Growing Up Suburban

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IN MY SENIOR year of college my teacher Kenneth Koch, sick to death of the tenacious obsession that prevented me from writing about anything except the First World War, said he would fail me in his composition course unless I wrote about something I actually had experienced.

After some fretting I produced a story about a party on a friend’s front lawn in my last year of high school. Professor Koch liked it—at any rate, liked it better than another chronicle of tragic folly on the Somme—and he read it aloud to the class.

As he read, the students around me began to get restless. When he was done, Alan Senauke gave voice to the general feeling: “It’s so phony. It’s so— bourgeois . These high school kids doing their worthless crud together—”

Koch cut him short. “You’re just sore because everyone in the story seems rich and happy.”

I wasn’t surprised by the disapproval. This was 1969, and everyone knew that suburban living represented a dishonorable flight from the realities of life. What did surprise me was the teacher’s equable assumption of my happiness.

The fact was, I hadn’t thought of myself as being especially happy. People, after all, are far more likely to believe they’ve just missed a golden age than that they’re living through one. But after class, looking back on it across only five years, I realized that I had been a suburban adolescent at exactly the right time: the moment when you could still buy a serviceable car for forty dollars and a hamburger for fifteen cents, yet ask for—and get—a buck seventy-five an hour for doing yard work.

These grown-up fixtures—an automobile and a salary—were pleasant enough, but it took another ingredient to make my village an adolescent’s paradise. Like every other railroad suburb, mine had been designed to be pretty. It was very pretty indeed and, I think, pretty in a way particularly appropriate to a teen-aged sensibility. Although in the early 1960s I had yet to hear the term “theme park,” my town was a superbly realized one.

A local architect, a man named Bowman, had lived and practiced there, and he was omniscient about the architectural past. He built a great many of the houses I bicycled past when I was little, and they were immaculate in every anachronistic detail. Not only would Bowman get the Tudor half-timbering right; he’d drop the middle of a roof an inch or two lower than the ends to suggest the slow settling of the house over the centuries.

And the realities of suburban real estate intruded to precisely the right extent: the Elizabethan manor, with its rosy old brick twisted into intricate chimneys and its rounded door showing that Inigo Jones had begun to make his influence felt in London, stood on just three-quarters of an acre of land. A hundred yards away rose the gray battlements of a keep built in the reign of Coolidge. So my friends and I could look out of the same mullioned windows that hawk-faced Elizabethan noblemen glanced through while they wondered how the Channel fighting was going and see not five hundred yards of sopping moorland falling away to a gaunt huddle of peasant crofts, but rather fifty feet of emerald lawn and beyond it our own cars parked on the sunny street.

It was all of it—the dragon’s head newel posts, the hunting scenes carved in low relief on baronial fireplaces—the sort of authoritative detail particularly convincing and delightful to the young. And what was more, we didn’t have to pay for it; it was the parents who did the worrying when their Spanish mission, so durable in the old Southwest, started to shed its dull-orange roof tiles under the bombardment of a Westchester winter.

These historical conceits were not the only houses in the village, of course—I myself lived in a workmanlike 1920s home devoid of pre-Raphaelite embellishments—but they cast their spell over the whole town, and over us as we were growing up there.

And the landscape worked in collusion with the houses. A child walking home from the movies across summer yards with the branches of the old oaks heavy overhead and the sharp edges of their leaves silhouetted by lights shining out from under slate eaves may not learn much about nature, but he will learn a good deal about beauty.

So when I began to hear how bad the suburbs were, I took the lesson seriously enough, but always with a grain of complacency. If, during the last summer I lived there, my town looked reprehensible in the light of the fires that were burning twelve miles down the line in Harlem, it nonetheless had given me a considerable gift. The beautiful artifice of those lawns and houses offered my friends and me purest fantasy resting on the solid, homely piers of the actuality of our daily lives. Surely youth can have no assurance more comforting than that.