An alley can be a fiendish place. Tales from a host of ghoulish writers speak of dark deeds done in dark alleys. Perhaps the concern is that once you are in an alley, fleeing to the left or to the right is no longer an option. You’re penned in and the cattle prod is pushing at your back. And when you hear your steps echo off the decaying wood of the abandoned loading docks, there’s that rustle of someone back there in the gloom. Someone who has not friended you on Facebook. Someone who may not know of your trick knee that is unreliable when you’re anxious. Someone your mom told you may not have your best interest at heart — unlike Francis, who is now in the Seminary. THIS IS NOT GOOD!
So, I thought I’d check out an alley in Des Moines.
Tucked down behind Court Avenue, on a cold, fall afternoon, I saw a wagon-train of a bike parked near the entrance of a deserted alley.The ingenuity to string this together and actually have it get the owner from one place to another astounded me. Then I heard the “rustle in the gloom” coming out of the alley. And there was Jerry. Warily, he checked me out.
Gerald Raymond Collette. 49 years old. Lost his job. Lost his apartment. One would think a casualty of the Great Recession. Nope. Lost his job in 1992. He said he’d been on the streets for twenty years.
Twenty years? “No friends, no family,” Jerry told me with a shrug. Attempts to rejoin the world failed because of “ethics, morals, and values.” Articulate and clear-eyed, he said he preferred the street. When it gets too cold, he goes to a shelter. When he gets too sick, he goes to Broadlawns. When it gets too dark, he goes to sleep. Period.
He rolled a cigarette from a pouch of tobacco and contemplated his life — quietly. Was he thinking of the lucky Bondurant family that won the 202.1 million Powerball jackpot? Was he wondering if the legislature would again be in gridlock? And what about the fourth season of Glee?
“The secret is to keep bundled up,” he told me with a half-smile as he tightened his bike straps. Oddly enough, the only unlatched item on Jerry’s bike was the cleaning supply bucket hanging from the back of the trailer.
Jerry smoked his cigarette and then slowly headed off east towards the river — leaving us again alone in the alley. Did you hear that rustle back there in the gloom?