is just a lot easier.

The Can Man is me.

The Can Man is you.

We all hunt and gather, don’t we?

I am thankful for the lesson of The Can Man.

Thank you for Not Needing Food

March 3 2008
I looked out my window into the alley this morning after hearing rummaging in the dumpsters.

I thought it was probably the Can Man who comes through with his shopping cart on recycling day to beat the big blue trucks out of three bucks worth of soda cans.

It was not the Can Man.

I looked from the third floor to see a different man climbing into one of the large dumpsters down on the ground.

He had all three dumpsters propped open and was sorting through all the trash systematically with a flashlight in his mouth and a large cardboard box on the ground for selected findings.

He was coughing and tossing things from one dumpster to another while occasionally putting something into the box.

Someone came out of the apartment building across from mine with a bag of trash and threw it into the dumpster next to the man as he was crawling around in it.

Then, they just walked away down the alley like they saw strange men in the dumpster every morning.

My heart sunk.

I opened my window and called down to the man “ Excuse me! Are you looking for something specific?  If you’re looking for food I can just bring you down some things.”

The man looked up at me from inside the dumpster  “Me?”

“Yes” I called back “Do you need food or something?”

“Oh, no thanks Ma’am I’m just looking for a coffee table that I lost.”

Even though this confused me, I was a bit relieved that he wasn’t hungry while he was out there in the rain and cold looking for “a coffee table”.

He’s gone now and the sun is coming up.

I wonder how many people in this lovely town are rummaging in the dark for a coffee table while people just keep dumping trash next to them as though it’s part of our culture.

Unfortunately, I think that IS part of our culture.

I am thankful he didn’t need food.

But I wonder if there is a better way for us to meet his “coffee table” needs.

Thank you for Life and Death in My Alley

March 28 2008

I have written about events in my alley before.

I sit by my window in the morning with my coffee and greet the day and ponder the things I am thankful for.

Sometimes the thank you does not come easy and I must have another cup of coffee before it finds me.

Today, in my alley, I saw two women.

One, a young woman pushing a baby stroller that she was using to haul a baby crib in pieces.

The other, an older woman that appeared to be her mother, pushing a shopping cart with baby clothes and baby toys.

I saw no baby.

The younger woman lifted the lid of one of the dumpsters in the alley and began to throw in the parts of baby crib she hauled in the stroller. Then the stroller went into the dumpster.

She stood there as the older woman emptied the contents of her cart into the dumpster a few pieces at a time.

I thought to myself:

“Why don’t they donate those items to a new mother? They seem in perfect shape. Why don’t they take them to a shelter? There are so many women with babies that could use them?”

Then I realized that the dumpster was probably as far as they could get with the baby items.

I realized that it took all their strength to throw those precious things into a dumpster in my alley.

I realized they were crying.

They slowly walked back into the apartment building across from mine and took a piece of my heart with them.

Thank You for Surviving the Cold Night, Kathy

January 26 2009

It was 29 degrees outside. (-1.6 Celsius)

I passed a pile of rags and a sleeping bag on my way to a photo shoot, taking a shortcut through the alley.

I did not know Kathy (I have never seen her before) was sleeping beneath them on a sewer grid in the alley.

I had just stopped at a coffee house to get a hot cup of coffee prior to seeing the clump on the ground in the littered alley.

I went two more blocks and turned the car around. Like I said, It was 29 degrees outside.

I pulled off the alley and walked over to the pile that covered Kathy and said “Excuse me, I have a hot cup of coffee here if you like cream in your coffee.” I did not yet know who or what was beneath the pile that I was offering my coffee to.

She poked her head out:


She gratefully accepted my coffee. I noticed her lips were a little blue and her teeth were chattering so hard that I thought they might crack.


I stood in the alley talking to Kathy for a moment as she sipped the coffee from her “bed” in the alley.

There was no heat coming from the sewer grate beneath her covers. 29 degrees.


I asked if I could call someone to help her get out of the cold. She said “Who would answer?”

I asked if I could take pictures and write about her.  She said “Yes, if you send it to Obama too. And feel free to use my name.”

Kathy was having difficulty breathing and was uncomfortable getting up. She asked me to call 911.

I did and asked for an ambulance. She was getting clammy and sweaty but she was very cold.

I went to my car. All I had was a piece of fabric to cover paintings. I got it and added it to her pile.


After three minutes waiting for the ambulance, I asked Kathy if she thought she could make it up and into my car so I could turn the heat on and try to get her warm.

She got into the car like a person who could not bend their limbs.

After a minute of full blast heat from under the dashboard, Kathy’s feet started to hurt “really bad”.

Then the ambulance pulled up and an MT helped her from my car, into the ambulance.

I heard them say something about hypothermia and Kathy yelled “Thank you!” out the door.


In my brief conversation with Kathy, I discovered she had a heart condition and no insurance, a husband that was absent, and a sweet disposition that was much warmer than her environment.

Since it’s been so cold, many of the shelters are full. I don’t know where Kathy will go when she gets out of the hospital. I heard her ask the MT to please get her blankets. “They’re the only ones I got.”

I will keep my promise and mail this to Obama.


~ by leakelley on August 17, 2010.

4 Responses to “Thank You for A Tribute to Life in My Alley”

  1. This is the most beautiful (if telling of tragedy can be beautiful) of all your posts. You have such a warm, involved heart. Bless you.

  2. What an awesome collection of life events. Just how big is your heart?
    Love you, LeaKell.

  3. I remember all these stories, Lea. I remember them and they have become a part of my fabric, from my somewhat-distant space in time. Thank you for sharing them, then and now. These people are all of us. We are not separate. My lips are blue just thinking about them. I breathe deeply, and my lips turn pink again. Thank you. You are the heart and soul of life.

  4. Lea once again you take me though a road that could be a book. I am a jaded people. I know. City living and to much of it. But lets remember a couple of things. ONe, I took back some cans this week. three bags full.. i got 13 dollars.. without a market based on fossil fuels, without a real emphasis on recycling, the can man is your and my savior, he is the last leg that saves those metals from land fills.
    Two. hes not stupid, he is the level of real we are all thinking about. unless you are of the percent that isnt worried anymore about your job, or the global warming, and other “stresses” , like the two year deal you just made for one phone call.
    we have to be truthful in reality , it is those that look away from the alley , who get shocked by the inhumanity we are controlled by. Where do we start responding. our hearts turned inside out to multi-million dollar non profits, Huge Television Ad budgets, and Social services that turn around those silly indigenous cultures, psychologically creating Guilt through compaisons, (oh and they didn’t believe in Jesus) even our dear city sprouting the Opportunity Council, which has all the parking spaces Rented from the city (at 50dollars a month Each) lead us on a trail of tears which Management takes 25 percent. the OC has new buses and is one of the larger employers in the area. but they wouldn’t give me money cause , I was only a tentant and not homeless. They told me i didn’t make enough money, ON paper , and you know you cant count how much we make in cans. did any of that make sence..
    thanks for having a heart. the alley is only as long and the perceptions that create it.
    and i bet M.J.
    had the most truthfull smile.

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