Some towns are alley towns. Towns with partial roads that run behind the homes, sometimes large enough for a parked car, sometimes not. Some alleys are paved with concrete, some with slurry, some a combination rocks and dirt and weeds all woven together in a tapestry of alley-tales.
An alley is like a self-cleaning kitchen junk drawer. In the alley, you can toss, drop, leave or dispose of anything you bought that you thought you needed but no longer do. Unlike the kitchen junk drawer, in which items become piled up over time, the alley is perpetually and purposefully messy.
An alley is the unpretty back of buildings, the worker-facing doors, the neon-colored graffiti-tagged dumpsters, a cardboard box bed wedged up next to the fence. The alley is where you see bars on windows, rusted grates, and walls painted with a miscellany of paint samples that weren’t quite the right shade.
The alley is everything we are not supposed to be. The alley is sun-spotted skin, the deep wrinkle in the middle of your forehead, the cellulite that wouldn’t fit into your bikini. The alley is the before picture before the before picture. The alley is that picture you made your friend untag.
The alley is where people undecorate their homes so that you can decorate yours. Found in the alley, a weather-whimpered rattan chair, an absinthe poster, an office chair with two-years worth of chestnut-brown hair wrapped around the wheels.
The alley is where the sweaty work happens. The painting, the sanding, the hammering. A place to remake something old into a vintage chest of drawers and call it shabby chic. In the alley, it was free. In the storefront, it is priced to what the new locals will pay.
“I found a table just like this one in the alley.”—Confession of a local vintage store clerk, as I examined the $299 table I needed to buy.
The alley is its own economy. There’s no gold standard, and there’s no guarantees. There are no price tags and no discounts, no cover charge, no membership fee, no tickets for entry. The alley always fits your budget. There’s no Alley-Card. Just taking and giving.*
There is no such thing as alley-lifting. Take what you like without fear of arrest. A self-help book, a scuffed-up shelf, the hard-to-find custom blinds that happen to fit your bedroom window? You could find all of these things in the alley. A stained coffee pot, a crumb-filled toaster, a desk with no drawers? All of those, too.
The alley is the instant replay of how people spent their day. It’s what they ate for dinner, what no longer brings them joy, the birthday paper wrappings and the leftover cupcake papers, tiny bits of baked good, sprinkles, and frosting still evident. It’s prickly tree trimmings and worn-out flower blossoms, the dress with a broken zipper, and the busted-up picture frame that you thought you really loved.
“Something might not be right for you. But if you put it in the alley, it might be right for someone else.”—Local OB resident
The alley is a place for altruism. A drizzly winter night, and two men offer to share Death Star. A local delivery driver slows, donates green for green. Don’t forget, Santa’s watching. He knows who has been naughty or nice. He’s sees the $1.19 bottle of Kentucky Cinnamon whiskey you left on the back stairs.
The alley is both galley and gallery. To stock your kitchen, choose the white ceramic colander or the half-opened box of Hungry Jack or the parrot-gnawed oranges that your neighbor pulled off his tree. There’s artwork and culture and history and beauty to be found in the murals and the faded signs, if you’re willing to be your own tour guide. The alley is an Instagramer’s dream photography studio, well-equipped with gritty lines, rough textures, and splattered-life backdrops.
The alley is therapy. It’s a place to practice letting go and a place to let new things in. It’s a place where you could smash a dish and no one would really care that much.
The alley is the place where people stash their shameful disappointments. Wine glasses for the parties that didn’t happen. Mattresses where something did. One man’s displeasure over a duct-taped suitcase becomes someone else’s ticket out of town.
The alley can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It can be a shortcut to where you want to go or broken-glass ride to somewhere you most certainly do not. In the alley, you can lose your past or create a new one for yourself.
Journal, if you wish: Write about an alley you’ve visited. What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had in an alley?
*Some consider “Alley Giving” to be “Illegal Dumping.” Proceed at your own risk.