Want to learn the secrets of a Baltimore neighborhood? Just spend a morning walking its alleys.
There's something lovable about the alley. It's the unpretentious side of the street. An alley tour of the haughtiest of neighborhoods will shave that superior attitude down a notch or two. No alley is totally perfect.
I developed my alley affection as a child. Mother and Grandmother and I preferred using a route through the alleys and lanes to get around in Charles Village and Waverly. Back then, alleys had a scenery all their own -- pigeon coops, rose gardens and ornamental windmills. And any city child prefers an alley to the snazziest of playgrounds. The alley possessed a colorful cast of characters -- hucksters and the scissors-grinder man called this way. So did the ice cream wagon.
The days I walk downtown I regularly take the back-street route. Charles and St. Paul streets will be filled with noisy, stinking traffic. But the alleys behind the main thoroughfares are comparatively still. And they possess a lot more personality.
Throughout the summer, I've been getting up early at the hour when the alleys regularly are visited by a number of adamant junk collectors who beat the regular city sanitation crews for the discarded prizes held in plastic garbage bags.
In my youth, these pickers were referred to as the rag-bone man. His chant was, "Any rags, bones or bottles today?" Today, they don't announce themselves.
The market for bones seems to have dried up. But the quest for the aluminum can, discarded clothing or copper-anything is still alive. The alley stalkers I've encountered mostly push rigged-up supermarket grocery carts. One has affixed plastic milk crates for additional storage capacity.
Between 6 and 7 a.m., one trash forager goes after clothing. One morning, he actually climbed head first into an oversized trash bin tossed jeans, jackets and other garments into his cart.
Another man collects aluminum cans. He seems to know which plastic trash bags hold caches of Dr. Pepper and Budweiser empties. He's also brave to go searching through the mounds of decaying Little Debbie cakes and 12-day-old milk cartons.
I make it a rule never to touch a city garbage bag other than my own. I have no taste for greeting a rat at an early hour of the morning.
On another morning, I spotted a motorized junk picker. This man, who traveled with a woman at his side, has a regular route. One day, he stopped, hopped out and began smashing an old porcelain toilet tank for the small piece of copper it held inside. After he'd found his treasure (and left the alley a mess), he jumped back into his truck.
If you walk enough alleys you'll find there are still Baltimore neighborhoods where wash still gets hung out to dry. There seems to be a correlation between long lines of clean wash and alley pride and upkeep.
Snooping and peering is another reason to walk the alleys. You don't have to rifle garbage cans to satisfy your curiosity. As James Stewart and Grace Kelly learned in "Rear Window," back alleys are the finest place to catch up on your neighbor's business.