Welcome to What I Miss Most, a recurring column in which writers wax poetic about the things from home that they found themselves yearning for upon moving to NYC (or the things from NYC they craved upon moving away from it). For an archive of previous What I Miss Most columns, click
Texas expats have more things worth missing than expats from any other state, so it is with great arbitrariness that I forego:
... backyards, border towns, Tex-Mex, BBQ, chicken-fried steak, 10-hour road trips that don’t even take you out of the state, weirdness born of wide-open spaces instead of claustrophobia, singer-songwriters who inspire beer drinking instead of heroin shooting, college football that matters...
... to instead lament my loss of residential alleyways. Though virtually nonexistent in New York City, alleys intersected every block of my suburban Dallas neighborhood. Beyond providing a civilized place to deposit your garbage, they also served as thoroughfares of humanity and highways to misadventure.
In Dallas' alleys, I embraced recklessness and learned caution.
As a wee one, strolling through alleys made the residents of my wealthy enclave seem both more real, and more bizarre. Something as simple as a dilapidated tool shed or an un-remodeled back house offered a glimpse into character not afforded by a stately, street-facing facade. More particularly, a cherry-red ‘57 Chevy parked in a back driveway signaled that at least one adult’s happiness didn’t depend on acquiring the latest model European sedan. Two snarling royal standard poodles kept in a large wire cage? Clearly, one of these picture-perfect families was harboring monsters -- or at least, animals that served some stranger purpose than bringing joy to their children. (Seriously, those dogs were terrifying bringers of nightmares.)
My first smut mags -- a couple of Hustlers -- I found in an alley. Along with home & garden and cooking magazines, they were stacked neatly atop a trash can instead of sacked up with unfinished food and spent toilet paper tubes, as if part of some silent understanding between prosperous subscription holder and garbageman. It was a valuable lesson in noblesse oblige, as well as a shocking (at the time) revelation that those nobles harbored serious perversions: in one of the spreads, a woman was squatting and peeing.
The glory of boobs notwithstanding, my proudest alley find was a tortoise. I came across him cruising alongside a back fence sometime during grade school, and plopped him down in our backyard. He ambled around back there for a few months, then disappeared, only to resurface a year later, completely unchanged, because he was a tortoise.
In alleys, I embraced recklessness and learned caution. Once, I climbed into a strange family’s treehouse, then ventured out onto a branch that, to its credit, struggled to support me as long as it could before snapping. When it inevitably did, it sent me plummeting onto my back 4ft away from an iron spike planted to support a garbage can.
Years later, my friend Chad and I, knowing that our friend Holland was out of town with his family, “broke in” to Holland’s house through his always-open, driveway-accessible bedroom door, then poured half his parents’ liquor cabinet into pickle jars and spirited them away behind another friend’s house.
Some older dudes from high school threw me into a car. “We’re going to the Alley of Death.”
We took shots until we broke the shot glass on the concrete, and the next morning, once again, I learned that I wasn’t immortal. Thanks to alleys, I was able to receive that lesson without getting arrested -- our town’s police were focused on church parking lots, and even if they hadn’t been, there were simply too many alleys to patrol.
You’re probably asking, “OK, but can an alley also expose religious hypocrisy?” You bet it can. During a middle-school rampage of theft and vandalism, my friends and I burgled the contents of a Jeep Cherokee parked out on the street. Upon discovering that one of the cassettes we’d stolen was by Christian pop songstress Amy Grant, one of our more god-fearing brothers freaked the fuck out and told us we were all going to hell.
Not 20 minutes later, we came across an old MG in an alley. The same guy thought it would be a great idea to push the car until it gained enough momentum to fly out onto Hillcrest, a busy enough street even at midnight for this to be an unthinkable idea. Thank Jesus, we outvoted him and together went on to do less life-endangering terrible things. (He is now a religiously reconciled biologist.)
There’s one last alley I’ll bring up. One weekend, some older dudes from my high school threw me into a car and said, “We’re going to the Alley of Death.” No further explanation was offered. My reaction was fear, mixed with “Oh, sweet, I get to hang out with these cool older dudes.”
We sped through the night until we reached The Alley, at which point the driver turned off his lights, revved his engine and blurred through the dark until we hit a precipitous dip that dropped your stomach like the Conquistador ride at Six Flags. Everyone screamed, and then we pulled out of it and returned to our usual demeanor of too-cool-for-screaming, but knowing in our hearts that the best rites of passage are rides of passage.
You can’t go creeping through alleys as an adult -- even if I still lived in Texas, in a sense, they’d still be something I missed. But like so many other parts of my suburban Dallas childhood, they remain something that defines me. Probably a bit too much, but hey, what can I say? I’m a tortoise.