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first person: Common Ground

Everything finds its way to the alley: takeout boxes, broken bicycles, dirty sofas and guilt.

There's still an Old-World feel in the alleys: Lanes are wide enough to allow only one vehicle through (and take no heed of pedestrians); pockmarked dirt or cobblestone avenues turn swampy in some seasons, parched in others, and are inhabited by bugs and critters throughout. There's always the smell of nectar and garbage.

The alleys are the last refuge for the detritus of our necessities and remnants of our luxuries. Styrofoam takeout boxes wrapped in plastic bags get stuffed into the large green hard-plastic cylinders along with broken picture frames. Blue recycle bins corral crushed cans and plastic water containers. Worn and dirty sofas, with cushions tossed on top, slouch against fences. A worn bicycle with a scribbled "Take It As Is" sign wired to it is propped up on flat tires.

Everything eventually finds its way to the alley, which is why alleys are filled with guilt: Get rid of it, please, I can't take it anymore.

It may linger in limbo for a while, but eventually it does get there. By the back door is the trash bag pulled from the kitchen inside because it got full too fast (you had a party yesterday) or stinky too soon (you eat too much takeout). The bag will sit by the house, testing the elements and animals, until the anointed day arrives when it's quickly hustled through the lawn and tossed over the fence. Down off the deck, right off the patio, or bumpered up against the house are the kilned clay pots which begin with tiny packets of seeds stuck into them (you are going to have a herb garden), but as the season wears on and the plants in them sprout (or don't), the pots get taken to a stump in the middle of the yard before ending just outside the fence, dumped down into the alley. In the middle of the yard is a plastic cottage set up for kids to play in (so you can keep an eye on them), but it gets moved to the shade of the alley fence after the colors bleach when it becomes ovenlike in the summer. It takes only another step, some dull time, and it's over.

Or these objects are deposited in the showroom of yard sales, the purgatory of interests: the detached garage. The objects accumulate, spilling onto one another, mixing to gray. Crumbling cardboard boxes squat in the corner, stained from oil leaking out of the chain saw brusquely placed on top. Ignore the encroaching tree. It provides shade for the kids' cottage, anyway. A table with a broken leg is jammed in the corner, the carpenter's glue sits on top, the cap next to a couple rusty nails. Buy another one; one which is more suited to being a potting table. A leviathan under tarpaulin, though it's sheltered by a tin roof, dominates the concrete floor, hidden away from the only person who knows what it really is. Once every couple years the garage door is opened, the contents regurgitated into the alley.

I can only smile as I run. Maybe because it takes less muscle, but maybe too because when you get chugging, pounding foot after foot on hard-packed gravel and cockroach-tough weeds, you sail through letting your feet watch for the pockmarks which could turn your ankle and bring you down into a muddy puddle. Your eyes only notice things habitually, and usually only the ones you're familiar with. I've never seen an empty Haagen-Dazs container, but I've noticed a thousand wrappers for Andy Capp Hot Fries.

The alleys connect this city together, more so than the streets can — there's no reason to put a fa‚Ä°ade on the back — because we all have to hang it out there at some point. You nod and smile at your neighbor across the way, regardless of who it is or who he looks like or what she's wearing, because you've got your garbage as you membership card and the alley as common ground. Even the girl who furtively dumps clothes into the back seat of her car purring idle in the alley is giddy to go, happy to be going. She gives thanks for the alley, relieved she's finally ended it and is never going to return. Driving away along the street, away from a lover, is one thing, because you can always come back and be miserable again, but leaving by the alley is another type of gesture, because there's no going back. There's no alternative but to stay away and find happiness elsewhere.

Garbage men lead a procession through the alleys, handling, tossing, absolving, mixing your guilt with everybody else's transgressions. These sanitation clerics have seen it all before, smile because they'll see it again, and talk about the city which lets us live the way we do.

As you get your utility bill every month, you know it too: guilty as charged.

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