Last Saturday as it started snowing again, we pulled into the strip mall a couple of blocks south of the square and parked by the all-ages music club and youth center. I finished my cigarette, grabbed the camera, then we both got out and walked around the building into the long alley that stretches from Smith up to 3rd street.
With the wind, it was bitter cold since the buildings funneled most of the chill straight down the alley. Though Friday was still unpleasant, it had warmed up enough to melt most of the old snow, but along the alley there were still drifts and lakes of slush. Even during the summer, not a lot of sun falls back there. It gets lost on the jagged rooftops of the old brick buildings opposite. They’re big crumbling breasts, cryptid survivors from the manufacturing era that you only notice from out of the way places like that. The rest never makes it over The Rise, the transitional apartment housing for impoverished mothers and their families who’ve been victims of severe and sustained domestic violence.
Behind the strip mall, the wife handed me her coat and I draped it over one of the concrete barriers. I readied our camera and she posed against the back wall of the youth center. It’s the only bright spot in the alley. A long canvas splashed with color from one corner to the next—a stream of consciousness graffiti flow.
She needed the pics for an upcoming model profile. I snapped as many as I could as quick as I could. She was cold and struggling to keep her teeth from chattering. The wind made my fingers hurt. And I had forgotten about the homeless who use the alley to move from one section of town to the next without being hassled.
It isn’t New York, but our little Midwestern town actually has a large homeless population. Part of it is simply the nature of the town—if you’re going to be homeless in Indiana, Bloomington is probably where you’d want to be. Thanks to the University, the town is a liberal fortress surrounded by a sea of red. The community offers a number of shelters and services. Campus provides buildings with 24 hour access and our large public library offers somewhere to go during the day when the shelters force everyone out. As the economy has stagnated and the sharp divide in town between the wealthy and the poor has increased—housing costs are incredibly inflated thanks to landlords trying to milk cash from East and West Coast kids—the homeless population has swelled. This population growth has begun shifting the city’s liberal nature a little to the right. Now, a number of business have a strict no loitering policy, and the police have begun issuing tickets for things like, believe it or not in a college town, jaywalking. And a few weeks ago, the homeless staged a protest that ended with six of them chasing a blue car after the driver stopped and tried to punch a homeless woman in the face.
Most of them left us alone, but the last man to shuffle up the alley finally drove us away. I heard him before he got close. He was talking loudly enough to himself that I paused between snaps and looked toward the alley's southern entrance. He couldn’t walk straight. He swept from one side of the alley to the other, his head bopping and rolling as he spoke. I managed a couple more hurried pics, before he spotted us and began yelling.
I tossed my wife her coat. We went north up the alley, rounded the building, and circled back to our car. We warmed up, then drove north. I circled the square twice before I found a parking place. I walked the wife to the nail saloon where she was meeting her friend Vanessa, then headed over to the ATM by the parking garage and Scotty’s Brewhouse.
On the way back, a young guy stopped me. He wasn’t dressed for the weather. He didn’t have a coat. His bare hands were stuffed deep in his pockets. I could see he was tense, muscles bunched to brace against the chilly gusts. He asked me for money so he could get something to eat. I thought about it for a moment and I looked at his face. If you’ve even someone who was hurting, you can tell the difference between the con and someone who’s actually suffering. There’s a level of pain that can’t be faked.
I won’t give him cash, so we went into Taco Rocket. I bought him two tacos and a Coke. He blessed me. I nodded and walked back to the salon. I gave my wife money for the manicure, then went next door to the pub with our friend Rick and Vanessa’s boyfriend, Rockabilly Mike.
We drank pints and talked. When the girls were done, we walked to the other side of the square and had dinner at the Trojan Horse. I had a good time. It was nice to get out of the house. With the lovely wife’s medical issues, that’s not something that happens a lot anymore. But the entire time, the homeless men bothered me. The young guy especially.
My first thought was that’s what makes me a writer. On the drive back home, however, I decided, no, that’s what makes me human.