One Man’s Trash

“When your city is surrounded by corn, you look for the things that stand out.” A work of absurdist yet contemplative fiction that brings to life the unlikely, and ultimately inspiring, mayoral run of a man simply known as Alley Cat…

by: Mark Abdon

Admittedly, Alley Cat is a strange name for a person. I met him once; I’d just stepped out of the Rocket Fizz candy store with my family in downtown Indianapolis. Outside, I noticed a man who looked like a tan Danny Devito with long hair leaning against the building. He was finishing up an arepa, a corn pancake filled with shredded beef from the Venezuelan place down the street. We made eye contact. He held the arepa in his left hand. He ahemed loudly. His right hand was open and empty — the universal sign of hope. 

My wife shooed the kids toward the van as I explained to them our family Family Policy: We Don’t Give Money. We’d be happy to buy him food, though. He shrugged and took another bite, brushing the frayed tips of his hair with arepa juice. I shrugged too and turned away – the universal sign of departure. 

Alley Cat then pounced into action and sidled up to me, revealing that he had fled New York City, where he once stabbed someone. He was sorry about it. He was also sorry to have left his mule in upstate New York. “Just like that, a guy gave me a mule for free. Can you believe that?” 

I wasn’t sure I could. But I kept my mouth shut out of midwestern kindness. Plus, he’d moved on to asking me for heroin. I was clean out, I explained as we fell into walking side by side. I didn’t mention that I’d never so much as smoked a cigarette.

Once more Alley Cat was on to the next subject: Politics. I listened politely, planning my escape as we plodded along. He spoke with conviction, hunched over and gesticulating, his arepa flailing wildly. All at once, he stopped and said in his surprisingly high register, “Land of the free, huh? One side wants to take away our guns and our religion. The other side wants to take away our drugs and our black people. Now what’s free about that?” He ended with his non-arepa hand pointing menacingly at my chin.

“Sounds like you should run for office, Alley Cat,” I’d said as a parting joke, finally breaking away toward our minivan. I didn’t look back. 

The next time I saw Alley Cat was on TV. My kids and I were watching the Colts game. After the halftime analysis, the station ran commercials from Pepsi and Lexus and something called BetterWater. Then came the local commercials. I headed to the sink for some water, when my oldest yelled, “Dad! We know that guy!”

I poked my head around the corner of our kitchen. Sure enough, Alley Cat was on the screen, standing behind a podium. I missed the first few seconds, but arrived just in time to hear this: “…and that’s why I’m running for Mayor of Indianapolis.” ‘This Message is Approved by Alley Cat’ — it actually said that in the caption — ‘and the Libertarian Party of Indiana’. Then it was on to a local car dealership commercial that had hired someone blonde and in their mid-40’s to say their trusty cars were better than other people’s cars.

Bemused, I turned to my son, his eyes still glued to the screen. “Did you catch the first part? What’s his platform?”


“What did he say he wanted to do? Like eradicate– err, help with homelessness? Or legalize drugs or what?”

“Oh. No. He said that everyone deserves free arepas.”


There are multitudes of ways to get elected to political office. You could be independently wealthy, or you could be famous, or you could be really good at fundraising, or a firebrand speaker, or you could tap into the deep needs of a large demographic of voters, or you could be very tall and good-looking. Those all work fine. Being homeless, presumably addicted to drugs, and generally unhinged is not the typical recipe for this sort of thing. It’s a great recipe for lots of other things, but not usually the leadership of a city. 

However, Alley Cat had three things going for him.

One: He was confident.

Two: He was armed with an unlimited supply of arepas from La Parada, a local Latin restaurant that had recently received a sizable donation from the Libertarian Party of Indiana.

Three: He was backed by a very, very wealthy donor. 

The newspaper that broke the story only knew about the first two, the thing and most important attribute flew under the radar for a very long time. ‘Homeless Man Looking to Move Into Mayor’s Office’ was the headline. I skimmed the article to see what else they knew about him.

He’d legally changed his name to Alley Cat some years ago, so there was one mystery solved. He did indeed move from New York City to Indianapolis, eight years back, though the author of the article didn’t elaborate on the circumstances. He had no other surviving family members.

But he did have many, many friends. He was something of a celebrity in the local homeless community. That already went against some of my preconceived notions of what life must be like for Alley Cat. But there he was in a photo, strands of greasy hair haloing his head, holding a sign reading ‘Vote for Alley Cat’ adorned with smiling, photo-shop arepas in the corners. In the picture, he was surrounded by laughing, grinning vagabonds. A motley crew to be sure. But there were dozens of them — old men, young women, a few kids, people with significant disabilities, people with nice clothes, people with ragged clothes, people with very little clothes, black people, white people, everything people. 

I recognized a guy with an eye-patch holding a saxophone. He was always playing at the corner of Illinois and Washington, right by the mall downtown. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to meet him too.

Three days later, my doorbell rang. My kids were at school, and my wife, a physical therapist at Eskenazi Hospital, was at work. I’m a writer, so I just pretend to work from home. I’d been alphabetizing my books again, this time by author’s first name. I put down Traveling Mercies and went downstairs.

There, on my porch, was a saxophonist with one eye.

“Hi…can I help you?”

His speech was well-rehearsed and the words flowed together like a jazz solo.

“Hello, my name is Max and we are out here today raising awareness for the mayoral election next month, sir, can we count on your support?”

He held out a foil-wrapped round object toward me, which I guessed was an arepa.

“Oh. Well. That depends. Who are you campaigning for?”

Slowly, ever so slowly, Max raised his head to look me up and down with his one good eye. He retracted the arepa.

As I looked him up and down, I now noticed that he was wearing a ‘Vote Alley Cat’ t-shirt, donning a hat with a cat with sunglasses perched over the words ‘Alley Cat’, and holding a stack of pamphlets whose contents I couldn’t begin to guess. I leaned closer for inspection. As I suspected, he had even affixed a sticker of a cat eating an arepa to his eyepatch. The same sticker was plastered to a wheeled red cooler behind him. More arepas surely. I nodded, impressed.

Max was not particularly impressed with me however. “So, can I get your John Hancock? Need ten thousand of ‘em so he can participate in the upcoming debate.”

“Well that depends,” I said in a very pleasant tone. “What kinds of changes would Alley Cat make if he were elected to office?”

In answer, he proffered a pamphlet. “Read this. Whole plan’s in there.” He was already backing down our front steps. I was worth no more of his time.

I thanked him, took the pamphlet and began to shut the door when a curiosity bubbled up from my gut and I found myself asking Max as he walked away, “Wait! Max, aren’t you losing money doing this since you’re not on the street corner? I mean, I assume you’re not getting paid to…uh…”

He was already halfway down our sidewalk, but turned and called back, “Feels good to do something nice for someone else.” And with that, he walked on to the next house, where I could already hear the familiar flow of words, “Hll, my name is Max and we are out here today…”

I looked down at the pamphlet. A wide-eyed Alley Cat stared back, his shining hair pulled up in a ponytail. I opened the pamphlet and I’ll say this — he was consistent in his messaging. Everything that was in the pamphlet was what everyone heard that night of the televised Mayoral Debate. 

I suspect I wasn’t the only one scrambling to pull up Channel 66 three minutes before the debate started. Alley Cat had created a stir in an otherwise dull election season. The mystique of Alley Cat had snowballed as of late. Maybe it was the rumor that he’d listed his address as “The blue tent next to the Davidson on-ramp to I-70 eastbound.” Or maybe it was the charity auction he’d hosted that positioned authentic garments worn by real homeless persons as collectible art pieces. The legend of Alley Cat was in full tilt.

I waited with bated breath as my TV initiated a channel search in order to find the local public access channel that was televising the debate, a channel I didn’t know existed before that day in early November. 

There they were. Three candidates: Red tie, Blue dress, and Alley Cat. He was wearing a t-shirt that affirmed my decision to put my boys to bed before the broadcast, one which depicted two images of a cartoon cat with sunglasses on and one paw in the air, first behind a wide-eyed elephant, and then again behind a perturbed donkey. Once more, I thought of a mule somewhere in upstate New York.

My wife and I settled into the couch with popcorn as local celebrity news anchor Pharoh Jackson laid out the ground rules. We, the city of Indianapolis, loved Pharoh.

“I will direct a question at one candidate at a time. Each of you will then have a chance to respond. You do not interrupt me. You do not interrupt one another. Do not make me come up there myself and interrupt your ability to voluntarily open and close your own mouth.” At this, he held up a roll of duct tape, presumably for show. But you never knew with Pharoh.

Indianapolis loved Pharoh for his refreshingly distinct persona. Indianapolis also seemed to love Alley Cat for similar reasons. When your city is surrounded by corn, you look for the things that stand out.

The camera panned and showed the rolling waves of black, white, and gray — the supporters of two political parties still chuckling at the duct tape from their carpeted seats in the audience. Mumbling in the wings, however, was the colorful cast of characters that had helped turn Alley Cat into more than just a flash in the pan, more than just a household name in Marion County. He would be on the ballot, with his name in Helvetica 12-point, same as the other two candidates, equally respectable in print. The debate was another matter.

Well, the first part went very much the same as any old debate. Blue Dress and Red Tie took turns firing shots at one another. It got nasty a couple times. Name-calling. Interrupting. The usual Kindergarten-type stuff. The part where everyone watching thinks: This is the best we could do? Pharoh raised his roll of tape in warning a couple times. No one pulled Alley Cat into the fray though. Guess they didn’t see Alley Cat as a threat. Or maybe they viewed him like a bomb that might go off if you got too close. Either way, they pretty much ignored him. Every once in a while, the camera would zoom in on Alley Cat. He’d be picking his teeth. Or his nose. He looked bored. We were bored too. This wasn’t popcorn-worthy. 

My wife announced she was going to bed in five minutes. I said I wouldn’t be far behind. We both raised our eyes back to the television, a last-ditch effort of hope that something would happen.

“Alright. Next question,” began Pharoh. “This is to you, Mister Hawthorne. What do you plan to do about the wave of violent crime that swept our good city this past year?”

Red Tie cleared his throat, his white hair wafting in the air conditioning. “Well, uh, Pharoh, what I think contributes to such a needless waste of human life in our wonderful yet troubled city is the quiet desperation of our working-class folks. They need jobs to provide for their families, and when,” he took a practiced pause and sighed theatrically, “when you’re out of work and out of food, that’s when you start to–”

“Whoa whoa whoa…”

Camera 1 pivoted fast to an animated Alley Cat. 

“Out of work and out of food, huh? I’d say you’ve crossed into my territory, pal. Stick to embezzlement and coke and prostitutes.” A few gasps. Alley Cat continued with his pinched, high voice. “Actually, I’m knowledgeable about several of those as well.” This drew a punctuated laugh from the room. I found myself grinning at the remark. “Now I don’t know your life story, but just looking at you, I’m gonna say that you haven’t exactly gone hungry in this life.”

Camera 1 shifted back over to Red Tie just in time for the at-home audience to see him attempt to suck in his ample gut before raising his arms in appeal to Pharoh regarding the interruption. Camera 2 showed Pharoh Jackson, failing to keep a straight face and failing to enforce his own rules. Blue Dress also shared Pharoh’s smirk. Camera 1 fixed Alley Cat right back into the center of our screen.

“Violent crime, huh? I know a thing or two about—”

“Sir. Sir! This question was directed to me! I demand—” 

“I once stabbed a guy in The Big Apple.” Well, that shut everyone up. “Sure, I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have food, but you know why I stabbed him?” The only sound in the auditorium was the sound of 500 attendees scooting to the edge of their seats. “I stabbed him because I had the courage to stab him.”

I too was on the edge of my seat. Now this was something.

Pharoh smiled unflinchingly as each of the other two candidates looked to the wings for signals from their campaign managers. For ten seconds, nobody spoke. Ten seconds isn’t very long, but in a debate, that’s an eternity.

Since no one was stopping him, Alley Cat went on. “Guy with the bad tie, don’t you think it’s weird that we’re talking about gun violence, and you didn’t mention taking away some guns? I know, I know. Second Amendment. But the big ones, right? Like you could kill a rhino with one of those things. You got a lot of those in the suburbs, guy? Rhinos?” Half the crowd chuckled at this. The other half crossed their arms.

Red Tie began a response, and we caught the word “freedom” before he was drowned out by a louder voice. A newly emboldened voice. 

“Ha! Protect freedom at all costs, eh? Tell it to the pregnant teens that have to drive over state lines to get an abortion now.”

Half the crowd erupted in clapping. The other half grew red with anger.

My wife and I ate popcorn like it was the last bag on earth.

Alley Cat continued, cool and confident.

“Guarantee that if you take away some guns, the violence goes down. You know why? Because people are cowards. Guns are a coward’s weapon. You can kill a man from a hundred feet away with one. But a knife? You look ‘em in the eyes as the blood drains out.” 

The entire crowd looked uneasy. 

Alley Cat went in for the kill.

“The reason you don’t talk about taking away guns is because a defense contractor donated five million dollars to your campaign, and you don’t have the balls to bite the hand that feeds you.”

Now people were standing and shouting. Both sides.

The rules had been broken. The truth had been spoken.

Blue dress was applauding. Alley Cat whirled on her, a crazed look on his droopy face.

“And you! You’re no better! You use poor people to stay in power. The minute I get a job — poof! — there goes my disability money.

Blue Dress began to respond. She was again cut off by Alley Cat. She looked to Pharoh for help, but he knew good TV when he saw it. The duct tape didn’t move.

“You use us! Just like you’re using me right now! Sure, pretend like you don’t know that your biggest donor is also my biggest donor, right? The commercial real estate guy. What’s his name? Fitzgerald. Funding my whole campaign. Now why would he do a thing like that? I’m guessing that it’s a scheme to bleed votes from that guy.” He hiked his thumb in the direction of the shriveled Red Tie.

That drew gasps from half the audience. Indignation from the other half.

Pharoh saw his chance.

“Mr. Alley Cat, sir. I appreciate you finally showin’ up. Now, we can guess a few things you’re against, but I think I can speak for everybody here and everybody watching at home that we want to know what you’re for.”

I thought about the pamphlet. I thought about how you could hear the creaking of the fold-down seats in the audience as we all waited. I put my arm around my wife and drew her close. We watched as Alley Cat’s face scrunched together like a sponge, wringing itself out. When he spoke, he spoke softly, and we leaned our bodies forward like he was a magnet and we were just paper clips.

“I stand for treating people like people.”

Eyerolls from the audience. Pharoh would have to draw him out now.

“Mr. Alley Cat, sir, what do you mean by that?”

“I mean…you never know what people are going through. These two,” he motioned to his compatriots on stage, “have been going at each other all night. Calling each other jackwads and hoes and whatnot.” I couldn’t remember anyone using either of those terms. The look on my wife’s face told me the same. “But listen. They’re humans too, right? In going through Mr. Hawthorne’s trash last night,” there was a spike in murmurs from the audience, like the sound of golf fans around the green, “I found about two hundred of these.” He pulled out a different pamphlet. Camera 2 zoomed in. This one had an old man’s face on the front, and some words from the Bible. “Yeah. His dad died last week. Did you know that? His dad just died and now he has to get up on stage and put on a show. That’s hard, man.” For the first time, Alley Cat frowned. He turned to Red Tie. “Sorry for your loss, guy.”

Red Tie muttered, “Thank you.”

“And this lady. In going through her trash, I found all these papers from the oncology ward at St. Vincents! She’s got canc—.”

 That is not yours to share! How dare you!” Blue Dress looked like she’d swallowed a horsefly.

“Well, I dare because I go through people’s trash all the time. And sure I find some food. But I also find a lot of stuff that reminds me that it’s not just my life that’s hard.”

“I’m going to sue you for libel, you disgusting little—”

“Oh, and I’m sorry about your cancer. Sincerely.” He turned back to the audience. “But I just mean that we forget how to treat people like people. Believe me, in all these years on the street, you see it all the time. Most people won’t even make eye contact. Or if they do, they look at you like you’re a bug that should’ve been squashed a long time ago.”

Blue Dress again appealed to Pharoh, who seemed sympathetic to her and began to rein things in when Alley Cat said, “Last thing I’ll say tonight, I promise. I don’t know how to make people treat each other like people. There’s no law we could pass to do that.” He paused, looked at his feet a moment. “I wish,” he looked first at Red Tie, then at Blue Dress, and rubbed his balding head and cleared his throat. For a moment, I thought he might burst into tears. Instead, with a weak grin he said, “I have to go see about a mule.”

And with that, he walked off stage. His entourage filtered out too.

The rest of the debate wasn’t the same. It was lifeless now. In the end, they called it quits a little early. My wife did too. 

We never saw him again.

I sat on the couch. In the dark.

A week later, we saw the front page news. The election results were in.

The plan had worked. Blue Dress won by a narrow margin. 46 percent of the vote to Red Tie’s 44. Alley Cat had a whopping nine percent. I felt a small swell of pride. I was part of the nine. 

A warrant was issued for the arrest of Alley Cat. He was wanted for the murder of a man in New York City. I wondered if anyone checked for him at a farm upstate, in a barn stocked with timothy hay.

Sometimes when I’m walking downtown, I stop by the corner of Illinois and Washington. There, a one-eyed man with a saxophone gives free concerts three seasons of the year. I listen for a while, and then drop a twenty in the open case for his performance. I nod and tell Max “thank you” and look him in the eye when I do.

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