Photos and Essay by Monica Kass Rogers
Perched in the alley on a tiny wooden stool, I’m eye-level with this little hero. A push-pop-shaped cement plug, he leans tipsy-like in front of me. Knocked sideways (how many times?) by car bumpers, car fenders, car tires, car doors. I imagine decades of cartoon cars swelling and shrinking in a jiggly film reel of changing fashions, all navigating this sharp alley turn with squeals and jerks and owners’ curses as they hit my tiny friend. But he’s still standing, plug-man is. A rainbow sherbet of cautionary spray paint has made him a clown, but a brave one, I think, as I click the camera shutter.
This alley is an “I.” The city planners carved this block, and dozens more, into quarters. Making a grid with fronts and backs. Neat vivisection. Exposé. I photograph alleys every day.
Because whatever face you see up front is seldom echoed at the back.
Alleys are our fuzzy slippers, worn-down at the heel. Our hole-y sweatshirts with cuffs frayed and elbows out. Beloved. Familiar. Worth keeping, no matter their condition.
I grew up playing in alleys. What Chicago kid didn’t? Kicked the can, hit the ball, swept the dogshit. Shot the rockets, burned the cherry bombs, broke the windows, ran to hide.
There was that time my little sister shook the pennies from her piggy bank and walked the alley to the corner store. Bought those chocolate Suzy-Qs and ate them fast. And when dad asked what she’d been eating, said she’d found them in the alley, leading panicked father on a wandering walk to a clean and likely-looking bin. Only confessed the lie when Dad told her she was gonna have her stomach pumped.
Alleys are full of stories like that.
The alley behind our house had a squat brick building that once stabled horses. Working horses. I used to imagine them coming and going through that dark maw of an entrance. The sound of their harnesses jangling. The sight of their coats glistening in the dusty dark.
Then one day, an old man in a flatbed wooden cart came past, the neck of his nag up-and-downing in its bridle, nostrils chuffing the hot air, hooves clopping on the cracked alley pavement. And the old man cried, “Rags! Alarn!” or that’s what it sounded like, as I pushed hard against our chain link fence to get a better look, so full of the sight and sound of that cart’s passing, I could barely breathe with excitement.
“He’s saying, ‘Rags, old iron,’ calling for people’s junk, dad told me, watching too, but through some long-ago South Side vantage, his eyes a prism of childhood memories.
I didn’t dream that rag man. But dreams do hide here. You see them in the shifting light of the alley plants. Pigweed and crabgrass, mulberry and ailanthus. Scruffy survivors. There are dreams in the layers of peeling paint, taupe over white over green over blue. In garages that tilt and lean and groan and hunker. In the used-to-be murals, patched-over traffic cones, broken toys and crooked lettering, fences fallen, fences propped.
And always the landscape of shifting trash.
Discovery here is endless. The messages change hourly. Those cups and plates, so carefully stacked, say, “Take me, please, I’m not done yet.” That tangle of balloons, skins sagging like shriveled grapes, drift in a spangly-ribboned after-chorus of “party’s over.” This heap of shoes and bedding I poke with my toe, amid posters and pots, and the arm of a shirt stretched flat and pleading, says rent’s not been paid and paid and paid.
Gentrification comes with a sweep of shiny and new, but alleys hold out, a story in remnants, ordinary, true. Wandering here, I’m one of them.
Monica Kass Rogers writes and photographs from Evanston, Illinois. Growing up in Ukrainian Village, she’s always loved alleys, creating abstract digital photo art of her finds. View daily posts of Monica’s alley adventures at The Alley Project, on Instagram @rogers.mk