Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Nothing Wrong with Me that Two Weeks in Scranton Couldn’t Cure

It’s so easy to be homesick at this time of year. We’re in the middle of October, always my favorite season at home. The days are shortening toward winter, the weather is cool at night but warm during the days, and it’s all similar enough to remind me, but heartbreakingly different. No brilliant color. No breadloaf hills. No frost. No home.

At times like this, I look at our neighborhood with an accusing gaze. Built in 1975, this development is made of flimsy houses set too close together on streets whose curves have no relation to the landscape or any comprehensible human ordering. The whole place is curiously unreal to me: it looks like a town on TV with its bright clean streets, its cartoony architecture, its choice of four floor models, its palm trees and jacarandas. It looks like the kind of place sitcom families have their problems that can be solved in 22 minutes. Someday I expect to come home and find the set struck and a new arrangement of facades propped in place.

More than the domestic architecture here seems unreal. We live so far from the vigor and diversity of the city that I feel like we’re lost in an endlessly manicured suburban maze. I’m not talking about ethnic diversity (we have that), but socioeconomic diversity. And more — the honest bones of life. We’re shielded from the railroad tracks, the factories, the dumps, the other essential places that keep this neighborhood clean, well-fed, and perky. A bedroom community has the same problem and the same pleasure that many people find in an affair. You don’t have to deal with the messy stuff. You just come in and take your pleasure and leave in the morning with an empty feeling.

This particular development — and what an odd word that is, sounding like a euphemism for cancerous, disastrous change — was built to house Big Blue’s workers. Another IBM ghetto, amusingly enough, given that I just moved from the original home of IBM. Almost everyone I know who has worked for IBM is bright, thoughtful, competent, but I loathe both IBM’s personnel policies and the conformist corporate culture they enforce. I’ve never forgiven them for what happened to Binghamton and Endicott when they pulled out. Those towns are ghostly now. But at least the buildings are mostly old and solid.

OK, so what’s wrong with pretty new houses in a safe, clean family neighborhood? Somehow the whole place feels dishonest. Cities and rural areas are both much more close to the bone, much less prettified, than suburbia. You have to confront the consequences of garbage there. Here it’s so easy to ignore all that. Even the Goodwill stores are in strip malls.

Also, I don’t find the houses especially pretty, though many have beautiful gardens. In my critical eyes, they are designed for display and not endurance, built with no pride of craftsmanship: badly proportioned, flimsily constructed, with showy living rooms and claustrophobic bedrooms.

I love the rich complexity of Philadelphia streets, everything from Colonial porticoes to Victorian row houses (which at least had grace and often had beautiful detailing) to the postmodern humor of the giant clothes pin. (To be fair, that’s a statue, not a dwelling, but still.) I love the simplicity of plain farmhouses set in a grove of maple trees, and I love the dignity of their red or white barns. I love the variety and exuberance of San Francisco; even with its ragged districts, it is probably the most beautiful city in the world. There are some neighborhoods in Silicon Valley that seem coherent and neighborly, not like an alienated suburb. Other areas are just so beautiful that I don’t care about their flaws.

I know I’m bitching. I also know I’m homesick. I’m still getting over the wretched sinus/chest infection and I sound like the last act of a TB drama. I’m over-tired and on the raw edge of being peopled out. I need a weekend alone, enough rest, and the chance to come back slowly to myself. But even on the most perfect sunny days, when my heart is high, this neighborhood looks fake to me. It’s just that today I felt like bitching about it.

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