I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again. I belong to a community of photographers and other deviants called Utata (well, I’m the managing editor). I’ve also said this before: we walk on Thursdays. We’ve been doing this as a group for 346 consecutive weeks. That’s more than six and a half years.
For the most part, our people take their Thursday Walks independently. We walk in Scandinavia and England, We walk in Austria and Canada and Switzerland. We walk in the American Midwest and in New England. We do it quietly, without a lot of fuss, and every week we post a few of the photographs we shoot during out walks.
Yesterday was Thursday, and I began my walk at the public library. I love a library. All libraries. I love the very fact that they exist. A public library is such a radical concept. Information freely available to anybody who wants it — a whole world of literature and science and philosophy and knowledge, and all you have to do is go there and open a book and be willing to learn something.
After I left the library, I began to wander. I rarely have a plan for Thursday walks. I see something that might be interesting and I head in that direction. If it turns out not to be interesting, I keep going. Yesterday I heard two office workers saying that next week the roof of a nearby parking garage would close for the winter. So I went to the roof of the parking garage.
It was a chilly, mildly windy day — cloudy in a way that was occasionally dramatic and occasionally oppressive. The wind seemed to channel itself down the widest streets, leaving the alleys and service roads more calm and almost warm. A good thing for me, since I seem to be drawn to alleys.
I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because nobody tries to make alleys pretty. Anything attractive in an alley is accidentally attractive — organically attractive. Alleys are messy and disorganized; alleys are where the people who work in the city’s shops and restaurants and offices go to have a smoke and relax. It’s where stuff gets delivered and hauled away. There’s just something honest about an alley.
As I was shooting the photograph above, I heard footsteps coming down the alley. I turned to look and there was this guy, head down, smoking a cigarette, walking my way. He was wearing a bright red hoodie and his skin was so black it was almost purple. And I wanted his photograph. I wanted him to stand in his bright red hoodie against the wall, and I wanted it desperately bad because it would have made the most amazing photograph.
So I said “Hey. Do you mind if I take your photo. Up against the…” and he said “Fuck no” and kept walking. And he could not have said it any more perfectly. It wasn’t angry, it wasn’t dismissive or insulting, it was more of a practical I-don’t-have-time-for-this-bullshit reply. It was almost musical.
I kept walking. Down more alleys, along sidewalks, through the skywalk. No real plan or destination, just walking. I followed a florist’s Transit van down another alley. The van was a deep twilight blue and on its side was an image of yellow tulips, and I thought it might make an interesting photo if it parked in good spot in the alley. But it was just using the alley as a shortcut.
I did, though, find these dumpsters behind a restaurant. They’re not particularly interesting dumpsters, and I probably wouldn’t have stopped to photograph them. What stopped me wasn’t the visual, it was the olfactory. I stopped walking because there was an absolutely astonishing odor of grease. It was a staggering smell, overpowering and a tad nauseating, an odor unlike anything I’d encountered before. I noticed one of the dumpsters had a label that said “Grease Only – No Trash or Water.”
There’s a company called Darling that describes itself as “a provider of animal rendering, cooking oil and bakery waste recycling and recovery services.” This was one of their recovery bins. The bin has a warning label that says Darling and Keep Lid Closed. I mention this only because I saw the warning and couldn’t help thinking ‘Darlin’, I never dreamed of opening it.’
It was dusk, going on twilight. By this point I’d been walking for about two and a half hours. My knees ached, I was cold, it was beginning to rain, and there were crows. Hundreds of crows, circling and roosting nineteen stories up on the Equitable Building. So I stood there on the sidewalk, obstructing foot traffic, looking up, ignoring the sprinkling rain, sore and tired, taking photographs of barely visible corvids.
It was perfect.