Our ladyfriend took me and the dog for a walk yesterday. The dog and I took turns pretending to lead. We guided her down the alleyways of the college town where we live.
This “alley walk” is one of our favorite autumn activities. In October, the serviceberries are ragged in plumage and rich in fruit. As an alleyway interloper munches on sweet berries or overripe fenceline grapes, he can see backyards through bare branches. And backyards tell the stories of the people who mow them. Are there children and are they spoiled? Where do they prop their ladders and bikes? What sort of arrangement do they have for after-dinner smoking? For stargazing? All is visible when the leaves are down.
If the leaves are not down in October then they are robust and jammy, like dessert wine. Muscat golds and port purples trickle down rights-of-way that only raccoons use, most days. People don’t celebrate alleyway foliage, notwithstanding its pluck and splendor. Nobody trumpets the accidental creeper, which suits the creeper just fine.
Many of the alleys in our town are unpaved tracks, fenced by century-old garages, outbuildings and arbors. The dwellings alongside alternate between restored and ignored: Here an ornamental vine is carefully trained along the trellis, there a water-bloated ping-pong table has leaned against the wall for three years. The aggregate effect is charming. Decay and renewal tuck close to each other like lovers.
I have occasionally encountered other alley walkers on my explorations. These men live on the streets or in some halfway home, and usually are far, far away from the economy I inhabit. But sometimes they demonstrate surprising knowledge of some subject dear to them—oil politics, say, or ten-year-old tabloid exclusives.
I stopped recently to read a poem written on butcher paper and taped to a window. As I finished reading, a gentleman approached me and asked about the poem. Before I could answer, he demanded to know whether I smoke cheba-cheba. I demurred. He persisted. I insisted: I don’t smoke cheba-cheba, for it disrupts my peace of mind. He laughed, spun wildly, and staggered on.
Some years ago I met two fellows in an alley who called each other God and Jesus. They were regulars down that way, passing sometimes on foot and sometimes on bicycles. God had a full head of white hair and a long white beard and piercing blue eyes and a clean hoodie. Jesus was unshaven, skinny, pale and a little shifty. He always asked for a cigarette or matches, and God was fond of saying that Jesus was the god of cigarettes. I thought it was generous of God to cede that little smoky corner of the firmament to frail Jesus.
I walked one October night with a friend down an alleyway where leaves danced beyond the cones of light on the street corners. The wind stalked us like a cougar, trying to make us run so it could chase us down and tear us apart. Everything seemed wild and dangerous.
In the middle of a dark block we suddenly noticed a barnwood shack with a door far too small for any modern human. It was sized for a child, but it was too rough, and in too rough a location, to be a playhouse or fort. A weak light shone through a filthy window. The wind tossed our hair and the sky tilted as we gaped. Someone inside moved! We moved, too: Away, away with the wind at our heels!
I have been to the same place since, in daylight. The shed is unoccupied now aside from a half dozen cats of varying temperament. A worn, handpainted sign above the door advertises “Dorellian Motors”. Nobody approaches from either end of the alley. The fallen leaves are thick, and so is the graffiti. Where mystery was are only questions now; but on windy October nights these questions rise to haunt the alleyways.
Here is an exercise: Flatten a map of your city on the dining room table and look for the alleys. You will easily find their starts and their ends, which are known points along official routes. But what about the line in between—the alley itself? It is probably not marked on the map. The back ways are known only to those who take them. And, realizing this, you may be the sort to consider other, more engaging exercises than looking at a map on the dining room table.