I wish I’d taken a picture of the running shoes I saw this morning when I first poked my head through the laneway door of my studio. They were women’s, black and grey with neon pink detail and sat side by side, tucked in towards the studio’s back wall. A few inches away, somewhat hidden in a patch of weeds, was a pile of human excrement, plus soiled paper napkins. I’m sure the shoe-putter hadn’t noticed.
As far as laneways go, it’s a wild one. It’s even got a nickname – Listerine Alley.
The poop happened to be the first thing I noticed yesterday when I looked out the door and while I cleaned up everything else that had been left in the lane during the night (a dozen or so syringes plus half a garbage bag of other drug stuff, foam food trays, plastic cutlery, cigarette packages, condom wrappers, etc., etc.) I couldn’t face a stranger’s shit. Tomorrow, I’d said, which makes today the day. But the shoes have distracted me.
My first thought on seeing them was that they hadn’t been thrown or dropped, as are other things (including clothing) and I could almost see how someone had bent over to carefully place them on the ground, left and right not to be separated or possibly lost. Most of us have two legs and feet, a single shoe isn’t useful unless, of course, you’ve no shoes at all or, like my father, you’re an amputee.
They looked like a gift, like the day’s first ‘homeless’ message. They looked new or at least, newish. Pretty. On the right feet, they’d be valuable.
I’m in a downtown neighbourhood in the oldest part of the city and when I first moved here thirteen years ago, had heard it described as one of the twenty poorest in the country. There are many big houses, as well as smaller ones. Mine I purchased because of the garage at the back of the property and its potential as a studio. My one big renovation. The neighbourhood has seen some dark times but is changing, at least superficially, because of those who’ve also moved in during the last decade and a half, all of us looking for affordable real estate. A new wave in the local demographic, with me, I suppose, one of the wavelets, though not a committed gentrifier. Others have made bigger changes; there are new facades and extensions, new gardens, new porches, new driveways, new children, new everything.
Listerine Alley, though, as a sort-of-street between official streets, hasn’t changed much. It’s still dark and quiet at night with little niches and crevices, secret places within which secret things can be done. It’s also bathroom, bedroom, confessional, bar, unsafe injection site and general resting place for people who neither have homes nor privacy unless they happen to be in an encampment. To state the obvious, though, a tent isn’t the same thing as having your own toilet, fridge, bedroom, rent or mortgage, utility bill. Last year, one street over from my house, I saw dozens and dozens of tents scooped up by municipal workers, then heaved into garbage trucks. The erasure of a community took less than a day. It would take longer to vaporize my own brick, sewer-connected tent, its roots first sent into the ground in 1905 though perhaps not by much. And this summer, there are new encampments, the closest in a parkette a bit to the south. There aren’t so many tents, or at least not yet.
There’s a place one door down from me in the laneway where people often go when using, a parking pad behind a small industrial/studio building. Maybe they’re from the tents or maybe not though I do recognize some faces. Depending on how much light or fresh air I need, I keep the laneway door open when I’m painting. I try to be aware of who passes by and what they’re doing. Some people I see over and over again and remember them; they often have visible sores and injuries. Sometimes they stop to talk.
When I first moved in and saw the alleyway, its two blocks flanked by trees and tumble-down sheds and garages, something moved in my heart. It appeared story-bookish to me, a throwback to laneways I remembered from my childhood in the fifties, far to the north, in a place where space felt large and wild. There were no motion detectors and no cameras. No night-erasing lights. Within a few days of arrival, however, my neighbour, someone with better eyes than mine and who arrived the same time as me, had already discovered thousands of syringes tucked in between buildings and hiding in the lane’s abundant weeds, a minefield which he immediately began cleaning up. The laneway was also occasionally used as a dumping site for anyone with more bags of garbage than what the City would pick up each week and so, dragged behind houses and left, soon torn open by, probably, raccoons and possibly dogs, their contents strewn and generally pretty ugly. It’s hard looking at other people’s garbage; we’re more tolerant of our own.
It could have been that someone had left them for someone else and maybe they knew them or maybe they didn’t. They could have been forgotten. They could have been stolen. Whatever happened, it would have been sometime during the night as they weren’t there when I checked last evening, laneway-surveillance and garbage-control recently-acquired duties. The same neighbour who cleaned up the syringes has continued to clean up everything else that gets left in the lane but he’s off-duty for a bit, he’s away.
I know the shoes are to be left where they are. They’re not garbage.
I check on them every now and then, perhaps a half-dozen times and easy to do as today I’m in the studio working. And every time I look, they’ve been moved to a different place in the lane, though never far from my door and always placed as when I’d first seen them, carefully sitting side-by-side. I don’t hear people moving them or trying them on or talking: whomever stops to consider them, does so quietly. There’s a lot out there that I neither see nor hear.
Eventually, sometime mid-afternoon, the shoes disappear altogether and I almost feel as if they’d been a person, there for a while, then gone.
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