Friday, August 29, 2014

On an Alleyway




There is nothing I like so much as walking the alleyways in the small city where I live. Houses and lawns put their best face forward toward the sidewalk and curb on their street. Everything is official and well-groomed, the orderly image that we wish to present to the public. But alleyways are another thing entirely. As I walk my dog along an alley, we pass rotting heaps of firewood, curiously shaped shanties and lean-tos and shacks, abandoned motorcycles and stranded boats, antique-looking greenhouses and garages with dim, musty interiors smelling of marijuana and spilled gasoline. Plum-sized predatory-looking spiders hang on forgotten trellises and aggressive dogs guarding their territory charge against chain-link fences barking hysterically. There are treehouses like the burial platforms of Sioux Indians suspended above little, aluminum-ribbed swimming pools, cisterns leaking water onto the damaged grass, gardens full of ripe tomatoes and fat cucumbers, vines crawling all over enigmatic little walls and storage sheds. Buckets and ladders lean against garages and odd utility boxes lurk under disheveled bushes and, sometimes, broken glass studs the asphalt. Home-made transmission towers scoop ham-radio signals out of the sky and back porches are studded with ear-shaped satellites disks. Squirrels walk the tight-rope of overhead power lines and cable connections and transformers hum in nests of wire. Everything bears the mark of assiduous, if negligent and idiosyncratic, human activity. You see backyard swingsets and overgrown sandboxes and corroding metal slides built for children who now live in Minneapolis or Chicago and have children of their own. Everything is falling down, collapsing, on the edge of oblivion.

In Austin, most alleyways bisect residential blocks. People have their garages to the rear of their backyards and access them by driving in the alley. Garbage is collected from the alleys and, in warm weather, they are pungent with the aromas of decomposing fruit and reeking paper blankets on which chicken breasts or thighs once reposed. Cats patrol the alleys and there are little caches of bones and feathers crammed into crannies in the adjacent fences and sheds. Some alleyways dead-end in enigmatic stands of trees harboring old, half-hidden garages bearing cupolas or sunken steeples. Other alleyways take sudden and sharp turns when they encounter masonry walls. A few alleys have tee-intersections with other alleys, permitting a driver to turn in the middle of a residential block and exit onto an adjacent street. These configurations are very rare and I have often wondered if a clever criminal might not memorize the anomalies in the alley system, lure police into a pursuit through those narrow alleys and, then, escape in the middle of block, by turning to the side, seeming to vanish, as it were, into thin air. I’m sure the local cops know all the roads, but do they have a clear concept for the system of alleys with its odd and unanticipated aberrations?

About three blocks from my house, I recently observed an alley marked with twin orange-tipped posts on portable stanchions. The posts signaled that the alley was being refurbished. A grader had planed away the crumbling asphalt covering the alley’s surface, cutting the soil down to the slick, black clay and slicing pebbles in two. Shortly after the alley’s surface had been skinned, it rained for a couple of days and the roadway behind the houses became very muddy. Then, there was fine, warm weather and, in the country, the corn grew so quickly you could hear it rustling as it surged upward, and the municipal highway crew was able to pour new asphalt over the black clay and amputated gravel. The new asphalt surface was wonderfully smooth and oily, as black as the darkest night you could ever imagine.

Thunderstorms swept over the town and it rained heavily for a couple of days. When I took my dog for a walk one afternoon, it was still drizzling and I held an umbrella over my shoulder. The dog is a Labrador retriever and I think she enjoys the rain. I strolled to the alleyway that had recently been resurfaced. The warning posts had been removed and the alley was open for traffic.

The oiled surface of the alley was spattered with water. The fallen rain had pooled into globular puddles, coagulating together under the repellent influence of the oil in the tar. The little pools of rainwater reflected the sky overhead which was a metallic grey. Walking along the alleyway, eyes cast downward, I experienced the most extraordinary optical illusion. The puddles of water, all connected by tiny channels and rivulets made a lacy filigree surface to the asphalt. That surface seemed to be like a leaf that time has rotted and eroded, a delicate structure of veins and holes. The lace seemed to hang over a vast black abyss – it was as if I were walking on a gossamer structure suspended over a bottomless gulf. But the most curious aspect of this illusion was that positive and negative values for the space below me wavered, oscillated, kept changing perspective. First, it appeared that the puddles below me were indented into the asphalt, holes in the surface of the road that dropped down to black depths. But, then, a moment later, the puddles reversed dimensions and were revealed to be globular, watery protrusions above the surface of the asphalt. In the course of a couple of seconds, the water ponded in lace-like patterns on freshly oiled asphalt seemed both abysmal pits below the tar surface or, alternatively, scuptural features, a bas-relief above the asphalt alley. The remarkable feature of this illusion was that it was impossible to perceive both aspects of the water pooled on the alleyway simultaneously – either I was looking into a hole or seeing a form bulging up from asphalt, always one or the other, but never the both at one time.

Halfway down the alleyway, the illusion overcame me and I felt nauseated, dizzy, a sense of spinning vertigo. I looked upward away from the asphalt. The wet sky overhead was either a limitless void extending luminously to the zenith or a heavy mat, a solid weight like the lid of a coffin pressing down upon me. The space between the houses wasn’t empty but a sculptural mass. And the houses and shacks seemed to be voids in the space filled by that mass.

I found my way to the sidewalk and paused there. My head was reeling. At the end of the summer, the squirrels are particularly flagrant, chasing one another in wild circuits around the trees, and, even, darting across the streets. Two squirrels came charging toward my dog. She bristled and, then, the squirrels were gone.


  1. Reminds me of the ecstatic vision the clique of I fear 4 Hegel scholars has in like a Swiss colloquium courtyard in 2666.

  2. Great comment! Thanks for taking the time to read this. Traversing the alley was like walking on a vast fragile web over an enormous void.