Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
[a work in progress that has yet to be edited, chopped, rewritten seven times and tossed in the recycle bin. ].
Part I: Introduction
The Sycamore block starts at Cypress with the Pumpkin Man’s house and wends its way north for a slightly twisted quarter mile, ending at Alder with the House of Honda. There’s a small, enclosed world in this one little block, the nuances of which are visible only to those who live on it.
Unlike so many suburban blocks where the homes are all duplicates of each other, set apart only by the gilded numbers hammered onto the garages, Sycamore is a hodge-podge of houses. Perhaps 50 or 60 years ago it was one of those cookie cutter enclaves, a street of one story cottages seemingly made for small, nuclear families, cramped for even 1.5 children. As the years went on, the look of the block changed. People may not have had much larger families than before, but they had more things and wanted more space for their things. So they blew out walls and added on to fronts and backs and when they had no more room to push out, they pushed up and added on dormers with vaulted ceilings and spiral staircases and windows large enough for everyone to see in without meaning to.
Over time, Sycamore has become a tapestry of styles. Cathedrals are buttressed by make-shift splits, which are flanked by lengthy ranches, all interspersed with clumps of original cottages, untouched, un-pushed, unadorned with additions. There’s brick and siding and stone, enclosed porches and high, cement steps that are insurmountable in winter, circular driveways and blacktop mini-lots stuffed with three or more cars, full-on topiaries with sheared rabbits and unicorns and lawns that grow nothing but browned out fluffs of crabgrass. It’s the suburban version of a melting pot.
When we moved to Sycamore the real estate agent, as well as several acquaintances, led us to believe we'd be living on a quarter mile strip of PTA paradise. Block parties, get-togethers, families gathered on porches on summer nights, drinking home-brewed ice tea while their kids chased fireflies - you can have it all on Sycamore!
It took only a week or so before we figured out the dynamics of the block and realized that there were no barbecues or late night porch talks in their future. Was it us? Did we somehow exude an odor of “not yet ready for manicured lawns?” Was it our kids? Our lack of pets? What? What was it that was keeping the welcome wagon of Sycamore away from our house? Where was my fresh baked pie and invitation to sit on someone’s porch? I started to develop a complex. I spent hours standing in my front yard watching the gatherings down the block, trying to figure out why we weren’t fitting in.
I am - yet again - staring wistfully at the cluster of women gathered on the lawn of 412.
“Looks pleasant, doesn’t it?”
It's my next door neighbor, a nice woman with a nice husband and three nice, strapping young lads, none of whom are ever home long enough to make friends with. Their lives consist of constant trips to sports games, their house only a pit-stop. Their black SUV races into the driveway, spits out one son and his baseball equipment, swallows up another son and his hockey equipment, and disappears again. Today, Karen is home, taking a break from being a one-woman cheering section. She smiles knowingly at me. “It always looks better than it is, you know.”
“I thought it would be different,” I say. “I thought they’d welcome us with open arms and we’d join their clan. I mean, I knew most of these women already. I’ve lived in this town 40 years. I move on their block and they stop saying hello to me? What’s that all about?”
“It’s not you. No one on this end of the block has ever penetrated the invisible walls of The Seven.”
Start at the Cypress end of Sycamore, on the east side of the street. Walk four houses north. Count of the houses from there - 1, 2, 3, 4. Stop, cross the street and walk back south, counting off again. 5, 6, 7. Stop. And there you have it, The Seven. Seven houses that make up the gut of Sycamore. Not the heart; that belongs to Hyde across the street, who is teaching me how to prune my Japanese Maple. And not the soul; that belongs to the Pumpkin Man, whose yard bursts with orange every fall, who opens up his gates for anyone and everyone to have their pick of the pumpkin patch. No, those seven houses are the gut, the place where things churn and roll and turn to acid. Well, maybe it’s not the gut, but the Digestive Tract of Sycamore doesn’t flow as well.
They have a tribe of children between them, all over-fed and under-mannered. They are hulking, brooding brats, always hopped up on the steroid known as privilege, which their parents feed to them in large doses. As in, you are privileged. You are special. You don’t have to follow the rules of social decorum or the niceties of society because you are privileged. We RULE!
The tribe hangs out in the street, playing basketball, kickball or this odd game in which they just stand there in the middle of the road while you try to pass in your car. They take turns glaring menacingly at you, or waving to you in a mocking, sneering way until you maneuver around them and make your way home. The mothers stand around and watch this, gathered around the hydrangea bush at 413 like cackling witches at a coven. Either they don’t see their tribe engaged in the game of Bully the Neighbor, or they don’t care.
I stopped driving down that end of the block. I had enough of pebbles being kicked up at my car, of balls purposely thrown at my windshield, of gargantuan sized twelve year olds banging on my trunk. I had enough of driving past the parties in progress, watching the witchy women turn their heads as my car rolled past and turn back again without so much as a wave or a nod. They’re holding Margaritas and Pina Coladas and standing around in their short shorts and halter tops, their 40 year old bodies stuffed into their teenage daughter’s fashions, and when they laugh, I imagine they are laughing at me and my jeans/sweatshirt combo, me and my brownish lawn and children who aren’t hulking androids, me and my lack of margarita making friends to share my non-existent porch with. A barrier has been erected starting at 412, an invisible electric fence that shocks me every time. I finally figured out, a year later, to go a different way and avoid the shock. I’m a slow learner.
I pull out of the driveway facing the other way now, and Karen waves to me, her husband waves as he packs the car with football equipment, Hyde waves as he shuffles around his yard, the Asian kids with the souped-up cars and thumping beats wave. I may never have Margaritas on a front porch with these people, but at least they have the courtesy to acknowledge my existence.
When I talk to my friend about this, my friend who lives in another town on a tree lined street where they all take turns with the snow blower in the winter, she laughs.
“Do you think your street is unique? We have four houses at the end of our block that I want to dynamite. They refused to join our block party last year and had one of their own the day before ours! Their kids have made a conscious effort to ignore mine since they were little. It’s like there are two different worlds on the same block and we’re not allowed to enter theirs.”
I give this more thought. I ask a few more friends about their block dynamics and get the same answers from almost everyone. This is suburbia, one woman tells me. What did you expect?
I spent most of my life living on a street that was crowded with relatives. Our yards were connected, our lives intertwined. But we opened those yards up to everyone. Every kid on that block became part of our family. I thought it was like this everywhere. I suppose I grew up insulated, cocooned from the rest of the world. To me, suburbia meant running barefoot through the grass with your cousins, huge pasta dinners on Sunday afternoons, parents who would never let their children be rude to neighbors. Social stratification was reserved for the school playgrounds; at home, on your block, you treated everyone the way you wanted to be treated. You pretended to like that jackass who pulled your hair in the hallway because how else would we have enough kids to get a basketball game together? You tolerated the bitchy girl, the smelly boy, the kid who picked his nose and ate it because these were the people you lived with, the people who made up your kickball team, who told the best jokes, who always had firecrackers in July, who ran barefoot through the grass with you in a race to get to the sprinkler first. On school days, you went back to hating each other. At home, on the block, you were one. I spent my whole life thinking this is how it worked, this is how suburbia was defined.
I was wrong. Not only wrong, but deluded. I let the cotton-candy visions of my childhood block out all the horror and terror of growing up suburban. My mental battle with the Sycamore Seven has stripped away the fluff and sunshine of my childhood and, in many ways, has made me question the dynamics of all the groups I’ve belonged to in my adult life, from PTA to Mommy and Me to the book clubs and workplace committees.
Suburbia isn’t a place. It’s an affliction.
[The stories that follow are all fictionalized accounts of my life in the suburbs. All names and streets have been changed to protect myself.]