Safe, Orderly, and Bland

The battlecry of the suburbs

I come to you once again as emissary from beyond. Do not touch my cloak. I have not yet descended from the ether. I come once more to say what life is really like in the suburbs.

Last week I made a few observations about the suburbs that brought a spirited response from certain suburbanites I know--perhaps because I called them stupid. I've thought hard about what they said and have boiled down what seemed to be the three essential points of their argument:

Point One: I am a jerk.

Point Two: I can't generalize about the suburbs. Millions of people live in the suburbs. How can I generalize about millions of people?

Point Three: Suburban Wawas have parking, nyeah nyeah nyeah.

Point Four (optional): The rest of my family are jerks too.

From city people I got a different reaction. They told me some folks actually want to live in the suburbs, and weren't always forced there by cruel employers. Young people go to the 'burbs in pursuit of--and these are their words exactly-- "a better quality of life."

That is the very phrase. Suburbanites get to enjoy all those goodies that city dwellers only dream about: two-car garages, half-acre lawns, utility sheds filled with lawn implements, huge sacks of herbicide, mulch, heaps of railroad ties from the garden center, and, in the driveway, one automobile per person (plus an extra backup auto in case one car breaks down). In the suburbs you get to possess fences, fertilizer spreaders, snowblowers, comfy swinging hammocks, wooden birds with spinning wings in the wind, and plenty of gasoline charge cards.

Golly, I'm already hungering for Velveeta.

It's the last point I simply cannot fit my head around completely so that both sides touch: people move to the 'burbs for a better life.

People move to the suburbs for

That word "better" troubles me. So does the fact that people heap such praise on the 'burbs having spent zero time there.

People praise the 'burbs the way they praise vacations. "If only I could live on vacation," they say, little realizing that after five weeks of the standard American getaway they'd be putting guns to their heads.

Once again, I feel these dreamers should stand aside and listen to those people who have lived in the burbs--what few whose brains still function, I mean.

Had I grown up closer to a city, as Cherry Hill or Gladwyne are to Philadelphia, I might think differently. As it was, I lived in a place where music, art, history, higher aspiration and what you might call the shared enterprise of the metropolis--all of these were unknown. Amusement after work was in no way capricious; indeed, it didn't exist, except in the form of shopping malls, happy hours, jerkoff shopping festivals, let's-pretend highly commercial craft shows, and whatever entertainment the Chamber of Commerce threw together to fill the tiny public parks.

Everything else was illegal.

One other thing was missing: pride, especially pride of place. The ground of those towns and townships had never been hallowed by any sort of cooperative endeavor, except the endeavor to get as far away from other people as possible.

And you can generalize about the suburbs. The suburbs want to be generalized. There is nothing so characteristic of suburbs as their lust for the level, their itch toward the humdrum quotidian. As the land is flat, so is the aspiration. As the landscape brooks no pretense to greatness, neither do the people to difference, diversity or digression.

The suburbs are nothing if not a kind of collective opinion that life should be safe, orderly, bland. A great experiment in regimentation. What is outside is outlawed. Woe to those poor eccentrics, misfits, slowpokes, geniuses and vagabonds who never developed the taste for sitting long hours before the TV. The peace there is not the historical calm of a place where something has been settled once and for all. Its people have never had to veil their faces in awe of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed.

Certain writers--I think of Dave Barry and William Geist--have concocted a funny anthropology of suburban culture. They do this, I'm convinced, as a way of dealing with the pain.

There it is. I stand in your sights. You may fire when ready.

One thing more. Don't let me hear anyone else attacking the suburbs. I'm the only one allowed to.

© Rob Laymon 2002

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