For me, the (adult life) distinction between suburbia and the city was always clear-cut. In the ‘burbs you were older, affable and humdrum with a genuine taste for strip malls (you didn’t just go there, you liked going there) while in the city you were young (at heart), at one with cultural significances, and typically looking for and finding creative ways to stay out late. In my bubble, your move to the ‘burbs meant you were turning into (your) parents, grown-ass parents – or retiring. You wanted to cut the grass, you wanted to bake the cookies, you wanted to stop walking and start driving. Moving to the city meant you wanted big(ger) things for yourself – jobs, dreams, love – and you thirsted for difference. Different backgrounds, different things to say about the same things, and while I do know the differentiation line is thinning – many towns are now reconstructed to include walkable shopping streets, good transit, mixed uses, and green spaces - I am still intractable on the old-fashioned suburbs the same way someone who hasn’t been to Brooklyn since 1960 would comment on its “bad reputation.” Suburbs: bad. City: good. I’ve read too much fiction in which my suburban woman is bored, depressed, neglected, wiping her cookie-cutter hands on an apron; I’ve watched too many TV shows in which the “little boxes” all look the same, window-shuttered and monotonous; I’ve seen too many movies… actually, I haven’t… but I am conditioned to know that it is the role of the suburbs to conjure up that pejorative place, and because of those depictions, I rely on them to exist on a purely selfish level - for the pleasurable cartoon comic strip of it.
We visited friends this weekend in West Hartford, Connecticut. On a short jog through the neighborhood one morning, before I crossed the street without looking both ways (twice), before I heard the hum of the lawnmower, before I sniffed the (“I have time to make”) pancake syrup wafting down driveways, before absolutely nothing happened, a complete stranger waved to me. Forget the nod of acknowledgment or the smile of acceptance. This here was a wave that I could have stopped and counted with fingers, lasting an entire three seconds. There is energy involved in lifting one’s hand, moving it from left to right, right from left, and when you don’t even know that person’s name (or care to know it), the energy is that much greater. I’m not not a waver – I grew up waving to my own neighbors, people I recognized and felt some sort of trust for, but it was more of a one hand up, do you solemnly swear kind of wave, except a little higher up. Ah, yes, it is you, I know you, I see you there. And so you wave. But this guy didn’t know me. I reciprocated the wave and almost immediately my jog picked up its pace. On a strangely chilly Memorial Day Weekend, in a town I felt no connection to, all of a sudden I felt warmth. All because a stranger, someone I would never see again (maybe…) waved at me. The city prides itself on broadening our connections with other cultures and other people (like our neighbors), but in small, suburban towns we are taken aback by the friendliness, by the interest. Today I feel like we are excluding ourselves from everyone and everything. Michael’s car windows are tinted; I am engulfed in various newsfeeds, my eyes turned down; we all want to ride the elevator alone.
A part of me is OK with this, and a part of me really does fear the worst, but tomorrow, on Columbia Street, in my own little suburb of the city, I am going to wave to someone. For the pleasurable pleasure of it.