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Bumper Alley

Bumper Alley - The DobermansWhen I was a young boy, of between the ages of eight and ten, I founded a street gang. Yes, I’m serious — an honest to goodness street gang. The gang was made up of a few of the neighborhood kids, all of about the same age as me, who were each my close friends. It consisted of a core group of four members, but over the two or three years it was in existence, its numbers fluctuated between the four key, founding members, up to a total population of perhaps eight or so at its peak.

Why did I form a street gang? Because I thought it was cool, that’s why. This was the late 1970s, and my Mother and her boyfriend had recently sneaked me into to see “The Warriors” at a local drive-in movie theater. (I still have a clear memory of seeing it that night at “The Airport Drive-In) After viewing that film, I knew I needed to be in a street gang of my own. I needed to be tough and cool like The Warriors. So, I started one. I named our neighborhood street gang “The Dobermans.” Why? Well, if memory serves, I had recently seen some sort of news-magazine type of report on the television which discussed the “dangers” of the Doberman Pinscher breed of dog. I believe that around that time the Doberman Pinscher breed of dog had fallen under much the same view as Pitbulls are now commonly seen. The news piece I witnessed had been a sort of expose on the lurking dangers of the breed — how they were man killers with a hidden streak of aggression just waiting to come to the surface. And, if it ever did, look out, brother! No mere mortal could match the strength and viciousness of a doberman which had snapped into kill-mode. So, with this fresh in my head, I had come to the conclusion that a doberman was about the meanest, toughest, nastiest, you-don’t-want-to-mess-with-it-ness thing on the planet. A fitting name for my new and uber-tough street gang.

Now, after all, “The Dobermans” street gang was made up of a few middle-class Canadian pre-teen kids from a reasonably nice neighborhood. So, it wasn’t like we were very scary at all. I think “adorable” would have been a more appropriate word to describe us. Our main activities included walking around in jean jackets, riding our bikes, playing “guns” in the alleyways of a nearby housing development, teasing the neighborhood girls, the odd game of football in the summer, lots of street and drive-way hockey in the winter, and just generally “hanging out” as a group. We did break into a local high-school on a number of occasions. And, once, word even managed to get out around the neighborhood, and even slightly beyond, that a local gang of kids called “The Dobermans” was responsible for a break-in and a very minor amount of damage at the school. That incident really marked the height of our notoriety, but nothing much ever really became of it. There were, for a short time, vague rumors of this local “gang” and their escapades at the high-school tossed about at a nearby bingo parlor amongst the chain-smoking, hockey-jacket and too-much make-up wearing, middle-aged moms on bingo night. But, I believe, they never suspected this “gang” was made-up entirely of the sorts of pre-teen kids they loved pinching the cheeks of whenever they’d encounter them. I’m sure they must have thought that this mysterious “Dobermans” gang, of which they lightly gossiped, were probably a group of fifteen to nineteen, or thereabouts, thugs from the nearby “low-rentals” project. Which, at the time, was an exceedingly rough neighborhood.

Street Gang Turf Map
The Dobermans “turf” Map

As the leader of The Dobermans, I took it upon myself to make up names for various parts of “our turf.” I wasn’t too creative when it came to most of these. There was a good sized empty field in one corner of a housing development where we spent a lot of our time. I named this field “The Field.” Along the eastern border of the housing development there was a stretch of grass which was about ten or twelve feet wide, and ran almost the entire length of the development. I called this stretch “The Strip.” In another area of that development there was an area where three sidewalks which ran through the houses converged, and a very small park and garden was constructed there. I called this area “The Junction.”

But, one of these areas, and the name I had chosen for it, stood out. Running almost the entire length of the housing development’s northern edge lay a very long and continuous sidewalk. The northern side of this side walk bordered on the large property of the high-school which I previously mentioned — the one we were fond of breaking into. The entire run of the north side of the sidewalk was lined with a twelve-foot tall, very rusty, chain-link fence which had thick ivy and vines growing over most of it. The southern side was a continuous stretch of eight-foot tall wooden fences constructed of vertical wooden beams arranged so closely to each other that you could not see light between them. These fences separated the backyards of the row-houses from the sidewalk, and ran as really one practically continuous fence along the entire stretch of this very long sidewalk. The space between these wooden fences to the south and the chain-link fence to north was very narrow. So narrow that an average sized adult male, standing between the two fences and stretching out his arms could come pretty close to touching both fences with either hand without having to move.

The manner in which this part of the development was constructed gave one an incredible sense of isolation, seclusion and sometimes even claustrophobia when you were in there. And, there was something else — when the developers had constructed this development and put in this very long sidewalk, they somehow messed up in laying the asphalt. Along pretty much the entire run of this sidewalk (which measures almost 850 feet — I just measured it using the ruler feature in Google Earth), about every ten feet or so, the asphalt surface of the sidewalk buckled up and formed a little hill or bump. Each of these bumps measured anywhere from a few inches to almost a foot in height. It was as if the entire stretch of this sidewalk had naturally occurring speed-bumps every ten feet or so. And, the developers never bothered to fix it. For years, while I lived in that neighborhood, they never tore up the sidewalk and re-laid it properly.

This particular area of the neighborhood, as you can probably imagine, was a particular favorite among the young boys of The Dobermans street gang who loved riding our bikes. Imagine racing at top speed on your BMX bike that your parents had bought for you from, most likely, either the K-Mart on Merivale Road, or the Canadian Tire on Baseline, along a very secluded stretch, every inch of the way your handle-bars only inches from catching a fence on either side of you and sending you hurtling through the air toward inevitable injury, while hitting a six-inch high bump every ten feet or so that would allow you to “catch air.” It was dangerous, thrilling and FUN! And, even if you weren’t riding your bike through there, while you were in Bumper Alley, you couldn’t really be seen. It was very secluded, and you really felt isolated, alone and unviewable when you were in there. Nine year old street-gang “toughs” just love that sort of environment. I *think* I may have saved a young girl from being sexually assaulted in that alley one day, as well… but that’s a story for another time.

The Dobermans needed a name for this, the most awesome of spots, in “our turf.” I named this area “Bumper Alley.” It was like an alley, and it was full of bumps that would bump you as you rode your bike over them. So… “Bumper Alley.” And, let me tell you, the name stuck — in fact, all of those names I came up with kind of did, but Bumper Alley did especially. That area, for years afterward, would be referred to as “Bumper Alley” by all of my contemporaries in the neighborhood every time someone needed to refer to the place. You’d very often hear stories that started out like “So, Mike and I were over near Bumper Alley, and this guy comes up to us…” and that sort of thing. Whenever anyone needed to refer to that area of the neighborhood, it was “Bumper Alley” — Even, commonly, among other neighborhood kids at the time who were not part of our gang.

But, the years went on, time passed, and The Dobermans dissolved just like the rest of our childhood fantasies. We grew up and moved on into adolescence. Kids from the old gang moved away; new kids moved into the neighborhood and so on.

In my middle-teens I moved away — but, not far away. My family bought a house just about a half a mile to the north of our old house. Once moved, the old neighborhood was no longer my immediate stomping grounds, but it was close enough that I’d often still find myself walking through it from time to time to get to here or there.

My teen years passed and I was into my early twenties and still living in that house just a half a mile away from the house in which I had founded The Dobermans almost a decade and a half earlier. At this time all of the old neighborhood kids had moved far away. I was the only one left in the vicinity. The old neighborhood was completely re-populated by a new generation of kids that had no ties to, nor any knowledge of, us or any of our deeds or adventures.

Yet, one day, almost 15 years after founding The Dobermans, and now a young man, I found myself walking through that old housing development on my way to some destination now forgotten. As I walked, I passed by a group of about four young children who were of around the same age  — or perhaps just a little older — as I had been when I founded The Dobermans. They were all sitting on bikes and talking amongst themselves. As I passed, and came to within ear-shot of their conversation, I heard one of them say “Well, let’s all meet up at Bumper Alley.”

Now, as I write this, it has been about another twenty years since that day I heard those kids use the name I created to refer to an area of what was now their neighborhood. And, in the past twenty years, I haven’t really been back. There is now yet another generation likely populating that neighborhood. Those kids I saw on their bikes that day are adults now. Perhaps their kids are even beginning to roam the old Doberman turf. I wonder if anyone still, today, uses the names I made up almost thirty-five years ago.

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