Alley etiquette

The unwritten rules of the road behind you

I didn't have this problem in the suburbs. Years ago, when I lived in the land of second-and third-ring bedroom communities of garages with houses set behind them, we had these things called "driveways." The kids parked their Big Wheels bikes in them, we shoveled snow off them in winter, and hosed them down in summer. Driveways were not common space, were not the neighborhood corollary to a condo association -- unlike alleys.

The Whittier neighborhood where I've lived for the last decade is run through with these capillaries of commerce, where trafficking of all sorts occurs, where everything from drugs to davenports are bought, sold, pilfere, and disposed of, and where the rules about how cars, bicycles and pedestrians are supposed to behave are blurred and disputed. It is a complicated life, living amongst alley culture, and its peculiar etiquette is not easily learned.

There are, for example, unwritten rules about how to negotiate car space in an alley. Upon entering an alley from the street and finding it devoid of other cars, any old speed limit the driver picks out of the blue is just fine. However, if entering an alley from one's own garage, speed no greater than that of recently thawed spring slugs is demanded.

When encountering another car in an alley, the slow dance of determining which is the alpha and which is the beta car begins. Generally, the SUV wins; if both cars are SUVs, the biggest SUV wins, and if size and all other factors are equal, the SUV of the darkest color with the most opaque window glass emerges the victor. In a sign of subservience, the Beta car must pull over and the driver avert his eyes as the Alpha driver passes. If the fellow alley traveler is a neighbor, a weak wave of recognition is acceptable; however, if the driver is not identifiable, such a wave is advised against, lest you attract the attention of an errant pizza delivery person or an addict looking for a score.

There is a certain retail aspect to alley life. Dumpster divers and recycling harvesters are daily foot traffic, making it easy to donate to the needy simply by setting outgrown clothes and extra blankets on top of garbage cans. I have learned, however, that it is not acceptable alley etiquette to consistently pile bizarre junk around your trash bins, as does one of the group homes on our block, which has become despised among neighbors for its unending parade of computers with cracked screens, unmatched shoes, and dressers with half their drawers missing. Even the desperate don't want this crap, so it sits there for months, giving weeds a topiary form in summer and the snow somewhere to collect in winter.

Since the exact ownership of alleys is unclear and since what's discarded there is free to become public property or public art, depending, the little roads that bisect city blocks will always operate according to their own rules. If teenagers are looking for a spot to get a little (or a lot) amorous, an alley looks more private than the street--never mind the terrified homeowner who jumps 4 feet straight into the air from tripping over them on the way to take out the recycling. If workers spread their lunch atop a trash bin and gather around it like a cocktail table, well, who can object? In an alley, everything needs to be negotiated. We're not sure who's in the right, who's in the wrong, who should be there, who cannot be. Emily Post is silent on all the most compelling subjects.

Pamela Hill Nettleton lives by an alley in Whittier.