Friday, October 26, 2007


It's not until I got to the third definition of "alley" on the OED online that I found the definition I associate with the word (the first and second definitions seem to refer to almost any kind of passage-way in a village, town, or city):

3. a. A passage between buildings; hence, a narrow street, a lane; usually only wide enough for foot-passengers. blind alley: one that is closed at the end, so as to be no thoroughfare; a cul de sac. the Alley, particularly applied to Change Alley, London, scene of the gambling in South Sea and other stocks. (In U.S. applied to what in London is called a Mews.)

The word--with wildly different spellings, including "alei"--goes back to the 1300s but seems to have begun to take on the meaning above during the Renaissance, and at about that time it also, I suppose, began to carry unsavory connotations associated with urban life. In my micro-town in the Sierra Nevada, there were one or two legitimate alleys, but they were more like short, narrow roads between venerable, easy-going buildings--and overhung with trees. So early on, when someone spoke of an "alley" in town, favorable associations arose in my mind. Soon I would learn, from lore, that alleys in larger towns and cities were not to be trusted.

Sometimes you still occasionally hear men praise another man by saying, "He's someone I wouldn't mind having with me if I was caught in a dark alley"--meaning, of course, that the guy would be good in a fight. However, men who say this often have not been in an alley fight (nor have I, although I was in a total of one bar-fight, and I devoutly hope the tally remains at one), nor do they share plans for going through a dark alley any time soon.

I rather like alleys, but they do cause problems (besides the legendary problem of fights) with parking, driving, placement of garbage cans, etc. I think the post-World War II suburbs and suburbs built after that era pretty much did away with alleys, among other things.

A wee poem about alleys, then:


An alley never concerns itself. An
alley always concerns the social
geometry that shapes it—a pompous

boulevard’s way of saying
alleys will gladly be whatever cities
want ‘em to be. I’ve never met

an alley, though, that didn’t have something
to say about disappointment. An alley’s
often a lane with a rap-sheet, or

a refugee-camp for shadows. Once
I knew an alley that would get drunk
and boast that it used to be a highway.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

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