In a stone alley just past Park Avenue, two steps away from one of the busiest cross streets in Manhattan, the garbage runs real.
The alley runs straight down to the river, and the stream of litter, large bags of waste, and bottles jostle for space with metal trash cans, discarded packaging, shredded paper, glass, and plastic. The only breaks in the torrent of solid waste are scratches left on the smooth surfaces of the narrow concrete alley by dogs.
Jillian Hulseman is a photographer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Design Observer, and other media outlets. Her project, “Behind the Flood,” illustrates the debris at an estimated four million watery basements a year on Long Island.
After a little backtracking, I find what looks like a small sugar bin full of shells and clothing. “It’s a startup out there, they’re just scrounging for scraps from the cleaners. They’ve been living out in New York, off the grid, for years,” she says.
Stunned, I try to decide whether I want to hear what the scrappers have to say, or not. They ask for the moonlight so they can see, and talk over my shoulder, sharing in their thoughts, and rarely stopping to speak to a stranger.
“It’s just, man, you can really feel the people here. It’s pretty amazing,” she says.
Three-year-old fireman is stoked to be a ladybug.
The fireman is named Matthew and uses me as a lifeline while he fights a fire in Brooklyn. He constantly fights traffic and gets in small scrapes, but is an all-around gentrifier, has a dog who knows how to be a ladybug, and checks in with his mom every day to ensure she’s OK. He’s always happy to stop to say hello to women walking their dogs.
Sometimes, I’ll get passed outside a house, and the men in the neighborhood will cheer me on. I have no idea who they are, what they do for a living, or what they do with the dogs. They’ll say “Hi!” or wave or wave again. I’ll ask for directions.
One day, I notice two boys holding up signs in Spanish. I’m as uncertain as the boys. I think maybe it’s their friend.
I follow the boys to a railroad yard.
Near the bridge, they tear out the roof.
The boys were mad because someone was late to their party. The roof was almost gone, and they were screwed.
They’ve found clothes and household products for sale, drink straws, sheets, towels, hair ties, plastic water bottles, random debris, beer bottles, plastic and foam coffee cups, decorations, and toys for sale. (Other items are discarded by the Brooklyn Bridge.)
The boys have fun during their scavenger hunt.
The fireman bites into a peanut butter sandwich.
Matthew carries a large glass liquor bottle full of wine.
Matthew chooses a t-shirt to go inside.
The firefighters live at the end of a narrow alley, in the basement of a three-story house. They only get one fire alarm per year — they have to use an elevator to get into the stairs — and the smell of smoke gives way to the sour smell of urine and mold.
They say their food tastes better than other people’s food and their house looks nicer. They are better than other firemen because they are the first to show up to the gym.
Matthew and the boys have a soft spot for animals and people who don’t have much money. Matthew tries to help other firefighters by taking it upon himself to buy a treadmill so the guys don’t always have to go to the gym. The other firefighters are shocked. “No way!” they say.
Though Matthew’s life is not normal, he tries to live an atypical life. When he’s not helping firemen or scavenging, he teaches Art History and English and goes to a preschool in Prospect Heights for five hours a day. He’s never worked in the fire department, and mostly stays at home with his best friend and his terrier.
One day, Matthew gets home and finds out he got a job as a paid firefighter — he was the first cadet to graduate in 10 years.
He drives a grey Mercedes to work and talks about buying a pet.
And he never, ever goes to the gym.