“Whatever happened to all this season’s losers of the year? Every time I got to thinking, where’d they disappear?”
There is no place I’d rather be than walking beside a well-groomed front lawn on a suburban street in mid-August. Late afternoon, when the sun is just beginning to set- tired from a long day’s work- making its march toward the kind of warm hue that feels like a soft blanket enveloping your soul. The sound of distant lawn-mowers and the scent of cut grass- really, to properly maintain the admiration and respect of your neighbors, twice per week is ideal for lawn-care. American flags next to empty mailboxes. Dogs barking beside hamburgers on propane grills.
When you’re in eighth grade, suburbia is your canvas. You burn things in the woods and throw eggs at houses. Hop fences and explore backyards. Stand atop a hill overlooking the town below and throw-up a double middle-finger. You let the girls hang out with you and act like it’s this big deal and if they’re not cool enough they’ll have to go home. You probably could have seen their tits had you been more socially adept. You’d be stargazing had there been stars to see.
There’s a beautiful quiet to suburbia at night. I never wanted to live anywhere with a nightlife– I want the late-night streets to be cold and lifeless. I want to hear crickets between faint sounds of traffic imposing from the highway. I want to sit on the baseball bleachers of the local high school and look out into the vacant soccer field. I want to walk down Main Street, past the charming specialty shops who are closed for the night. The little hardware store that you visit to make a statement against big name retail. The model train shop that you know stays open as a passion-project rather than a money-maker. “Art by Alison” with the ever-present sign on the door advertising open classes, starting soon– where good vibes are taught in equal proportion to artistic technique.
First time I heard from Christine in a long time. She knew I’d be somewhere close to the old neighborhood- a fact that I always felt needed defending when I saw her. Seeing Christine meant she was in a place between the panels of her comic book adventure- coming home was only transitional. It was between teaching English in Brazil and working at an orphanage in China. She considered working at a school in some African country, but then found out it was being set up by missionaries and felt this was too imposing on “organic African culture.” Home was never a destination, it was a stopgap for gift-cards and praise.
She’d always ask if I was happy with how things turned out. What a question. Where do you begin? “Well, not because I stuck around… not because I didn’t go on these inauthentic, pretentious adventures…” Where do you begin explaining that we’re living in hell? That to a highly-trained eye, which I possess, there are major differences in the singles-market of 2012 compared to the cursed singles-market of the current year. How modern men are more disposable than ever… Where you like your little fucking town and you never wanted to leave. Has she seen the little fucking art studio and the toy train shop? Does she not get that it’s all so fucking charming?
Christine was pregnant. She was getting married. They were looking for a house. You’d think that, in a fair world, the country-hopping would come at the expense of long term stability. That there would be a cost to the experience– this is what felt fair. Every time we’d catch up, there was a new story; the guy in the indie rock band out in Austin, the soccer player in Rio. But, not this time- this time she had met a lovely boy in Portland, where she ended up after the work-visa expired in China- a “crazy story,” I was assured- and now her next adventure was having a family. It sounded like a movie trailer.
You have these defensive moments, but they pass, and it’s back to the empty soccer field at midnight- with your notebook, making words into art.
My favorite movie, as a kid, was Clue (1985)– so much that my parents got me a real-life singing telegram for my 7th birthday. No, I didn’t get to kill him. Yes, I’m still unsure of how to properly respond to an adult singing to me. There was a line in the song about how much I loved watching the singing telegram get shot. I wonder how that made him feel.
I was obsessed with the Clue mansion- a gorgeous, authentic looking Tudor with a classic black-and-white tiled kitchen. A study to provide the feeling of quiet solitude, even in a house brimming with life. A billiards room to swill brandy and smoke cigars while entertaining colleagues. A conservatory to enjoy the picturesque garden, leading to the partially cultivated acreage of which your home overlooks. Secret passages and hidden rooms; candle sticks and daggers.
When you’re a kid, you think anything’s possible- even if your future is genetically etched into the hollows of time- but you’re sold the lie of life as a big slot machine and everyone getting a turn. Line up three cherries and get a model wife and a million dollar home. It could happen to you, as if life is a movie that unfolds and branches out with a will of its own.
There’s a premium to suburban authenticity. The most you’ll ever get is to enjoy it from afar. Close your eyes and take in the cold December air; the taste of midnight. They say it’s best to ignore what you can’t have- to hold it in disdain. You’ll never get the Lamborghini- bitcoin was a plebeian fantasy. A day late and a dollar short on that too- what else is new?
But walking past an old Tudor home, you can close your eyes for just a moment and pretend that it’s your life- that it could be your life. Another round, another hand of cards- play it right this time. By the fireplace, under the arching roof, watching the wintry mix fall from the wooden framed windows. The light switch on the wall is the kind with the two-buttons- true “pre-World War II” architecture.
Don’t feel too badly, it was never gonna happen. You were never going to transcend the working class, even if yours is a job only made possible with multiple college degrees. There are comfortable dwellings for your type, but the architecture is different for reasons I refuse to accept. Middle class homes are “standard-issue life-boxes” set on small plots of land. There is no personality to a middle class home in modern suburbia. If you want something unique and authentic, you’d better know that it comes with a hefty price tag attached. When you get back home, after taking in the crisp December air, and admiring what you’ll never have, you can sit by your electric fireplace and listen to “March of the Wooden Soldiers” on FM radio.
Sweet Jane’s out with some other asshole, if you didn’t already know- everyone becomes interchangeable eventually. Young love is the only true love- a fact you learn long after the wave’s crashed and the tide’s receded. You found tons of petty reasons to avoid a relationship with her, anyway. Too many buyers on the line when your phone still rang. Little things to nitpick. You leeched off of her like a vampire and now you sleep alone.
Growing up in suburbia engenders an obsession with minutia. The tendency toward authoring your own experiences with an iron fist- molding things until they’re photogenic, often by sheer will. This desire has superseded what’s practical and comfortable- all that matters is perception control.
When Alex moved to the city after graduate school, what you’d think was undesirable suddenly became shabby chic. The railroad style apartment with few windows and impossibly hot summers was a self-imposed hardship to fondly remember. The stench of the street, awful at face value, carried with it a kind of otherness that was vacant in the sterile suburbs. Teenagers on bikes smoking pot and blasting music- this was authentic.
The engineers of suburbia would have thought he was fucking retarded. The suburbs were designed as an escape from the filth of the city- and only for the highly privileged. The idea for suburbia was for it to look as though a sprawling, well-groomed public park had sprouted beautiful homes. The transition between park and home was to be seamless- country living within reach of city convenience- a scenic middle-ground between wilderness and civilization. The suburban zoning laws were to be strictly enforced- front lawns exist today due to laws preventing a homeowner from extending his home to the property line. The suburbs were meant to have a quiet dignity. Even the nicest areas of the city were close enough to slums- the suburbs could be beautifully segregated. Clean streets and quiet nights. Barking dogs and charcoal grills. American beauty.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready for any of this, she tearfully confessed. I knew Christine better than she could fake it. The cool girl thing was a pose to get fucked by cool boys– the country hopping was for Facebook. I can still close my eyes and remember the awkward girl on the transfer bus with the lisp and torn stockings. There was a comfort in my knowing who she really was- even if it was hard for her to remember. There was a reality below the surface and now she was afraid. She was afraid of what she was giving up. She was afraid of committing to the normalcy of family life- something she would inevitably view as defeat. Even if she had enough crazy stories for a lifetime, she’d be settling into what she railed against. She was back for good so her parents could help take care of the kid- along with their gift-cards and praise.
The joke about growing up in suburbia is that there’s nothing to do. If you weren’t part of some highly-structured after-school activity, like being on a sports team or writing for the school newspaper, there was a silent inertia pulling you toward destruction- like a suburban black hole. Interacting with the world as an emerging adolescent became a pissing contest in who could be the biggest prick. And once you figured out that girls like assholes, if you wanted any chance at getting a hand-job, you’d better be the biggest prick in your neighborhood.
Kurt Cobain was the poster boy for growing up in suburbia. Touted as the voice of his generation, he spoke for suburban youth. His music reflected the emptiness familiar with any kid not on a sports team or taking piano lessons- the empty spaces of suburbia. You could buy a CD single of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a few aisles away from Teen Spirit deodorant- there was a kind of murky egalitarianism of symbols rendering everything meaningless. Suburban youth only understood consumption- “here we are now, entertain us,” Cobain snarled- and destruction.
Nirvana liked to destroy their equipment at the end of their set- a serious issue in their early days which gradually became more symbolic in direct proportion to the size of their bank account. This produced an intense focus on the present– there would be no tomorrow- but only as a consequence of having lost hope for the future. There was only today and today was to end in destruction- something every kid growing up in suburbia could understand.
Christine moved into a small apartment with her boyfriend and kid not too far from where she grew up- a new adventure indeed. The final iteration of our cool girl is a fat Kindergarten teacher at a private school tiny enough to hire help without the appropriate college degrees. Now she posts awful Facebook memes like I’m a Teacher… So What’s Your Superpower? This is how things were always going to settle for her- etched into the hollows of time. Ride the bus until the wheels come off and then hop out the emergency exit. When your culture never promised you a future, you take what you can get from the present and destroy the rest.