Backstreet Boys

The alley behind our building is nothing like the alleys I remember growing up in small town Missouri. Seward Street was our “alley,” a place to park the garbage cans and a way to sneak in the house past curfew.

6 ½, as I call it, features the usual generous array of trash and recycling containers, along with a continually changing and random collection of items people donate to the homeless: furniture, clothing, books and even record albums. (Where is a homeless person going to find a turntable?) They trek up and down these alleys at all hours, pulling their makeshift carts loaded to the hilt with bric-a-brac.

Most of the time I don’t hear them as they pass a mere 50 feet from our door – save the occasional hacking or coughing, which is a dead giveaway – and I’ve never seen one cutting through our breezeway to access Seventh Street.

Dog walkers, nannies and locals also use the alley, which is just wide enough for a car plus a human, so long as you dodge the trashcans. It’s truly the underbelly of the neighborhood, where you see the backside of the apartments, tiny balconies stuffed with the oddest assortments of furniture and household items, and neighbors unloading groceries.      

Since parking is at a premium, people will sometimes pull into the alley, get out and wipe down their cars. The other day, while toting some recycling, I walked past this guy polishing a beautiful European sedan, all dreamy with its dazzling wheels, gleaming finish and plush interior.

I was about to keep walking when he called out, “Is everything good today?”

“It sure is if you own that car,” I replied.

I sensed he was proud to tell me about his ride, a Jaguar, and wanting to take a break on this gorgeous, sun-splashed day, I asked him about it.

He opened the door, urged me to sit in the driver’s seat and take a gander at the instrumentation. I’d never sat in a Jaguar and now realized what I’ve been missing.

“Galpin screwed up the lease so I bought it off lease for 17,000. A steal,” he crowed.

“Put your foot on the brake and press that button,” he said. “No, that button.” Duh. I was like a gawky teenager trying to unhook a girl’s bra. Upon starting the engine, I noticed a circular knob arise from the center console like up, periscope! Then the air vents flipped open, jetting filtered air into the cabin.

Jerry Botham was his name – like Gotham with a B. Not the kind of guy you’d meet in a dark alley.

He was from St. Charles, Illinois – outside Chicago. I thought I detected an accent. Owns a plumbing and heating business. I’d seen his trucks around town.

“You must do a good repair business with all of these rental units around here,” I said.

“Nah, I avoid ‘em for the most part,” he replied. “I do more high-end. You know who’s taken this over?” he said, with a sweep of the hand to indicate the entire area, followed by a furtive glance to either side as if someone were eavesdropping.


I cringed inside. So, we’ve got a racist on our hands, I thought. Ok, let’s see where he’s going with this.

“They come in here, do these jobs and screw them up, then I get a call to come fix up their mess.”

He proceeded to tell me he built Madonna’s house. Being a good listener and not gullible, I listened with great earnestness, hoping I was getting the straight scoop from the genuine article. But as I think back on our conversation now, who cares? Regardless of whether he was making things up or not, he was still just as colorful. Maybe more.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I can be selective about my customers,” he boasted. “If I hear attitude on the phone, I say, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’”

Jerry was about my height, receding blond hair parted in the middle, slight gut, sporting a t-shirt and jeans. His eyes had a dancing quality – indicating this is someone who’s alive and eager to see what each new day will bring. Had maybe a day or two of beard on him. Would look right at home in a Bears jacket sitting on a stool at Mother’s on Division, I imagined.

He told me he’s 64, and like most guys bearing down on the twilight years, we talked about growing old.

“I’m trying to turn back the clock,” I said. “Living here has been good for my health and my outlook.”

Jerry agreed, having lived here since 1968. His philosophy? Don’t ever buy into the fact that you’re old or you’re gonna get beat by that guy who’s 35. Then, he gave a little demonstration that has stuck with me for days.

“It’s all in the body language,” he said, purposely slumping his shoulders. “You can’t walk around like this," he said as he hung his head and affected a nasal-y twang.

“You gotta come on like this,” planting his feet shoulder width apart, throwing his head back, squaring his shoulders. Then, as part of the act, he exclaimed, as if to a customer, “I’m gonna help you through this.”

It was a simple demonstration – kinda campy, but truly palpable. In that moment I saw the sheer force of a positive, assertive posture and how it can foster success.

So what if the guy was kinda full of himself? He reminded me of something very important in that one, fleeting moment: your attitude shows in the way you carry yourself, and people pick up on that. These are lessons you won’t learn in school or in the boardroom.

Here was a plain-talking guy, a self-made man, just polishing his Jag in the alley on a beautiful day. No big deal.

As the conversation turned to the differences between the Midwest and California I bemoaned the fact that I’m paying to store some of the furniture we brought from Kansas.   

“That Korean girl has some storage space down the alley,” he proffered. “Talk to her.”

Priscilla, our building’s owner, I thought. When I asked our landlady about this alleged storage space, she just laughed.

“In this neighborhood?” said Liz. “Are you kidding?”

Ok, maybe Jerry has a tendency to embellish, but he’s good theater. Not a bad encounter in an alley on a gorgeous Santa Monica day.