Growing up in the suburbs gives one the impression that the world itself is a suburb. There are no town limits; the suburb just keeps being the suburb. The suburbs end where the ocean begins. If you cross the ocean, the suburbs start over. “The city” is merely a part of the suburb. It is to the suburb what a beauty mark is to the skin.
The first thing you learn as a dweller of the suburb is freedom. You learn it by example — your own example. Parents in the suburbs tend to allot freedom to their children with minimal restraint. For most children that means embracing the strenuous life of self-sufficiency and risk. Childhood in the suburbs is often retold in injuries rather than in words. Each scrape, each fracture, each sprain, each break, each concussion is its own chapter.
One time in second grade I was playing by myself on the playground after school. I was sitting a few feet from the swing set, putting the pebbles and sand into a large mound, because why not? Another child approached me, he was a grade beneath me; he was much bigger than I was and with bright blond hair. He complimented the efficiency of my piling. I’m not sure I answered him; anyway he pushed me to ground. I ran wailing to my mom who was reading to herself some ways off by the baseball field. She told me in no uncertain terms to deal with it myself. I think I just sulked back and resumed my mound-making once the kid was gone. The next day I was sitting by myself at lunch and he walked over and sat across from me. “I’m sorry I pushed you,” he said. Then he paused. “I’m going to beat you up after school.” Then he walked away. Nothing happened, but that was my first pause.
The astute reader will notice that this was when I first started to consciously spend time alone. I guess it was at this time that birthday party invitations stopped being automatic and you had to sift to your own friends. I never actually did that because I was separated from the larger student body and placed with kids who had learning disabilities and disciplinary problems. We had smaller classrooms and were brought to them by a smaller bus. Here I was taught the concept of the “mainstream.” The mainstream was something I was not a part of. If I improved my performance in this or that subject I could be “mainstreamed.”
I had one classmate who lived down the street from me. We’d wait for the bus together at the top of my driveway. His dad would walk him over every morning; he was a researcher at Bell Labs when it was still called that, he always wore sneakers, jeans, and a sweater to work, which always astonished me. One winter this kid decided to throw snowballs at passing cars, including our bus. He was mainstreamed when it was discovered that his learning disability was actually a peanut allergy. He went to Stanford.
I had another classmate named Shawn who made constant overtures of friendship toward me which were responded with constant overtures of refusal. I believe the sociological term for Shawn would be “spazzoid.” Eventually I felt ashamed enough about this that I went to his house exactly once where we played some Michael Jackson-based video game. I tried to take up his hobby of coin collecting, but it didn’t take. I switched to another elementary school and I never saw Shawn again.
I was given some time in “mainstream” classrooms. The one in third grade had a ratty set of World Book encyclopedias from 1975. I used all my free time flipping through it. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than when my parents got me my own up-to-date set.
In fifth grade I developed an “interest” in the Catholic Church. This is distinct from taking an interest in the Catholic Church as it was altogether independent from my instructions in Sunday school and CCD. I was not interested in the catechism, morality, or theology, such as they were in that parish. I was curious about the experience: about the rosary, the rituals, the Gregorian chants, and the hierarchy. I was interested in Hell. I talked about these openly at home and at school in a way that may not have been coherent to anyone. I hung a crucifix in my room for a while. It might still be around somewhere. My parents indulged this curiosity, deducing, not wrongly, that I’d found my grandmother’s parochial effects and was trying without much success to connect now to then.
My strenuous life was by now largely internal. Going outside was a kind of acquiescence I made in exchange for more of this particular freedom. My interests were expanding rapidly. From what prompting I cannot recall, I asked my mom what “S&M” meant; unfazed, though erring on a clinical tone, she told me. Recently a friend told me that his first encounter with sex in literature was through Isaac Asimov; mine was from the Marquis de Sade, in middle school.
From de Sade I went to EC horror comics to Alfred Hitchcock to H.P. Lovecraft to William S. Burroughs to punk to industrial to Joel-Peter Witkin to fringe politics to murderers and cults to manifestos-as-literature to the avant-garde of almost everything. All of this cut from the same outré cloth. I didn’t become an extremist in my own temperament, but I placed a certain superiority, mostly aesthetic but sometimes moral, upon those who were.
Riding the bus to my high school meant passing two historical landmarks. One was the Kopechne family house on Debbie Place and the old Bell Laboratories complex on Mountain Avenue. Bell Labs was past its Cold War prime by that time, and had changed its name to Lucent, but for a while it still attracted eminent people of the world — I believe Jiang Zemin once visited — and cast a long shadow over the town. Some towns are factory towns, some towns are college towns, some towns are full of secrets, some towns are without pity, some towns are two-thirds highway, and some towns are simply excellent. When social critics like to make hay about the “meritocracy” they tend to have something like Berkeley Heights and the surrounding area in mind. Our school forsook rankings but had a quant fixation that was appeased with numerous standardized tests. There was even a test to qualify for graduation; I do not remember what it was called, but I did not pass it and had to sacrifice a study hall to take a prep course for the retake. With me was a girl from the standard-issue popular clique who was in tears on the first day. We did fine.
The most meaningful test was for advanced placement. In a technical sense, passing the test gave one access to courses with transferable college credit. In a grander sense it conferred a certain status. Advanced placement students had advanced placement problems far removed from the rest of the student body. In a personal sense it meant that advanced placement students were approved to read Waiting for Godot while I was going to get Of Mice and Men and I was going to like it. Before I get sanctioned for hyperbole: I wasn’t a complete waste case. I was in honors history, I did pretty well in electives, and was active in the newspaper and literary magazine. But having grown accustomed to not appreciating arbitrary limitations, and being otherwise cordoned off from public standards of excellence, I took firmer possession of my freedom. I placed it on a pedestal. I blew it out of proportion.
“Free-range” parenting has grown out of fashion lately. But to have experienced it at its zenith — in the suburbs, in the 1990s — was to appreciate its clever design. Free-range parenting, contrary to recent popular myth, was not a blithe attitude toward child safety, but a reinforcement of it. Unsupervised limitlessness was much more supervised and much more limited than first assumed. Children were not so much as expected to gain a fondness for their personal autonomy as they were to admire the bounty within the suburban bubble: the bubble that does not end. One road out is just another road into somewhere similar. You may go out as far as you like, the keepers of the bubble say. I’d say that one day you’d be back, but really you’re not going to leave. At the core of every suburban parent is their desire for their children to become suburban parents as well, to perpetuate the comforts of a value-neutral world. It is as close to a utopia as I or anyone I grew up with will possibly experience.
The suburbanite, like the colonialist, comes to see his world and its value-neutrality as complete. He accepts that his position and the freedom it confers is a luxury easily attained. He sees those whose access, for whatever reason, is closed off and he agrees that they desire it, that it should be made open for them, and they will be guided with care. And like the colonialist, the suburbanite gives himself to the reactionary. He doesn’t really understand or acknowledge those who are opposed to this world; not least of all those within the bubble. He cannot reason with those who profit little from the freedom they are given; who, in other words, find more to admire in John Lithgow than in Kevin Bacon.
Behind my old house lived a family of, I want to say, eight. It may have been more than that. But they lived behind us and they played with us sometimes. The children were homeschooled, and the family was pious. So pious, in fact, that there was a gap in our interactions as a result of their being forbidden to associate with the children of a family whose parents were undergoing divorce. This was told to me indirectly, and after the fact, though knowing what I know I can’t say that I disbelieve it.
That left a certain impression, as the saying goes. It would not be some time until I interacted in any substantial way with people more against my grain. Other people who were homeschooled, people with more expressive religious convictions, people who didn’t go to any public school, people who grew up in more wide-open spaces, people who did not see an R-rated movie until they were 18. I’d like to say that in coming into contact with these kinds of people that it reformed me. That I broke free from freedom, broadened my perspective, and ultimately burst the bubble. If that were the case there’d be no reason to write this. You can’t burst the bubble. You can only make it bigger, make it take up more space, and make its surface more kaleidoscopic.
There is no mistaking how defined I am by the bubble despite my discrepancies within it. Nothing else comes close to giving me a rationale for every thought, every action, every fear or thrill that courses through me and propels me. Nothing else in my history or body is as equal in its force. I don’t presume to speak for my peers, but I can’t discount that they, on some visceral level, share this understanding, particularly as many of them start making their way back, finding their roots more firmly planted and resiliently sprouting than when they last left. But even if they are in some far off place that has nothing, not even a Dairy Queen, the bubble is going to be there, around them, filling them with a feeling that I can only describe as History ending endlessly.