Inhuman Swill : Alleys

Rabbit transit

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Rabbits, I would like to sit you down and have a very serious discussion with you. I understand that the way you zigzag as you flee is an effective way to evade most predators, and has served you well for millions of years. But when your zigzag pattern is no wider than the car following you, it only causes problems in both sides.

So in the future, rabbits, when confronted by a car, please consider bending your course in a direction perpendicular to your original course of travel. Either that or next time I may just do my best to hasten the evolution of your species. And I'll feel badly about it.

Boxed in

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One of Chicago's great selling points as a "livable" city is its alleys. Unlike New Yorkers, Chicagoans can stash their smelly garbage bins out back and keep them off the sidewalks. If they're lucky enough to have a garage, like we do, they don't even have to worry about parking on the streets, and if they do have to park on the streets they don't have a plethora of driveways to worry about avoiding. And best of all for me, walking Ella through our neighborhood's alleys inspired large chunks of the novel I'm working on.

But there's a darker side to alleys, too, which I was reminded of earlier this afternoon as I was driving over here to the Writers Workspace. As I turned into the alley that leads to the little parking lot behind the workspace, I found my way blocked by a huge garbage truck. That was no big deal in and of itself, just a little annoying, since I could circle the block and come into the alley from the other side. But there was a day a little over a year ago when I didn't have as pleasant an experience with trucks in an alley.

It was early on a sunny weekday afternoon, and I had gone to a favorite haunt called Tweet (no relation to Twitter) for a very late brunch. Tweet has a tiny lot out back off the alley where patrons can park for free, which is what I did. That block is pretty long, and as I drove in from the south end of the alley I could see a big moving truck way up at the north end plugging that exit. I wondered briefly if parking in the lot that day was a good idea, but I didn't want to try to turn the car around and hunt for street parking.

After a leisurely meal while I got some work done on my laptop, I headed out back to leave. I backed the car out and was heading north up the alley before I realized that the moving truck was still there. Oh well. South, then.

I put it in reverse, backed up quite a ways, maneuvered the car back into the lot, got it turned around, and was heading south before I realized that another truck was parked down near the south end of the alley. Great. It was parked dead center in the alley, but I drove toward it anyway to see if there might be room to get around it. There wasn't.

It was a small AT&T pickup truck, and the really aggravating thing was that it was parked just short of the big parking lot behind an apartment building—a parking lot with a wide-open gate. The driver was nowhere in evidence, but assuming that he was doing work in the building, he could have parked in the damn lot. That was when I started feeling claustrophobic. I was trapped in the alley with no way out.

I got out of the car and took a picture of the AT&T truck's license plate, so that at the very least I could call up with a complaint when I finally got out of there. Otherwise I just stalked around my car clenching my fists.

After a few minutes, though, I saw a guy with a hard hat and a utility belt emerge from a passageway over to one side of the apartment building. "Hey!" I started yelling. "Hey, your truck's blocking the alley! Hey!" Eventually I got his attention, and we had a shouted conversation over a distance of about fifty feet. Though he wasn't happy about it, he told me he'd be there in a minute to pull his truck into the parking lot so I could get by.

The truck that boxed me into the alley behind Tweet He took his sweet time, though, and by the time he wandered over to move his truck, I had watched with a sinking stomach as a big white delivery truck pulled into the very end of the alley, put its flashers on, and parked. Two men climbed out of the truck and vanished down the street. I yelled toward them too, but too late. They were at least a hundred and fifty feet away, and they either didn't hear me or didn't care.

"This is just great," I said to the AT&T guy when he finally came over. "We're both trapped now."

After he moved his pickup, I actually left my car where it was and squeezed past the delivery truck to see if the two men were anywhere in sight. I wandered a few storefronts in either direction to see if I could spot them eating lunch or something, but no dice. I took a picture of the truck's license plate, then went back to my car and sat behind the steering wheel listened to podcasts and stewing and trying not to panic.

I suppose there were other things I might have tried, like backing up the alley all the way to the moving truck to see if it would be willing move, but instead I just waited. And waited. I was just about jumping out of my skin by the time the two men reappeared. Twenty minutes had passed. I didn't have time to yell at them. They simply were there, squeezing through the doors into the cab of the truck, and then they were backing back out into the street. I pounded on the horn and flashed my lights and gave them both fingers, but they were gone pretty damn fast. Like they'd never been there. I drove back to the Workspace shaking with anger and residual claustrophobia.

So there you have it, the day I got boxed into an alley and couldn't get out. I suppose there are worse things that could have happened to me in a Chicago alley, but I'd prefer not to think about them. And maybe that's not so much a drawback of alleys as it is a drawback of our dependence on cars. Hmm.

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