Armadillo Alley

There's something about an alley that makes good neighbors. It's off the street where buildings brace against passing pedestrians, constant cars, and blaring buses. It doesn't have landscaping to pretend to be something it isn't. The alley is where you peek into cluttered garages with layers of trash and trinkets exposed by every coming and going of car and truck. The alley is where laundry is aired, trash is left, and pretense is forgotten. Alleys are the soft underbelly of an Armadillo: vulnerable yet well-protected.

My apartment is set in the backyard of a house on a busy street. Yet my domain is peaceful with a window onto the alley below. Across the street, two homes are on the back property of another home on an intersecting street. The resulting configuration makes a tiny hamlet in an otherwise noisy neighborhood. Filled with large and extended Mexican families, my across-the-alley neighbors' homes always have some activity going on. It begins each day with an idling car at 5:30 am, which I imagine is a carpool ride for one of the men to get to the factory. Around 7 am its the rehearsed sound of Maria announcing "Tameles! Chorizu!" (or something like that) as she sells homemade foods out of a stroller to supplement the income of her children. When I come home from work, there's always a gaggle of children playing in the alley or behind the fence. Their conversation flows from Spanish to English to Spanglish as the play escalates in excitement. The playful cries give way to hearty laughter as parents, tios and tias come back from work to enjoy dinner and each other's company once again. When I come home from teaching a late night ESL class, I'll be surprised to notice the newlyweds sitting on the stoop to cuddle and talk in the dark as I stop my car to open the gate and call it a night. Just from the alley, I've gotten to know this family and exchange a few kind words each day as we pass through. On the street, it's different.

"Get that piece of shit outta my way!!!" Ann screams, sitting high in her white Ford truck, ready to back out of her front driveway if it weren't for the Mexican about to leave in the black Nissan Sentra that's blocking it. I know a tough shell when I see it. Ann and Matt live in a 102-year-old home across the street from me. They're patiently restoring it to its original luster. Subdivided rental homes are on both sides of them. One waves an overbearing, faded flag of Mexico. The other, unpretentious. I hear Ann rage as I go on my evening run. On my return, Matt's waving me over to me from across the street. I oblige him. "It's good to see another white face around here." I smirk in politeness to his off-color joke. He wants to show me the inside of his home that he's restoring. I'm leery of what I might see as he takes me from room to room, as if there'll be a stash of pot or something that now I'm party to knowing about. Matt and Ann don't plan to stay very long after their vintage home is restored. "Too many Spanish taking over the neighborhood. Our daughter is 7 and can't ride her bike yet. This neighborhood is too noisy," they say as the neighbor kids zoom up and down the sidewalk on scooters, skateboards, and BMXs. I thank them for showing me their home, but I can't get over the rage I saw before.

On my way back, I realize that I just left the tough outer shell of the Armadillo on the street side. Sometimes I want to roll up and only show my shell; other times it's a pat on my soft belly that helps me through the day. How thick is my shell? How soft is my belly? As thick or as soft as I choose to dwell on it.

1 comment:

Dzen said...

You capture so vividly your neighborhood and feelings about it -- thanks, Jeff, for allowing us a quick peek into your backyard. I too wonder sometimes about my shell -- I suspect yours isn't as thick as you think it sometimes is.

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