Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Friday, March 14, 2014


For a little while now I’ve had that song “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley” stuck in my head, the Robert Palmer version, written by Allen Touissant, though Lee Dorsey did a cracking version as well.  The words run:
Sneakin' Sally through the alley
Trying to keep her out of sight
Sneakin' Sally through the alley
When up pops the wife
The sentiments, and even some of the words, are borrowed from Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally.
Well, I saw Uncle John with bald head Sally
He saw Aunt Mary comin' and he ducked back in the alley

 But hey all’s fair in war and appropriation, right? I’m pretty sure that sneaking is a form of walking, ducking perhaps less so, and I have in fact been doing a bit of walking in alleys lately.

In San Francisco I went along Jack Kerouac Alley which runs from Columbus Avenue, home of the Beat Museum, City Lights Books, and any number of Italian restaurants, through to Grant Street, which is part of China Town. 

It’s not a long walk, but there’s a surprising amount to look at, some murals of course, some paving stones with lines of poetry and prose set in them. There was also, when I was there, a man sitting in a doorway with a walking frame in front of him.  He was looking at me with suspicion, and a Chinese man was looking at him with even more.  I of course was looking at the two of them thinking, "There's a picture in this."

The alley also contains some rather spectacularly hand-crafted electrical wiring.  Do the city’s health and safety inspectors say to themselves, “Forget it Jake, it’s the edge of Chinatown.”

The day before I went to San Francisco, I’d been in Berkeley, op cit, where I found and walked along Jeronimus Alley which runs between Virginia and Cedar Streets, between 5th and 6th. 

This was a long alley, several times the length of Kerouac, but here was an interesting thing: down at the southern end which has a lot of anonymous industrial fencing and walls, the graffiti crowd had gone nuts (not necessarily in an altogether bad way, though not the greatest):

But up at the northern end, there was this building, this wall, completely graffiti-free.

Now for all I know, it’s perfectly possible that the wall had been painted just the day before I got there, and maybe by now it's covered with tags and slaps, but I like to think not.  I prefer to imagine that some sort of truce has been arrived at, that even the least sophisticated street artists recognize the joys of a color field when they see one.  I know I could be wrong about that.

And I realized I’ve done a fair amount of walking in alleys in my life.  There’s something about them that draws me in.  Part of it, of course, is that they’re usually free of vehicles and traffic, and a lot of the time they’re pretty free of pedestrians too.  There’s something intriguing and not quite reputable about them (hence the sneaking), and if there’s also sometimes a vague hint of danger or threat, well that’s always good for sharpening up the wits of the pedestrian.

Here’s an alley in Hollywood.  If there’s one thing that can that makes an alley even better, it’s a metal building, especially if it’s Quonset style:

And here’s one in my old home town of Sheffield, right in the city center, little considered and little trod, but I had to go down it.

And here’s one in London.  I went out of my way so I could have the pleasure of walking down a street named Tinderbox Alley, this one is in a suburb rather than a city center.  

I can’t really understand why you’d dump a dead tree, roots and all, in a suburban alley, but at least it’s biodegradable.

And here’s one in Ventura, California, and again it’s the name that makes it.  I sometimes wonder if rest and aspiration are opposites, but maybe not.  Sometimes it’s good to rest before you aspire, and sometimes maybe it’s good to take a rest from your aspirations.

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