Alley's a great place to watch the world roll slowly past in a charming city tango


April 13, 1996|By ROB KASPER

SPRING HAS COME to our alley. I realized this the other evening when I was out in the alley playing catch with one of my kids. The kid threw the ball over my head, and as I hurried back to catch it, I stumbled in a pothole.

The hole wasn't there last fall when the kids and I played football in the alley. This winter's ice and snow had weakened the pavement. Now, with the spring thaw, a pothole was born. I made a mental note to call the city pothole repair crew, which, as I recall, is not very enthusiastic about fixing holes in alleys. They seem to regard potholes in alleys as less important than craters in major thoroughfares.

I disagree. I spend a lot of time in alleys and think there is a lot to be said for them. I like the pace of the alley. On the main drags, traffic is hurried and all-business. Nobody dares stop their car in the street to conduct a conversation. But back in the alley, the pace is slow and familiar. It is commonplace, almost required, for neighbors to exchange a few pleasantries before moving on. On the street, cars whiz past with an air of urban anonymity. But when a "strange" car goes bouncing down your alley, you notice. The streets may belong to the people, but the alley belongs to the folks with abutting property.

Over the years I have become possessive about the alley behind our house. That can happen to you after you have spent many Saturday afternoons there, sweeping up glass, chasing down roving trash cans, trying to help the hollyhocks grow next to a garage.

My kids, like countless generations of city kids, play in the alley. It is a place where they can toss a baseball, try out new skateboard moves, roll out the "homemade vehicle" made of skates and wood. Neighbors have told me that the "big alley" on the next block was once the site of a neighborhood lacrosse game that ended up producing players for the teams at Navy, Virginia, Bucknell, and Johns Hopkins and Maryland. When I heard this, I quickly bought lacrosse sticks for my kids and pushed them out the back door. But so far no college recruiter has come calling.

There is an edge to alley life as well. A kid can learn to ride a bike in the alley, but a beginner has to be watched. Bike stealers have been known to prowl alleys, looking for easy pickings.

You deal with a lot of life's ignoble side in the alley. There is, for example, the constant alley battle of keeping the trash confined to trash cans. This battle is fought on many fronts. There is the apartment building that has more tenants than trash cans. There are the occasional surprise deposits of trash that show up at the no-man's land near the ends of alleys. A veteran alley watcher can quickly spot trash that hails from "outside the alley." It just doesn't look right.

Then there are the trash pickers. This is a corps of men who prowl the alleys, picking through trash cans looking for something of value. Some of the trash pickers are neat and simply slice open a plastic trash bag and peek at the contents. Others root through the can, scattering the contents. If your cans have been visited by a "slice and peeker" or a "rooter," chances are good that all of their contents won't make their way into the trash truck when the sanitation crew makes its rounds.

This means you can end up doing an intricate alley tango to avoid the trash pickers. You can hold your trash cans behind a locked door until you hear the rumble of the trash truck as it approaches your alley. Then you can lug your cans to the alley and present the quick-working sanitation crew with your "untouched" trash. This requires matching your schedule with the schedule of the sanitation crew. If you don't connect, life behind those locked doors gets much harder and a lot more aromatic.

Another version of the tango is the midnight shuffle. Late at night you shuffle out to the alley with your trash cans. The theory is that by then, the trash pickers will have knocked off work and won't get their hands on your trash before the sanitation crew XTC arrives the next morning. I have had mixed results with the midnight shuffle. Some trash pickers, it seems, work the night shift.

When you hang out in the alley, you get a unique perspective on the passing scene. Sometimes when I am playing catch with the kids I get a glimpse of dressed-up folks hurrying to weddings or funerals being held at one of the nearby churches. Our alley is narrow and long, so when the well-dressed church-goers walk past, they appear to be framed in a photograph, a scene from urban America.

Yesterday the well-dressed people walking through the neighborhood were headed to the church holding the funeral for developer and social architect James W. Rouse. His many projects had a major impact on the look and feel of American cities. But he made his model town, Columbia, without alleys. Mine has hundreds of them.

Pub Date: 4/13/96

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