I grew up in a 1970's California subdivision where property lines ended at shared fence lines that functioned to foster un-neighborly conduct about whether or not it was ethical to pick the lemons from your neighbor's tree if the branches came over the line (it is), or what qualified as a "good neighbor" fence (making your neighbor look at the metal poles you installed in five pounds of concrete each, while you enjoy your newly stained redwood slats, does not). Which is why the only alleys I was familiar with were the concrete caverns adorned with fire escapes from West Side Story and the dry, weedy East LA ones in Blood In, Blood Out.
When I moved to San Francisco I got to learn about alleys - like how they aren't always behind buildings, sometimes they are the actual address, especially if they are an artists' co-op or an uber-cool hipster bar with no sign, or a really amazing collection of murals. However, they usually are pretty dirty and sketchy and most of the time smell like garbage and urine.
I became intimately familiar with alleys when I lived in the Mission District in a 1960's (?) duplex that was a little schizophrenic about what constituted indoor and outdoor space. We had one of those death defying staircases with individual steps like the Brady Bunch, but rather than being made of wood or covered in shag carpeting, they were made of cement and provided traction through gravel, which is also what the landing was made out of so you could really do some damage if you managed to fall down them - surprisingly I did not. We also had parking (glory be to god!) off of the alley which meant there was a garage door held up with plywood and corrugated metal, but no roof.
Mission District alleys get a lot of action, whether it is drunken hipsters wondering if this door is the new hot spot, gutter punks dumpster diving behind the new vegan restaurant, muscular dudes in white t-shirts chasing each other with what may be brass knuckles or maybe a gun, junkies looking for a little privacy, and me driving into our not-really-a-carport. The best was when my mom came to visit and I opened the garage door to someone shooting up into their groin. Awesome.
Of course alleys come in all sorts of forms, usually dependent on property value. I usually avoid the alleys that surround my office in downtown San Francisco, not because they smell like pee, but because they don't. While the Mission hipsters have a hard time finding the new scene, the Ladies Who Lunch are searching for that new bohemian cafe with the excellent wine list opened by the sous chef from French Laundry after they've had a successful meeting with the designer at the precious third floor walk-up studio for their daughter's (who lives in an artists' co-op in the Mission) wedding dress. There are also the crowds of web project managers, actuaries and ad sales reps that still have jobs sipping fairly traded, shade grown coffee that takes exactly 7.625 minutes to brew per cup through an organic linen filter with Fiji water.
I recently ordered an office lunch from one of the places that brews that kind of coffee and realized 1) since all sandwiches in downtown San Francisco are gonna run you between eight and ten bucks, it might as well be made out of locally sourced heirloom tomatoes and 2) they had outdoor seating...in the alley.
One day this week, I didn't manage to roll out of bed in time to make lunch, and since it is September and we have officially entered San Francisco's summer and I am reading a book that is enhanced by reading in the sunshine (most qualify for this, but The Road, not so much), I figured I'd treat myself to a sandwich with heirloom tomatoes on bread with artfully placed sesame seeds. I ordered my sandwich, opted for the free cucumber water instead of waiting the 7.625 minutes for coffee and went out back to sit at one of the cafe tables.
It really was quite lovely. I kept losing my place in my book (and my sandwich) because I couldn't stop staring at the gutters. Where was the stagnant water? Did it really smell like hand pressed olive oil and merlot instead of urine? Granted, I felt something of an impostor, but it really was lovely.
However, I've got a question. If the alley is full of cafe tables and umbrellas, where the hell do the poor servers and line cooks have to haul the trash?
photo: dcJohn's Flickr