Alleys are half-wild places; they are the places where raccoons and skunks prowl at night, where kids hide their contraband items such as potato guns (and worse), where you might meet a resident stray cat you’d never see on a regular street. I like this illicit quality in alleys, just as I like the fact that people generally don’t walk through alleys. Everyone knows you’re supposed to stay on the street when you walk through town, not prowl through alleys like a hungry varmint searching for food. But when I walk through an alley, I get that frisson of excitement, similar to the one that comes from wading into a stream to fly-fish: there’s something illicit and transgressive–and thoroughly enjoyable–about violating a rule of civilized society. Pedestrians are most often found on streets, not in alleys, after all, just as folks who fish belong on the banks of the stream, not thigh deep in it, looking back over at the trees that provide the watery shadows in which trout revel. This kind of transgression is alluring and exhilarating, and it’s one reason I love alleys.
Houses, of course, look different from alleys. You can glimpse backyards and sheds, garages and decks, old bicycles and worn-out boats from the dust-covered alley. You can also see the vegetable gardens that go unnoticed by mere streetside walkers, the backyard window-boxes replete with petunias of all colors, and cute metal sculptures that play second-fiddle to people’s proudly manicured front lawns , those bastions of self-assurance. Walking through an alley, in short, is like looking at a real person who just woke up; walking down the street, on the other hand, is like looking at a public figure about to get his or her picture taken by a professional photographer. You can trust what you see when you walk through alleys.
To be honest, I’m not even sure whether an alley is a right of way; perhaps I’m breaking some kind of communal law when I walk down an alley. But that’s fine by me. It’s worth the risk to discover a hidden treasure that lies right beyond my own backyard.