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TODAY

Saturday, April 22

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Detour

It is over two hours before the first pitch, but the sidewalks surrounding Wrigley Field are already abuzz with activity. The St. Louis Cardinals are in town for an important weekend series with the Cubs. The infusion of rival fans lends a marked tint of red to the usual sea of blue-clad humanity that clogs the intersection of Clark and Addison Streets. More than anything, the scene resembles a bazaar as practiced cries arise from hawkers of wares that range from the old-fashioned to the obscene: peanuts, scorecards, tickets, car share services, contact lenses and t-shirts that graphically imply the visiting team's homosexuality.

The most distinctive element of a game day on the North Side is also present: Plastic cups filled with Old Style and Budweiser rest in the hands of hundreds of fans crammed into the neighborhood barrooms and beer gardens. In Wrigleyville, the Cubs are an obsession, but beer is king. Just ask Barry Woodson.

Sheffield Avenue is famous for being the landing spot for lengthy, right-field home-run balls, as well as the home to a row of popular rooftops. A mere Texas leaguer away from Sheffield, however, lays Woodson's small domain of dumpsters.

For the past seven baseball seasons, Woodson has been "canning" -- collecting and recycling aluminum cans -- in an alley half of a block east of Sheffield, underneath the elevated tracks of the red line. While his territory encompasses just four dumpsters, Woodson (better known as "Can Man") is the authority figure for the entire alley, prompting one policeman to dub him the "kingpin." "I asked him why he said that," Woodson says. "He said, 'Because everyone listens to you; you talk to everyone.' I guess I'll live with that."

Woodson, 50, is a small, African-American man. There does not appear to be an ounce of fat on him; it is as if the harsh elements in which he has worked for so long have worn away all unnecessary mass from his body. He wears a dark Wrigley Field hat pulled down over yellow, cloudy eyes. Grey hairs speckle his black goatee. He has large, rough hands. Woodson puts his soft, gravelly voice to frequent use by greeting almost everyone, friend and stranger alike, who crosses his path in the alley.

After being raised in western Tennessee by his grandparents, Woodson moved to Chicago when he was 17. His parents and siblings lived in the city, and he found handyman work through his godmother's real estate company. When he was a young man, Woodson fell from a porch and broke his neck in two places. (A sizable, vertical scar from this injury remains visible on his neck to this day.) Woodson began canning in the allies of Chicago at the age of 33. After ten years of this, a friend brought him to the canner's promised land: Wrigleyville. Seven years and two nicknames later, Woodson now runs what he calls a successful "family business" there.

For today's game, the "family" consists of Joiann, a young woman, and Ron, a friend of Woodson. Even though neither is related to Woodson, he refers to them, respectively, as his "niece" and "brother." Each of the three has his or her own dumpster; a fourth dumpster is used for glass, plastic, and trash that is separated from the cans. Large, black garbage bags hang from the corner of each dumpster. Woodson says that anywhere from 70 to 300 pounds of cans can be extracted from a single dumpster during the course of a Cubs game day. Their workday includes not only the two to three hours of baseball, but also the hours spent drinking by fans before and after the game. The work, though, is not constant. The "family" spends a good deal of time waiting for large dumps of cans and trash to be brought out from the bars and rooftops on Sheffield. They pass the time by sitting in the shade of the Red Line tracks smoking Newports, talking, eating, scratching lotto tickets, visiting with friends and passers-by and just waiting for the next dump.

~*~

During the fourth inning of the game, Woodson receives a large bag of cans from a nearby rooftop. He brings the bag to his dumpster and pours out its wet, metallic contents. After climbing onto his cracked plastic step-stool, Woodson bends over the front edge of his dumpster and sifts through the cans and trash. His hands work quickly and confidently. Unlike some of the other canners in the alley, Woodson does not wear gloves, aside from the padded weightlifter's glove on his right hand.

"No, I can't feel anything wearing gloves," he explains. "My fingers can't feel to crush the cans."

After throwing the trash into the dumpster to his right, Woodson drops the crushed cans into the bag hanging to his left. Barry, Joiann and Ron brought a total of 40 bags with them today; each bag can hold up to 30 pounds of cans. They are anticipating the Cardinals series bringing them a big haul this weekend.

The 2008 baseball season has presented a new challenge to Woodson's business: interlopers. For the first time in his years in the alley, he has had to ward off strangers trying to wedge themselves into Woodson's territory and profits. Often he has been able to repel their advances with words; there also have been violent confrontations this year. Woodson prides himself with keeping the alley quiet and free from violence, but he also refuses to back down.

"Tuesday, I had a guy come and say he wanted a dumpster," Woodson says. "I told him this is family back here. This is a family business. They come and say, "Cut me in or cut me out.' I say, 'Fine, you're out.'"

~*~

It is late afternoon and the Cubs have just pulled out an 11th-inning win over the Cardinals. Woodson knows, though, that there will be plenty of canning to do well into the evening. After the last dump of cans tonight, Woodson will spend the night under the train tracks. He lives with his aunt and sister in an apartment over a hundred blocks south of Wrigley. When the Cubs are in town, however, he is rarely home. Due to the threat of theft, Woodson and his fellow canners must stay overnight with their bags. "You can't leave the cans," he explains. "Someone'll come and take 'em. [The people driving junk trucks] are the biggest thieves you've got to watch out for."

A long night lies ahead for Woodson. After all the cans have been bagged, he must then pile them onto a shopping cart, or "buggy" as he calls it. He will use a system of long sticks, rope, and bungee cords to secure his load before he retires for a few hours of sleep with the red line rumbling overhead.

"The train doesn't bother me," Woodson says. "When I first started, yeah, it woke me up all the time. You be back here seven years, the train, the cars speeding through, the loud noises don't bother you."

~*~

The alley is dark, only lighted intermittently by dull yellow bulbs. It is 5am on Saturday and Woodson is ready for a nearly three-mile trek to a recycling plant on Kingsbury Street just north of Goose Island. His buggy supports a balanced load of "only" eight large garbage bags filled with cans. It is evident now why he wears the padded glove as he wraps around his right hand a thin rope, which he uses to pull the buggy down the alley. The trip will take nearly an hour, he says.

A major setback occurs before the journey even begins. Woodson follows his friend Keith to his alley in another part of Wrigleyville. While preparing his bags, Keith moves Woodson's buggy out of the way of a delivery truck. He moves the buggy up an incline and it topples over. Woodson is not happy. The collective weight of the bags on the buggy is too heavy to prop up, so he must remove the ropes and cords and reconstruct the load from scratch. In the ten minutes this work takes Woodson, Keith decides to sell his four bags to a man in a large pickup truck. Woodson refuses to do likewise and finally sets out southward on Seminary Avenue.

By the time Woodson reaches Lincoln Avenue, he is ready for a break. Even with his glove, the rope has been digging into his palm. He leaves the buggy in the street and sits on a nearby curb. While smoking a Newport, he recalls being caught out in a storm last summer. He and a friend had to duck wind-blown objects and even cars to make it back safely to the alley. He takes a long drag of his cigarette.

"We done been through a lot. We're survivors. We make this money to survive."

The sun has fully risen when Woodson arrives at City Scrap Metal. He is tired, but looking forward to putting some cash in his pocket. The eight bags weigh in at 151 pounds, which earns him $113. Outside, he meets up with Joiann and Ron, both of whom brought in well over 200 pounds earlier this morning. They rest before heading back to the alley for another big day. Because City Scrap is closed on Sundays, Woodson will bring two days' worth of cans here the following Monday morning. He's not worried, though -- he says he can fit 15 bags on his buggy.

"That's the mother lode," he says. "You should see that."

Click here to view the accompanying photo essay.

 

About the Author(s)

Jack Cantey is a freelance writer, artist and educator. While he rests his head in Logan Square, Jack's love for street photography takes him to a wide range of the city's neighborhoods. You can view his Chicago photography at http://jackpix2008.blogspot.com/.

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