Boxed in

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.