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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

How Green Was my Alley

April 15, 2002

No matter what form of busy-ness has occupied the bulk of my day at Mac’s, each one ends the same.

I tidy the Receiving/Shipping area, collate the day’s accumulation of mail and remove it to the upstairs hall, unplug the toaster and coffee maker, wash the dishes in the lunch room, take out the trash, hide my scissors and tape gun and favourite pen against the predations of the light-fingered folk who share my work space, turn off my computer and leave a stickie on its face advising me of the lastest resting place of my glasses, turn off the lights and leave. On Thursdays, I add a bit of floor washing and dusting to my routine and once in a great while, I’ll feel compelled to do something to those flippin’ stairs. On the other nights, I just accomplish the mindless house-keeping chores, collect my going-home stuff and go: out the back door, down the alley and onto Third Avenue, there to stand in apparent deep contemplation of the portraits of Kate and George Carmack on the Hougen’s Center, all the while trying to remember where the heck it was I’d found parking earlier on this particular day.

The foregoing has been my routine for most of the years I’ve worked at the book store, all except the last little bit about going down the alley. That part is new this year after being kicked out of the Closeleigh parking lot for the umpteenth time and finally bowing to the inevitable: no matter how innocuous my little old-lady grey car, it can’t be sitting in that space while I am off doing important things in the world of commerce!

But after all that, I really hadn’t planned to talk about Mac’s. Or parking, either, for that matter.
What I had really wanted to talk about was our alley.

Webster, my own personal authority on all of life’s niggling little conundrums, says that an alley is a narrow street through the middle of a block giving access to the rear of buildings. They are usually dank, dark places, especially those through a block of business buildings, and ours, be- tween Main and Elliot, between Second and Third, is certainly no exception. Not more than a couple of stories in height, most of the buildings reveal cinderblock construction, their massy, grey and totally unlovely backsides giving lie to the well-preserved, even lovely, faces that entice the foot traffic on Main Street. A rogue’s gallery of dumpsters, some of them brown, some yellow, all grungy and overflowing with the detritus of a busy day, lines the south side. Across from them a few vehicles cower against the back walls in tiny spaces carved out for the private parking pleasure of a few brave individuals who risk sideswipage by the endless stream of trucks and vans delivering to Mac’s and Murdock’s and Main Man and more. The road surface is tarred but rough and somewhat damaged, perpetually littered with the debris sucked and/or blown in by the cyclonic little draft that sulks in the nooks and crannies of the lane, and screams under eaves and doorways, even on a softish summer day.

Alleys may be planned but they are usually not designed. Rather, they are made to ease the way between lots and the nature of the area so divided takes care of the rest. On the plus side, though not particularly scenic, they are utilitarian little thoroughfares, facilitating an orderly flow of goods and services to the back doors of the establishments they access. On the other hand, they are dingy, malodorous and just the least little bit creepy, and if traveled on foot, especially after hours, like Macbeth’s murderous little bit of business, t’would be best if t’were done quickly.

And so it was that I, having been ousted from my parking place of choice, last week found myself trotting swiftly down “our” alley on my way to retrieve my little old-lady grey etcetera from its last remembered resting place.

Now, I’m a pretty intrepid sort of a lady, not much given to vagaries with regards possible danger or damage to my fairly substantial person. Once I manage to get all of my avoirdupois into locomotion, I’m difficult to get shut down and I entertained no such plan as I turned left and began a brisk trot past the overloaded dumpsters, headed for Third Avenue and, except for the due regard of Kate and George, if all went well, home and hubby. I had not contemplated stopping for feed nor water. Of a certainty, I had not planned on a horticultural excursion. But that is exactly what I took.

I had cleared the mass of our building with its two back entrances to Mac’s, to Midnight sun Gallery and White Horse General Store, had caught a whiff of something pungently delicious through Pasta Palace’s screendoor and was starting by the dim recesses of the little parking alcove at Murdock’s when I came to a screeching halt. “What in the world?” I thought. “What in the name of all that’s green and growing, is green and growing over there?” I went over for a look.

There, in that unbeautiful alleyway through one of the busiest blocks in downtown Whitehorse, someone has planted a small container garden. Against one grey wall between grated doors and windows, healthy if fragile green threads climb on fuzzy hemp cords. Morning Glory vines or perhaps Sweet Peas, what do I know? Adjacent to the door on the other side are three wooden boxes, mounted waist high on shaky shelves and brimming with tufts of green, upon which small colourful blossoms are already beginning to appear. I peer at the slim slice of sky above the alley and try to imagine the amount of sun that will grace these flowers. Barely enough, I guesstimate, but love and care will make up for the rest, and obviously, love and care have already provided the basic necessities for their almost miraculous appearance in the midst of all that dimness and squalor.

I walked on, smiling at the stupid audacity it required to even think one could grew flowers in an alley, marveling at the sheer determination and love that was required to make it happen.

As I approached the two big dumpsters near the end of the road, I noticed a man standing in the shadows between them. Normally, I would have passed on without recognition. “Hey,” I said as I drew abreast of him, “how’s it going?” He hesitated, as if considering my casual question. “Okay,” he said. “Yeah, it’s goin’ okay.”

As I emerged from the alley, my eye sought the familiar faces on the wall across the street and I stopped to begin the thought processes that would connect me with my ride home. Two seconds before I merged my subconscious, I saw again the face of the man in the shadows, the look of surprise as I had addressed him.

It quite possibly might never, ever develop so much as a tiny sprout but for the fleeting instant that our eyes had met and we had recognized each other as life travellers, I had felt that I, too, had planted a seed in an alley.

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