A Suburban State of Mind

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 6/1/05)

I’ve lived in the suburbs of Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, and now, as a relative newcomer, Philadelphia. And even though each move has had the trauma of leaving friends, and sometimes family, I am somehow comforted by the suburbs I have landed in. The Main Line is in many ways the same as other suburbs – they could all be interchangeable, except for the weather.

The suburbs are all I have ever known. It has never been my desire to live in close proximity to other people, to smell the cabbage boiling in the pot next door, or to hear the drone of someone else’s television. I need a patch of green, a place to plant daffodils, some trees so that I may think daily of beauty and grace. I need to mow a lawn, mend a fence, rake leaves. My lawn, my fence, my leaves.

I do love cities, and I can spend days wandering around my favorite downtowns. But cities are mostly colorless affairs – gray, beige, white. The air seems recycled and stale, used up. If I had to live in a city I don’t know if I could breathe properly. I need to see trees reaching out to each other across quiet streets. I need to see color every day – the green of a freshly mowed lawn, a patch of tulips in a corner garden, the blue of a sky that goes on forever. I need a certain amount of silence where I live.

A city does get your adrenaline pumping. You are more alert to your surroundings. There seems to be more of an element of danger in the city, although that may just be if you are a woman. You don’t know the people brushing past you in such a hurry. Anything can happen.

In the suburbs you do know people. You can be walking in town and see a neighbor. You see your child’s teacher at the bank. You see the same cashier at the drugstore every day. You chat with the produce guy at the grocery store, and you know he’ll be there tomorrow and the next day too.
People move to the suburbs because they want a better life for their families. They want good schools, Little League games, a single family home, a barbecue in the back yard. The suburbs became the American Dream of the past century, and don’t look like they are going anywhere in this century.

This is not to say that the suburbs are perfect. Not every house is a living tribute to the Nelsons and the Cleavers. The suburbs drive some people a little nutty. After all, Ira Levin didn’t have to stretch his writer’s imagination very far when he sat down to write The Stepford Wives. He could have been in any American suburb.

You can’t get too carried away with things being perfect in the ‘burbs. Because, guess what? Behind the closed Colonial double doors and the French windows often lie the same sad tales that city folks have to deal with. You have to be careful not to forget this when you live in the suburbs. Not to get lulled by the cicadas and the robins warbling. Just because there are two Volvos in the driveway, and a cheerful wreath on the front door, doesn’t mean that inside the Cleavers are sitting down to roast beef and mashed potatoes, served by June in her shirtwaist dress.

We have the same problems here as people in cities or on farms – alcoholism, drugs, domestic abuse and the other Big Three – lyin’, cheatin’ and stealin’. We don’t get confronted with it in the same way, though. It’s not an “in your face” kind of thing. Problems here are more muted somehow, like they went through a prism first. No one in the suburbs wants to talk about bad things. Or admit that they happen right here.

The suburbs aren’t for everyone. I have a city friend who claims that she feels suppressed, repressed, and depressed in the suburbs, and on top of that, there’s too much pollen. And the damn birds wake you up every morning with all that chirping. And all those kids bicycling around looking for a game of basketball in someone’s driveway are a nightmare.

I connect the suburbs with different stages of my life. Growing up, of course – summers running wild on streets with names like Maple Avenue and Evergreen Court – begging to stay out just a little longer. Catching fireflies in mayonnaise jars with holes punched in the top. The smell of lilacs. Lying on the grass, looking up at the moon with your best friend, and talking about whether any boy in the entire junior high even knew you were alive. Snowball fights in the winter with kids from up and down the street.

Then a long gap of time away from the suburbs during young adulthood, when the suburbs seemed to be stifling. What better place to be when you are single and in your twenties than in your own apartment in the city, any city?

Most of us return, though, placing our patio furniture just so, mastering our skills at the barbecue, buying snow blowers and lawn mowers. Wanting to create for our children what we once had. Or perhaps what we didn’t have.

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