The back alleys of Baltimore: skinny lanes trailing throughout the city creating wild and secret ways to get from here to there. Some are crowded with trashcans, cars, porches, and patios, while others house nothing but the towering backs of business buildings. A few back alleys steam from direct sun and others chill and darken from shadows. Several back alleys become busy with traffic as Baltimorians escape delays on main roads, yet many back alleys remain quiet footpaths for humans and the occasional animal.
I don't travel the back alleys too often. I usually stick to the main roads because they are where the grocery store, newsstands, cafes, and my other weekly errands lie. It is easy and direct to travel by main road only and I like people watching as I walk. It makes sense for me to take the main roads on an everyday basis, and yet I always look down the back alleys as I pass by, curiously wondering what is happening in them.
On days when I do let my curiosity get the best of me and I travel through these back alleys, I am never disappointed. I once saw two women shouting and gesturing wildly at each other about rent, and "He said, She said." They argued on and on, neither one willing to give up the fight, looking like two hens picking at the same piece of corn. Another time, I saw a dead rat squashed into the pavement, its life quickly ended by a speeding car. Countless times I've glimpsed beautiful, hidden gardens filled with wisteria and ivy and brilliant pops of colorful blooms. These humble gardens become luscious oasisses in the dry, pavement-filled alleys and provide a welcome reminder of nature's presence in the city. I've seen unshaven and unshowered guys emerging from a narrow apartment for a smoke at four in the afternoon, dark sunglasses covering what I know are bloodshot eyes. Other times I've noticed tiny balconies crammed with barbecues, tomato plants, plastic chairs, and citronella candles: the city dwellers' successful substitute for a backyard. Many days I've seen the homeless unapologetically scrounging in trashcans for discarded items they can use. Our trash really is their treasure, and they take almost anything. The homeless almost always say a friendly "Hello" as they don't' bother me and I don't bother them.
I'm usually in a hurry as I walk through back alleys, places to go and people to see. Yet on my last back alley trek, I stopped mid stride, struck by a small act of kindness. Two paperback novels lay on the pavement, carefully placed by a caution cone for extra visibility. I stopped to read the titles and found that the books were fairly new and in good condition. Not buried in a trashcan, not covered in coffee grounds, these books were purposefully and neatly displayed in the alley for someone to take, read, and enjoy. Such a kind decision by the previous owner to offer their books to others before tossing them in the trash. Tossed in the trash they would have little chance of being read, but placed on the street they could be used and recycled.
This small act of kindness stirred my heart. I thought of how a homeless person could take one of these books to the park, and then spend a carefree afternoon reading it. I thought of how a student could grab one book, take it home, read it, and then pass it on to another student at the end of term. Or maybe someone feeling lost and alone would find these books in the alley and feel cared for once again. I didn't take either of the books, but I did take a picture of them because I wanted to celebrate how kind people can be to each other, even to strangers walking in their back alley.
I'll never know who ended up taking those books. When I walked by there a few days later, the books were gone, and only the caution cone remained. It's always an adventure going off the beaten track and through back alleys (especially in Baltimore), but it's an adventure I urge you to try. I think that if you do, you'll end up seeing some interesting things and if you're lucky like me, you might just witness an act of kindness in a most unexpected place.