I spent a Sunday afternoon in Austin with a friend of mine who is a photographer. Whenever we get together, we always run into the most interesting people. That afternoon I urged him to walk down an alleyway with me behind a row of bars on 6th street. Something about this passageway seemed enticing; and thus began what I like to call "The Austin Alleyway Adventures". After the experience we had that Sunday afternoon, I know I will not be shy to take the road less travelled more often.
The Lady In Hello Kitty Pajamas
As we wandered down this dusty, littered alleyway behind the "dirty 6th" street bars, we passed by this woman in Hello Kitty pajamas, holding a jug of water, and squatting next to a fence that lined the back of a building. The closer we got to her, the more clearly it became to me that she was muttering. She seemed to be speaking to the weeds that poked their heads between some fence wires that guarded a crawl space beneath the back of a bar. I made an immediate assumption that she was this crazy, Austin hippie that watered the neglected plant life in the polluted alleyways of the city centre. My friend greeted her kindly, and I, almost instinctively, asked her what she was doing. It was at that moment that we scratched the surface of the underground world of bars and cats.
Many of the 6th street bars and restaurants have this relationship with Austin alley cats that I could never have anticipated. I would never have found out about this small world if it weren't for the Hello Kitty woman's response.
When asked what she was doing, the woman responded that she was feeding "Ole Boy". Still plagued with preconceptions and judgment, I continued to assume that she was talking about the plants, until I took a closer look. There was a luscious, hefty, grey cat peeking out from under the building awaiting his refreshment. The lady was still a little crazy in my mind, until a few more questions gave way to something very rational, but more importantly, generous.
We discovered that she spent her early afternoons feeding the cats in the alleyway. There were at least 5 of them, and she made it her sole duty to take care of them as best as she could. When she shared with us that she had lost a mother and a kitten a few weeks ago, her face expressed genuine concern for the livelihood of these animals; unfortunately, the cause of their death is still uncertain.
Why would this woman continue to help these alley cats? It turns out the cats have a relationship with the surrounding bars. According to the black-haired, grey-eyed, middle-aged woman in her Hello Kitty pajamas, cats are the most resourceful, domestic animals to keep rats out of restaurant and bar kitchens. She revealed that the bars have created a sub-level system that allows the cats to wander in and out of the bars from below. Many bars have built kitty entrances that allow the cats to enter near the ovens or the furnaces where they can keep warm during the winter. So, how does this woman come into the equation? She surely must own one of the bars that rely on these cats to keep unwanted pests out. She informed us that she had acquaintances that worked in the nearby bars and has taken it upon her to look after these alley cats. She has developed a relationship with these cats that is so alternative to my current understanding of our current relationships with domestic animals.
She had created this symbiotic relationship with these animals that doesn't take away their autonomy. The cats have the choice to come and go as they please. They don't have restrictions or limitations. Finally, they have great respect for the people who take care of them. At just the sound of her voice, a new friend, My Thai, came crawling out from the back gate of one of the bars to greet her caretaker. She was weary of course, from the presence of strangers. Nonetheless, she trusted the lady in Hello Kitty pajamas and the hypnotic eyes.
After departing from this fascinating woman, we left her presence with this satisfying feeling that can only be garnered from knowledge, understanding, and kindness. Little did we know, our alleyway adventure was only halfway complete.
The Man Collecting Cans
Feeling pleased with ourselves, we decided to make our way down the alleyway across the street, almost hoping to interact with another interesting person. We began walking passed this homeless man fishing cans out of the dumpster. Neither of us paid him a full glance. It wasn't until he wished us some verbal pleasantry that we turned back around to acknowledge him.
Now, before I continue with this story, I want to tell you a little bit about my friend as it will give good context for why this moment was so valuable to me. My friend would describe himself as a shy guy. He is hustling every day to build his career in photography. One of the more recent projects he has decided to take up is inspired by "Humans of New York". There's one problem... my friend is a shy guy. Prior to meeting this homeless man, he expressed to me his nervousness about approaching people to allow him to photograph them.
The moment that the homeless man greeted us, my friend used the opportunity to photograph his first "human" of Austin. The man was so gracious and gladly posed for a photo. He shared with us that students were always walking around taking photos for college classes and that he was happy to pose for us. After my friend snapped a few portraits, he asked the man, collecting cans, if he could offer him some money for his time. The man replied that my friend owed him absolutely nothing and that he was happy to take the photo. My friend pulled out a bill and gave it the man who then had a reaction that no written description can fully justify.
His reaction arrived in 4 parts to my personal understanding:
1) The first part was to thanks us immensely. He shook both of our hands and thanked us again and again.
2) His second reaction was to embrace my friend so lovingly that his frail body could barely withstand the intensity of it. The embrace seemed to be an involuntary reaction as the thought of receiving money and grace from a stranger began to sink in for him.
3) The third reaction was this sudden tremble that resulted into light tears. He began sobbing in a very delicate way that made me question whether or not he was actually crying. I was so taken aback by how overcome he was. It really made me realise that to someone who has nothing, such a small gesture means the world to him/her. I felt so helpless yet so overwhelmed by love and empathy and sadness. I didn't know how I should feel.
4) His fourth reaction completed our trip. My friend and I walked away from the man collecting cans and began to make comments to each other about what we had just experienced. About 20 second after we left him, the man collecting cans shouted some words of empowerment from behind us. When we turned around he had his fist raised high in the air. He was sending us one last symbol of gratitude and recognition.
I will never be able to forget how this man responded to such a small gesture from my friend. I can't imagine what it would take for me to have a reaction like that. What could someone give me that would cause me to have such involuntary, emotional responses?
I believe it would have to be something big because I have lived a life of great privilege and fortune. I do know that it's important for people with privilege to experience the lives of people who struggle just to get through an hour of their day.
This concludes my weekend "Austin Alleyway Adventures". It goes to show you that there are tons of livelihoods that exist behind our conventional world. Next time you wake up, don't walk out the front door, walk out the back door, and be surprised by what you leave in your trail every day of your average life. It's amazing what you will discover if every couple of steps forward, you turn your head to look back.