Where I grew up on the edge of Old Richmond (before the neighborhood had “Old” attached to it or fresh coats of paint slapped on the brick cottages and Italianate two-stories to make it seem like an enchanting destination), there were century-old houses in various states of disrepair depending upon the age of the residents and whether they rented or owned, and attached to these houses were long narrow-ish backyards. The yards often had some sort of fencing to delineate one from another, or, in some cases, just forsythia bushes or shrubbery. Our yard had a high wooden fence with alternating boards that made it nearly impossible to look out, though you could press your eye to one of the slats for a narrow peek at the alley that sat behind the yard.
I wasn’t allowed to run wild, so my primary exposure to the alley were these peeks, or watching Mom carry our trash out once a week as I stood on a chair and looked out the kitchen window because I wasn’t wild about her being out of my sight. On maybe two occasions I crossed the alley into the backyard belonging to some neighbor kids who had an elaborate swing set, but because I was an introverted kid, I never really understood the thrill of playing with my peers and preferred instead my books or lurking on the edges of adult conversations, taking notes for future reference of things that really mattered. Plus, Mom never seemed too happy about me taking those few steps across the alley from the safety of our yard to the unknown dangers in the yard of the Joneses. (And there were neighboring dangers.)
So the alley mostly remained a mystery.
As a kid, I didn’t quite understand that the backs of the houses were connected to the fronts of the houses on the next block, so the kids that were growing up on South 8th, to me, were from a whole different neighborhood than I was on South 7th, simply because their houses faced a different avenue. If I started thinking about how our across-the-street neighbors, who seemed much closer than our across-the-alley neighbors, had a whole different set of alley neighbors than I did—people completely unknown to me—well, it was probably as close as a six year can get to tripping on acid. I didn’t need to travel to France; the world seemed vast as it stretched past the borders of our second-story apartment.
It wasn’t until I was much older and had friends who started moving into subdivisions with gorgeously manicured lawns whose ambience was wrecked by the presence of utility boxes or garbage cans out front that I realized what purpose an alley had served and the glorious city planning of yesteryear, creating a warren of pathways in which all the ugliness of human habitation could be hidden. Why would such a wonderful plan be abandoned? Now, unless you live in one of these neighborhoods from the 19th or early 20th century, everyone knows what you got for Christmas when you haul your overflowing Rubbermaid rolling garbage down your drive on December 26th (and they are judging you for using non-recyclable gift wrap).
Then I moved to Seattle, and because our apartment building is perched on a hill, it often makes more sense to enter the building from the alley, so I’ve grown more familiar with it. Because we share it with a hotel that has a restaurant we can’t afford in it, we sometimes open the back door only to find we have to squeeze past a produce truck to get where we’re going. On cold days, one down-and-out guy might be seen warming himself by the hotel vent, his hood up and cinched tight around his face to keep out the rain. We might say hi to each other. One day, I gave him a donut. But usually the inhabitants of the alley are hotel employees, standing around on their breaks, talking animatedly, maybe smoking a cigarette or texting, looking a little sad that they have to go back in for the remainder of their shift.
Until recently, we had a building manager for whom we had some real fondness even though she was odd. She once banged on our window at one in the morning because she’d locked herself out after chasing a surly character down the street who was loitering too near the building. Her apartment in our building was at the back, overlooking the alley. I read some reviews online that talked about how insane she was, hollering out her windows at people rummaging through the dumpsters, chasing people away. While I never witnessed it first hand, it didn’t sound like behavior outside her wheelhouse.
I hadn’t connected these online rumors with the nearly pristine nature of the alley back then, but the first three and a half years I lived here, walking through our alley was little different than walking on the street in front of our building. Though I wouldn’t choose to use it at night alone—mainly because I wouldn’t want to be surprised by someone who was taking shelter from the rain in the covered space where our trash bin resides—I had no opinions about the alley. It was just the quickest route up the hill.
Then, mysteriously, our building manager got replaced by someone younger and more polished. She has a college degree and a poodle and very classic fashion sense. Suddenly, our building has lots of “welcome neighbor” signs dotted around the common areas, though if you bump into her, she either blinks at you like she isn’t even sure you are a tenant or she turns her head to avoid conversation entirely. Her first sin against us was charging us a late fee for underpaying our rent for three months even though she’d never told us our rent had gone up. (It was the holiday and our powers of intuition weren’t up to snuff.) Even so, I’ve been trying to remain neutral about her until more data can be collected. She’s young, I keep telling myself. She’s just learning the job. And then she ignores us when she passes us on the street and I purse my lips.
Other than the new hallway art and area rug and the random monthly newsletters we get with generic health and shopping tips, the only real change I’ve seen since she arrived is the quality of the alley. I can’t imagine “police alley of all misbehavior” was anywhere on her job description and she doesn’t look the sort to chase down any unseemly types wreaking havoc there (nor does her poodle, for that matter), but now at least half the time I leave the apartment I’m greeted with someone standing in the trash, hip deep, digging for treasure. At first I thought it was one of the many homeless people and I chastised myself for feeling annoyed by this. But then I noticed the shoes on one who was hanging over the edge of the bin looked a little too hip. The Levis a little too fresh. These were just dumpster divers. On the one hand, I want to applaud them for finding uses for something someone else has declared useless, but on the other, I want them not to be there, scaring the bejeezus out of me as they pop out of the dumpster like some kind of hipster jack-in-the-box. More importantly, I want them to be tidy about their diving, so plastic bags and bits of cardboard and wrappers aren’t blowing up and down the alley like tumbleweeds.
I have no idea how the old building manager did it, but before her departure, we rarely saw mattresses or old arm chairs losing their stuffing waiting for a trash pick-up that will never come. Now? Our alley has become the place where beauty goes to die. It looks like a used furniture store lining our building and the building across from ours. Often, I think up reasons not to go out the back door, not because I’m “scared” of the alley, but because it’s just too hideous to look at.
Last week, I posted the above photo on Facebook and an old co-worker of Z’s commented: “I think we share an alley, Beth!” It turns out, he’s in the apartment building twenty steps up the hill from us, next to the hotel. Three-quarters of the time I feel insular and a little isolated in this city of over 600,000, but when I saw his comment, I felt like I was back on South 7th.
Maybe we should have a block party out there this summer and get to know our neighbors. There’d be plenty of (discarded) seating.