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Alleys & Ruins no. 110, Compactor (2008, Indianapolis, IN, 2am)

Alleys & Ruins no. 110, Compactor (2008, Indianapolis, IN, 2am)

Alleys & Ruins no. 110, Compactor (2008, Indianapolis, IN, 2am)


A year after shooting Compactor, I return to Indianapolis and to the east side where the image was shot. A lot has changed in one year, and the economic crisis has produced more dangerous conditions, forcing me to be more careful. As I'm walking around with two friends, looking for a shot, I notice there are many more dubious characters than a year before.

I find an abandoned residential apartment. It has crumbling stone steps that twist and turn up to the front door. The whole building and setting is ghostly and rich with character - it'll make a great shot.


After finding and marking my composition, I pull the equipment out and I set up the camera. A few people have gathered a block away, staring at us until finally they leave. A few minutes pass and there's a hulking figure walking toward me a block away. He is huge ... very tall, very big and more than a little intimidating. I look at my friends, Abigail and Chelsea, and decide to put the camera away. I tell them there's a small chance we'll have to run which doesn't go over well with them. The man arrives and I introduce myself. Appropriately, his name is Big Mike, and he's a 37-year-old drunk homeless man.


We talk and joke for a while. He sometimes sleeps at his mother's, but he doesn't like being there, so he mostly sleeps on the streets. In the winter, he goes to the top floor of a nearby abandoned building and he covers himself with a dozen blankets. Ten years ago, he spent a year in jail for breaking & entering and for robbery. An acquaintance had stolen 50 hits of acid from him, and he was trying to retrieve his goods, only to get caught in the process. He tells me how he used to do acid every day and once took 25 hits. He didn't sleep for four days and at one point had the classic idea that he could fly. But through his acid haze he also had the life-saving inkling that an attempt to fly from a rooftop might not work. Now he just drinks.

Despite his shady past and present, I decide I can trust Big Mike. He has a noble and endearing quality. But I also decide I can use Mike for protection so I ask him if he wants to make $10 as my lighting guy and he happily agrees. I start setting up again and my beautiful and expensive Hasselblad is once again on top of the tripod for all to see and admire.


Ten minutes later five guys arrive and they surround us - their leader is Jay, and he's not happy. "You in my place - you don't just take pictures on my turf - that ain't cool." Then several more black hooded guys arrive and they are now completely surrounding us. We've been swarmed by a gang and I'm getting a sinking feeling. Two of them are standing a foot behind me.

No threats have been made, but clearly this is bad. Big Mike also seems a little nervous but he towers over us all, and my $10 has become the best investment of my life. Big-ass Mike is on my side. So I try to keep a light conversation going with Jay and about the neighborhood and the abandoned buildings. Then Big Mike says that I'm paying him $10 to do the lighting. Jay looks at me and says, "I wanna get paid too! we all wanna get paid."

I tell him all I can afford is what I'm paying Mike, but the gang is not listening. I turn and face one of the two guys standing behind me, and I say "Hey, how ya doin, I'm Xavier." 


They stare at me in disgust without saying a word. I shiver inside, then turn to Jay. I keep a minimum amount of small bills on me for just these occasions. "I have $20 dollars on me. If I give Mike $10, I'll have $10 left. I can give you half of that cause I'll be broke if I give you the whole $10." Jay is pondering this but is not entirely convinced. The one flaw in my offer is the same thing Jay has been staring at: my gleaming Hasselblad on the tripod, the big Metz flash in my hand and the camera bag full of seemingly priceless equipment. This shot was aborted when Jay and the gang arrived, but its now time to put the gear away in preparation for a getaway. The tense small talk continues, but now the attention turns to the girls and its time to slowly disassemble the gear.

Jay is looking at Abigail and smacking his lips. "You have a boyfriend? coz I'd like to be your boyfriend." 


I'm starting to feel unbearably guilty - if something were to happen to the girls I don't think I could forgive myself. Before meeting Big Mike, the girls had freaked when I took them here. "We never go to the East Side - its dangerous here." 

"But you saw my work," I had said. "I only shoot in these places." I had told them its ok, we'll be safe. But now 30 minutes later I'm not so sure. And yet, the girls are playing it very cool. Abigail has picked up an empty 24-ouncer of gin from the ground and she's clinking it repeatedly against the brick wall, joking that she likes to smash people in the face with it.

I look down at the ground. I really don't want to be here any more and I'm wondering how this tense situation is going to play out. I start imagining what everyone is thinking.

Big Mike is thinking about his $10. He doesn't have it yet, and as long as I'm safe he'll get it. If the gang attacks us and wins, he doesn't get his money.

Jay is thinking he wants everything, but how does he get it? He wants the money, the camera and the girl. He's trying to work out the odds and with Big Mike there, he's not sure which way to go. Does he signal the gang to jump us?

While this chess game is being played out, I start slowly putting the gear away which feels like an eternity. I zip up my camera bag and look around. Our vehicle is down the dark alley next to us, but that would be the wrong direction to go. I signal to the girls that we're heading for Washington - a half block away. I pull out my money and I only have $10, not $20 as I had thought. My stomach is churning inside, now I have to go back on my word with Jay. I tell Big Mike I'm done - thanks for the great job, and here's your money. The girls and I instantly head for Washington. I have to make my way around a couple of the angry hoods, and Big Mike follows. This all happens more quickly and smoothly than I expect and in no time we're on the main street. Jay's gang is left in the dust befuddled and angry they let this fish go. I'm feeling a massive weight lifting, like I'm waking from a terrible nightmare and realizing that the gang in this nightmare won't be smashing my face in, stealing my gear and dragging the girls away.

As we walk quickly I tell Mike how he really earned his money. He looks at me uneasy and says, "They wanted my money, they were gonna take my money too!"

Abigail, Chelsea and I walk around the block and end up behind the building where we can see the car in the small, dark parking area. Its risky, but we quickly head for it, with the gang possibly still on the other side of the building. We jump in and race off.



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