Don’t blame the suburbs

If you are a city dweller considering a move to the suburbs, the worst thing you could possibly do is read Revolutionary Road. This 1961 Richard Yates novel follows a young couple who leave behind their bohemian lives in Manhattan and move to the leafy Connecticut ‘burbs, where they proceed to implode in the most horrifically awful way you’ve ever seen.

I also recommend skipping the film adaptation—I don’t care how much you love Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Do yourself a favor and just watch Titanic again. Because Leo and Kate’s nightmarish unraveling in Revolutionary Road makes their Titanic ordeal look like a freaking holiday. I mean, if that’s what living in the suburbs does to you, I’ll take my chances in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.

Revolutionary-Road

And so, when my husband and I decided to move from Brooklyn to South Orange, New Jersey, my mind would spin these terrible fantasies involving daytime drinking binges, overflowing ashtrays all over the house, my husband coming home later and later until one night he doesn’t come home at all. It wouldn’t be long before we started having conversations like this:

Me: “I’m dying inside! You have your big fancy job, and all I have is this drafty old house and the dull, un-stylish people who live around here.”

Him: “Why don’t you go take one of your little pills and get off my back. Also, I decided to keep an apartment in the city for when I have to ‘work late’.”

[I collapse into a chair, which causes vodka to slosh out of the highball glass in my hand and onto my sleeve. Sobbing, I lift my arm to my mouth and suck the vodka out of the fabric.]

Clearly, I have read too many novels that deal with the scourge of suburban conformity and the malaise it inflicts upon the hapless members of the white, upper-middle class. John Updike and John Cheever, I’m looking at you. (Also see “Mad Men”, American Beauty, Tom Perrotta’s Little Children—which was also made into a movie starring Kate Winslet, The Ice Storm, etc.)

So maybe my anxiety about moving was the result of confusing reality with what is these days an outmoded cliché—albeit one that persists in modern literature and entertainment, and one that I am clearly kind of obsessed with. Because the reality is that living here is ridiculously awesome. It’s comfortable and easy. We are always guaranteed to get a parking spot right next to our house, and the public schools are great. The people who live around here are neither dull nor un-stylish. (As it turns out, many of them, like us, moved here from Brooklyn. Not to say that our area isn’t diverse – some people have come from Jersey City and even Weehawken.) On warm nights we drink wine on our deck and survey the little patch of land which is ours alone, while New York City glows like a nightlight just twenty miles to the east.

We left the city for the usual reason: the baby. Before he arrived it was easy to convince ourselves that we could be hip urban parents, and that our child, with a city full of museums and theaters and good restaurants at his disposal, would grow up cultured and smart and happy. But then you see beleaguered moms hefting their babies in strollers up the subway stairs, and you hear stories about how your kid’s life is basically over if he doesn’t get into a gifted and talented program, and you realize that you are not a bazillionaire and will never live in a brownstone with a nice yard in Carroll Gardens, and you think about your own idyllic childhood days spent playing on your safe street and roaming your safe neighborhood until dark, and you finally say, “Screw it. We’re out of here.”

“Hey buddy, instead of taking my picture how about helping with this damn stroller?”

Why is it such a big deal to leave the city? What would I, personally, have been trying to prove to myself by staying there? Wait, wait – I think I know the answer to that one:

1. That I’m different from my parents. (My parents are great and I love them very much. I’m just referring to classic child-parent individuation here.)

2.That I haven’t given up on trying to “make it” professionally. 

3. That I’m not hurtling ever closer to old age and, ultimately, death.

I grew up in the suburbs, in a raised-ranch house nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac. We were only about an an hour and a half north of Manhattan but we might as well have been in Wisconsin, so infrequent were our trips to the city. Later, during college and in the years just after, I would visit friends there and feel like a total hick. The subway made me anxious. And why was everyone walking so fast? My friends’ tiny apartments, with their clanging radiators and scattered roach traps and weird smells, depressed me. When I finally moved to the city, in my mid-twenties, I had to work at it. Just being out amid all the noise and the smells and the people and the constant movement was exhausting. Eventually, I came to love it. But for a long time, what I loved more than the city itself was what living there signified about me (or so I imagined): that I was young and sophisticated and ambitious, and that endless possibilities were open to me.

I mean, I suppose it’s possible that the following could have happened:

I’m walking down First Avenue when a taxi screeches to a stop at the curb, and a big-time publisher jumps out and runs toward me in a sweaty frenzy. 

Big-time publisher: You there! You look like an amazingly talented writer! I want to publish your book immediately! I don’t care if you haven’t written it yet. Please take this check for $50,000 and promise me you’ll work with us and no one else!

Me: Thank god I didn’t move to New Jersey!

***

But at a certain point, you realize that you are no longer exactly young (definitely young-ish, though) and that your possibilities have dramatically thinned and receded over the last decade. And then you have a baby and you realize it’s been months since you’ve set foot inside any of the cute restaurants and bars that are so tantalizingly close to your apartment, which is two flights up and getting to be a real pain in the ass in terms of carting the baby in and out. In short, you’ve stayed too long at the ball. The only thing to do is to pack up the party dress and make a graceful exit.

200cigarettes2

And here’s the thing: Leaving isn’t nearly as sad as I thought it would be. Well, it’s a little sad, but only in the sense that a part of my life has ended; but if we’re being honest, that part (i.e., free, unencumbered youth) ended long before we made it official by moving. So I think it’s not so much about giving up as it is about letting go—not of our ambitions and creative pursuits, but of the idea that living in a city is essential to leading a “legitimate” life and that the suburbs are a culturally bereft wasteland where dreams go to die.

I suppose twenty-five-year-old me might be slightly put off by the sight of present-day me driving around in my Subaru Outback, jamming to the Smiths and other old-timey music while my little guy showers the backseat with Cheerios. And she might be depressed by the fact that a date with my husband often consists of getting a babysitter on a Sunday afternoon and heading to the AMC dine-in theater in a local strip mall, where we sink into La-Z-Boy recliners and press a button that summons a waiter or waitress to bring us alcoholic beverages. It’s certainly not a late-night dinner at the über-hip new restaurant that you can only get into if you’re Jay-Z and Beyonce or Jennifer Lawrence.* It’s so much better than that. 

*But if anyone wants to take me to that restaurant, I’m totally in.

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