One Woman’s Confession: I HATE SUBURBIA (Sep, 1965)
One Woman’s Confession: I HATE SUBURBIA
Yes. I’ve been a long-term resident of the suburbs,” the attractive woman next to me replied in answer to my question. Her brown eyes seethed with excitement. “And I think the word ‘term’ is very appropriate. It’s been almost a jail sentence!”
We looked around us as we drove through the streets of one of the towns in a suburban area called The Five Towns, on Long Island. Neat little houses bordered the roads, each painted white and framed by shrubbery or forsythia, with the number of the house painted in script above the garage. Often, a car was parked in the driveway. It seemed to be Hollywood’s version of suburbia—a way of life to which every young woman facing marriage must aspire. A house—split-level, ranch or colonial style—in a suburb close enough to the city to offer entertainment on week-ends, yet far enough away to supply fresh air, a golf course, good schools for the children. It seemed to be the best of two possible worlds: a marriage of country life and city conveniences.
“It isn’t,” we were assured. “It has all of the drawbacks of living in the city—the crowds, the traffic, the exhaust fumes. And none of the advantages!” Here is the story she poured out to me, a story that had obviously been pent up inside her heart for years: When we moved out here it was beautiful. There were acres and acres of woodlands—elm trees, oak, birch and sassafras—and there were birds and wild life inhabiting them. Michael was two years old then. He’s twenty now, and off at Yale, so I guess that must have been in 1947.
Louis and I plunked down every penny we owned for this white colonial style house you see. Then Deena came along (she’s fifteen now) and Robbie (he’s seven). But by the time Robbie was born, our town had changed so much I couldn’t recognize it!
Instead of woodlands, there were houses—acres and acres of them. Each on its little 60 by 100 foot plot, each almost identical to the next. Back in the 50’s, a group of us got together and petitioned the city fathers to set aside part of the woodlands as a public park. We were defeated. A real estate developer bought the property and built 5,000 homes, one almost on top of the next. Each has a little plot of garden, each has a driveway, each has a garage which houses a car— often two, sometimes three. And every day, each of those cars from those 5,000 homes pours onto roads which weren’t meant to accommodate them. These days, getting from one place to another isn’t just a test of driving skill, it’s a test of patience and endurance! Sometimes when the crowds converge on those ugly shopping centers that have sprung up recently, it takes longer to get from one end of the Five Towns than it takes to drive to the city!
But I don’t object to that half as much as I object to the “sameness” of it all. I’m appalled by the lack of “difference” with which I live. Out here, people are almost all from the same income level, have the same interests, the same outlook, the same values. There’s just no difference in the houses, in the home furnishings, in the people you meet, in the children your children know, in the things you do day after day and week-end after week-end. It isn’t just monotony, it’s stagnation! A few years ago there was another woman in town who felt the way I do. We became friends. Every week, we’d drive into the city, parking our cars in another section each time and walking till our legs gave out. It was revitalizing just to see the differences! The differences in buildings, people, stores, sidewalks, streets. We’d spend hours in a strange food store, choosing things to take back home. Often, we’d strike up a conversation with the people we’d meet. Negroes. Puerto Ricans. Italians. I felt I was part of the world again!
These are the differences to which I was exposed as a child; but it is something my children will never know unless they come into contact with it later on. They certainly don’t see it in the town in which we live.
My Deena complains that she has only twenty skirts. Heaven forbid that she should have to wear the the same skirt twice in two weeks. Every once in a while I’m tempted to lecture to her, pointing out that there are children who’d be happy to have two skirts, let alone twenty. But then I catch myself. I realize that this is all she knows. Living out here all her life had done that to her!
She—and I—are limited by our neighbors. It’s so difficult to get around out here, and transportation is so time-consuming, that we don’t have the opportunity to choose our friends for their attributes and qualities, as we might if we were living in a city. We’re forced to select our friends for their geographic availability. Right now, Deena has a crush – on the boy next door. I think he’s materialistic, self-seeking, destructive—altogether not a person I would choose to have her know. But what can I tell her? He’s available, and the boy on the other side of town isn’t. He’s too young to drive.
And speaking of driving, that part of it is a pet peeve. We may have moved out here for the fresh air, but these days there’s so much gasoline exhaust in the air it could hardly be called “fresh.” No one walks an inch! Everyone here gets into a car if they have to so much as mail a letter. I’ve gotten so I do it myself! However, I do insist that my fifteen-year-old Deena walk to school. Most of her classmates get there by bus—sometimes with their mothers driving them to the bus stop in the morning—but I think a little walking is healthy. After all, why are we living in the suburbs?
I sometimes wonder. Each day, almost every day, seems to be spent running dozens of errands and doing things I don’t want to do. In most cases, they’re things I wouldn’t have to do if we were living in the city.
Take today as an example. Litte seven-year-old Robbie came running back home after I’d left him at the bus stop. He’d had a fight with another child, and wanted to tell me about it. I soothed him, drove him to the bus stop again, and waited till the bus picked him up for school.
Then I returned home. The phone rang. It was one of my friends, calling to ask whether I’d make a fourth at bridge. It was Thursday: she already has a canasta game scheduled for every Monday, bridge every Tuesday, mah jong every Wednesday—but on Thursdays she has nothing to do.
For the third Thursday this month, I declined, explaining that there was something I had to attend to in the city— and I did. I spent most of the afternoon tracking down books Deena needed from the library. They were impossible to borrow from our suburban library because it hasn’t kept pace with the growth of the community. (When we moved out here it was more than adequate. But now that our suburb has added three new schools and enlarged another, it’s almost impossible for a youngster to borrow a book suggested at school.) I found the books at the city’s main branch and drove home, just in time to see Robbie return from school. In a little while it was time to take Robbie to a Little League baseball game. Transportation is so difficult, and distances relatively so far, that any project: dancing class, violin lessons or a baseball game involves my acting as chauffeur. When I returned home it was time to start dinner.
The few times I’ve been unable to drive, I’ve come to grips with the taxi service. Leave a call for a pick-up at 7:30 a.m., for instance, and they’re apt to arrive at 7:15 (in which case you may not have your make-up on) or 7:45 (when you’re almost worn out with worry as to whether you’ll make the train, and your appointment, on time). It all depends on whether they’ve chosen to make you the first or the last pick-up on the list.
Evenings during the week are relaxing but hardly revitalizing. Before Louis and I became active in politics, which we both find rewarding, there was the P.T.A., work for the Community Chest or card games, with the women playing in one room, the men in another.
I’ve learned to dread the week-ends. Getting into the city for the theatre is an exercise in logistics: making the right train, taxiing to the theatre, taxiing back, racing to make the last train home. And Louis does so much driving during the week that I hate to expose him to the traffic and the train schedule on weekends.
Saturday morning, our friends start calling to ask, “What shall we do tonight?” The phone calls are unnecessary. We do what we always do. There are just three restaurants in town, so Saturday night is “Steak Night” at one of them. Sunday night is “Chinese dinner” night at another.
I happen to like small dinner parties of six or eight, where people are congenial and conversation flows. But I discovered that if I invited Betty and Harry I offended Jane and Bob, because all four were friends. And Betty and Harry expected to be invited every time.
It’s not always blessed to receive, either. For years I didn’t hear an invitation without a P.S.: “Please don’t tell Frances and Jim. I’m not inviting them.” Or Anita and Bill … or Ruth and Fred … or whoever.
It seemed as though we were making enemies by either extending an invitation or accepting one, so in our group, small dinner parties are “out.” Out of our lives.
What’s “in” is huge cocktails-and-buffet parties at which you can pay off all your social obligations at one time, and offend no one because you’ve invited everyone. The only trouble with them is that they aren’t any fun.
I can always predict who will be there, what will be served, how the evening will go. The lights will be dim, the hi-fi will be blasting away. Joe, the bartender everybody hires will be there. He’ll serve you your drink without asking your order, because he’s learned at previous parties what you drink.
There’ll be small talk and still smaller talk about clothes and golf clubs and trips. At about 11 o’clock the hostess will smile sweetly and say, “If anyone’s hungry, dinner’s ready!” I don’t have to look at the buffet table; I know what will be there. There’s only one caterer in town and everyone uses her menu. The hostess plans her Big Evening according to the date the caterer and her bartender will be free.
It’s become so little fun that Louis and I don’t go to them any more. We’re just as happy with our Saturday night steaks and Sunday night Chinese food.
This suburb, and others like it, I am told, is a community of status-seekers. The women parade their clothes. The men their golf and country clubs. And both of them, their trips. * We’ve been to Europe and Africa and Israel, Louis and I, but unless someone is genuinely interested in hearing about it, we don’t mention it. However, the other evening we were out at dinner, and everyone started talking about vacations and trips. After awhile, I just sat back and listened to the conversation. I was tempted to laugh. I’d never heard so much “travel dropping” in my life!
When we moved here, we thought it was wonderful that we were so close to a golf course. Louis would be able to play every week-end, we believed. Well, the golf course is just two blocks away, but Louis sees it only on Sunday mornings. I’m delighted to see him go, because he needs the relaxation. But Louis drives an* hour and a half to and from the city each day, just to have that golf course nearby. We once put our heads together and decided that even if he drove an hour to a golf course on Sunday, he’d still save over four hours a week!
Sometimes, Louis will try to fix the little things that go wrong with the house. Sometimes he’s successful; often not. When the faucet leaks or the sink gets stopped up it seems too unimportant to call in a plumber, whose bills are astronomical. So we wait until there’s a real catastrophe and everything goes at once. Most times, I’ve learned to cope with a leaky faucet and a stopped-up sink.
Living in this white-painted, wall-to-wall carpeted trap is expensive. Taxes have gone from $400 a year to $1200 a year, and membership in the country club almost drains the budget. In all, it’s far more costly than living in the city.
Two years ago, Deena had two bicycles stolen from her within the space of six months. One was taken while she was playing tennis, the other while she was at high school. Both times, the police were phlegmatic. They told us they were swamped with that sort of complaint, and worse. “The kids paint them up and fix them over, and you can’t tell one bicycle from another” we were told. ¦ Narcotics have become so important a problem in our Five Towns, that they’ve appointed a special board to try to find the solution. Everyone throws up his hands and says, “Poor things, they have no place to go.” All that our teen-agers do these days is to look for more and more types of recreation. I think they ought to find part-time jobs, get to work on community projects, try to make a contribution to the town. Right now, I think they’re just plain bored. Maybe we ought to have a board to study boredom in the suburbs.
However, there is one redeeming feature of this luxurious domestic trap in which I live: we can move out of it! Louis and I expect to, as soon as Deena , is ready for college. Maybe then I’ll long for the days of stopped-up sinks and leaky faucets, of congested traffic and a library with not enough books. Maybe I’ll miss the taxes, the parties, the Saturday night steaks and Sunday night Chinese food—but I doubt it very much!