The Ominous Mystique and Allure of Alleys

Every inveterate walker of cities knows the allure of alleys. Dark, narrow and often damp, they tend to house trash bins, rats and worse, exposing the corroded back walls of homes or business establishments whose front entrances gleam with respectability.

Alleys are as old as ancient Pompeii and Rome, where they served as servant entrances and thoroughfare for service delivery persons whose presence might upset the careful social mannerisms attendant to the front door.

Alleys come alive for me every time I visit a different city and set about the walking that will help orient me to its gridlines, smells and bustle. I can’t help but stop and pause at nearly every alley I come across, noting its length and width, its doorways and bins, its daytime shadows and night time lights (or lack thereof).

Alleys are rarely wide and thus often dark and at least a tad ominous. Bums and various ne’er do-wells are drawn there, as are dishwashers snagging a smoke or something even more bracing to relieve the tedium of their endless deadening tasks. I’d never advise my daughter to use an alley to shave minutes from her destination, though the adventure of it might both draw and repel and thus broaden her vision of the life she’ll confront ahead.

Sure, some alleys house near-respectable bars or studio apartments or act as conduits for kids lugging their books to school in the daylight without having to go the extra block to the boulevard. I used an alley for exactly that purpose through most of my elementary school days, and then for more nefarious ends in junior high. That’s when my friends Mike, Dan and I got adept at stealing Playboy magazines from the Rexall drugs that butted up to the alley from its backside with only a narrow parking lot as a buffer.

Getting the magazine out of the store after slipping it into our 3-ring binder was a snap with the clueless clerks behind the counter, but after sitting down to view the contents in a little offshoot of the alley, we were faced with the challenge of the magazine’s safekeeping. That’s when the classic alley warehouse—always quiet behind its rusted corrugated tin and used for we-knew-not-what (if any) purpose—came to our assistance.

Blessedly, the tin warehouse walls were so bent and corroded near the bottom that they fanned out and formed a perfect pocket into which we slipped the magazine with ease. Protected there from passing eyes and the depredations of weather, the glossies of Playmate Cheryl and her many cohorts grew into a little stash of what in today’s world wouldn’t even qualify as soft porn, but to us 13-year-old aspirants of the heterosexual arts represented astonishments beyond understanding.

Thinking back to that alley and its warehouse today, I found myself wondering whether either or both are still there. Then two words popped into my head: Google maps.

Screen shot below.

In the days since we prowled this alley in the Los Angeles community of Eagle Rock, it looks like the warehouse installed shiny white siding in exactly the spot where we used to stash our Playboys. If the contractors discovered them there, it would have represented a rather peculiar archeological find, maybe not on the scale of a wooly mammoth bone, but reflective nevertheless of something profound in the lives of three budding teenage boys who had the wherewithal to make fine and appropriate use of the alleys their ancestors had so wisely laid out for them.

Thanks as always to photographers: Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Small alley shot near top of page courtesy of dcjohn of Washington, DC, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Large alley shot by Andrew Hidas this very weekend in Seattle, whose alleys and much else I have been fortunate enough to explore on an annual traveling book group with my friends Mark and Don, neither of whom, I am happy to report, bought or stole any Playboy magazines through the length of our stay.

3 comments to The Ominous Mystique and Allure of Alleys

  • rgraey  says:

    You’re scratching a long forgotten itch!

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” may have accounted in part for Robert Palmer’s untimely death at 54.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Read up on Mr. Palmer, Dennis, thank you. Are you suggesting it was perhaps guilt over sneaking his friend Sally through the alley (now there’s a song title I wish I’d have written!) that contributed to his fatal heart attack? Or just that his wife never let him forget it?

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