There's a different vibe in the alley than on the front side of the house. In the alley, we tend to hang out with our garage doors open, wander around and chat with one another, and check out each other's projects. Being the only guy on the block with a contractor's license, I do a lot of consultations and tool loans. The front of our house faces a pretty busy street, and if you want to contact neighbors on the other side, you have to either yell across it between passing cars, or commit to physically crossing; so it's easier just to smile and wave. The alley is far more conducive to neighborly interaction.
My alley neighbors hardly ever complained during the year or so that I regularly had concrete trucks parked behind my garage, huge loads of lumber stacked on the asphalt, and saws and compressors running day and night. So I wasn't too worried a couple nights ago when I was still working on the Christmas project after 11:00 p.m. I had my sawhorses set up right outside the garage door since the weather was nice and I was too lazy to move the minivan out of the garage. I wasn't using any power tools louder than a cordless drill, and I was working by the light of a halogen worklight and an LED headlamp.
Just as I was about to start rolling up my tools for the night, I was distracted by someone's motion-sensor floodlight going on at the entrance to the alley. In the distance, I could make out a figure staggering toward me in fits and starts.
"Great," I thought. "Some bum looking for a place to take a dump."
Since our house is at the dead-end of the alley, I was able to track his progress for the length of his drunken odyssey.
That's the drawback of the dead-end alley. While it discourages drivers from cutting through during the day, it's a perfect place for people to duck into the shadows to conduct illicit business of all sorts at night. I've rarely caught anyone in the process of committing these acts, although I once chased out a bunch of teenage good-for-nothings who were drinking 40s and peeing in the carport of a neighbor's condo at 10 a.m. on a school day.
No, normally I'm just left to envision the scene from the previous night that resulted in a used condom, a bag of kitty litter, and a pair of heavily soiled jeans draped over an abandoned shopping cart modified with foam-rubber and zip ties.
But the other night, I was out there as the act, it seemed, was about to be committed. My adrenaline levels were up, but I wasn't worried that this guy would give me much trouble because, a) he seemed too drunk to walk, much less assault; b) Stella was at my feet, and even though she's essentially an anxiety-ridden 120-lb chihuahua, she seems pretty scary when she appears, growling, from the inky shadows; and c) I had a lot of tools closeby to use as makeshift weapons.
"What's up, bro?" I said, a full octave deeper than I normally would have. I said it in a way calculated to signify neither a friendly interest in the fellow's general state, nor a feeling of brotherly goodwill.
He didn't answer.
"Where you goin', bro?" I said, jutting my chin out and directing the beam of my headlamp into his eyes. I reached to the back of my tool belt and put my hand on my unnecessarily large framing hammer. It's like a Hummer hammer.
I'm not sure what was going on with all the "bro" business. That's not an expression I normally use. I guess I thought it sounded a little intimidating, since the guys who tend to use it all the time seem to be SoCal rednecks: you know, hardcore surfers, roofers, guys with dirt bikes and and Metal Mulisha stickers on their monster trucks.
"Home, man," he finally slurred, with a bit of a chuckle in his voice.
He looked like an aging frat boy--white, flip-flops, kind of heavy, slightly balding. It was like I was looking in a mirror, actually. A mirror that added fifteen pounds and nine shots of Jaeger.
"Where do you live?"
"Right there." He pointed to the pink stucco apartments whose garage opens onto the alley opposite our house.
"Oh," I said. "I didn't recognize you." I went ahead and dropped the tough guy routine. As long as he went through the gate to the little apartment complex, I didn't care what he did after that.
"What the hellrya makin' out here at threenthemornin' and shit?"
Okay. I saw where this was going. No sooner had I shed my hardass act than I had to adopt an attitude that would gently rebuff an overly garrulous drunk. I've been there before. We probably all have. In fact, I've probably been on either side of the equation. The trick is to get the drunk to lose interest in you before he starts opening up about his childhood and then ends up crying in your arms or declaring his love for you or threatening to kill you and himself because that love is so strong that he can't bear it.
I briefly explained that I was making Christmas presents for my kids, and, in the most uninteresting and brief way I could, told him what they would be.
What followed was a three and a half minute loop of this:
Drunk: Thass so coool...can I help you?
Me: Nah, man. I've got it. I'm just trying to wrap up here, anyway. [Makes big show of winding up power cords]
Drunk: Well, can I jusht help you put some stuff away?
Me: No, thanks. Got it under control.
Drunk: C'mon, lemme give you a hand. I waaant to!
He finally left after I had spent a good deal of time with my back toward him, pretending to tidy up some lumber scraps while Stella sniffed and growled at him, hackles fully engaged.
I momentarily felt bad for having been suspicious of the guy, and was embarrassed at my attempts to intimidate him. I would be sheepish when I saw him some other day, washing his car or tuning up his bicycle or whatever. But I'm sure if he remembers anything about our conversation beyond a bright light and a growling dog, he understands that we alley people have to be vigilant about keeping the riff-raff out of our beloved potholed piazza.