Friday, September 7, 2007

Subversive in the Suburbs

My last post garnered a comment from Isabella in the 21st Century herself, in which she writes, "I am the Internet's foremost suburban subversive." I just have to say I love that so much. Because the thing is, it's so common to be subversive in the city. Everybody's doing it. But out here in the suburbs? You're on your own, kid.

It's actually one of my favorite things about the suburbs: If you've ever had any desire in your life to be bohemian or radical, this is the place to do it. It doesn't take much. Start a compost heap in your backyard. Homeschool your kids. Grow your own tomatoes in your backyard or buy them in the farmers market. Sit down one morning and write a poem. Or read one. No tattoos necessary! Nipples? Leave 'em unpierced.

I remember one time last summer, driving to the farmer’s market, I saw a sign for a yard sale, only it read “yART Sale.” This pleased me to no end. The sign was in an old suburban neighborhood, brick ranch houses circa 1960, a little bit shabby in spots, but one I’d suspected might have a little something going on underground. And it turns out I was right: in one unassuming little ranch house there lives an artist, and this artist has artist friends, and on this particular summer Saturday they decided to gather together and put on a show.

This kind of thing is right up my alley. I am in love with the local and the idiosyncratic, and anything that’s homemade and interesting to look at (or eat) will get my attention every time. I’m pleased to report that the art was good and so were the prices. I got myself a quilted pillow case, a simple pattern with beautiful fabrics, ivory and pale pink and ocean green, for a whopping fifteen bucks, and baby, it was a bargain. And I got to see somebody’s lovely backyard garden and look at some very nice prints and jewelry, to boot.

Most of all, I got to enjoy the fact that sometimes things can get funky in the suburbs. Admittedly, this particular suburban neighborhood had a higher funk quotient than most, because it’s a little older and so there are tall trees and variations in the houses, and it’s the sort of place where an artist on a budget who’s got a couple of kids running around might land.

It’s easy to get down on the suburbs. Not enough yART sales, for one thing. Too many SUVs for another. Funk quotient: very low. There’s a book out now called Death by Suburb that I’ve been meaning to read, just to confirm all my prejudices.

But one time when I was watching my son’s soccer practice (yep, I’m a soccer mom, yep, I drive a minivan), just as I was about to launch into a silent tirade against suburban folk, armies of which surrounded me on all sides, I realized everyone around me seemed like pretty decent human beings. I mean, it was nice that all these people had come to watch their kids practice soccer. Slightly insane, maybe, but nice. They sat on those collapsible chairs you can buy at the hardware store or Target and chatted with one another and handed their kids icy water jugs whenever the coaches called a water break.

It would have been easy to make fun of them (somehow, even though every Wednesday I was doing exactly the same thing as all the other soccer moms and dads, I didn't count myself in their number, maybe because I was doing the artsy-fartsy knitting thing while I was sitting there, maybe because I had a Drive-By Truckers CD cued up in the van, maybe because I’m too stupid to notice that I was there watching my kid practice, too). What a cliché, right? A bunch of overprotective parents who can’t bear to drop their kids off at the soccer field and let them fend for themselves. Everyone is middle class or upper-middle class, nobody’s got any fashion sense at all, ninety-eight percent of the conversations are about the kids—this one’s just been diagnosed with ADHD, that one is gifted in math but has no social skills, the baby still isn’t sleeping through the night. It couldn’t be more banal.

But the fact is, they were there. Some of them clearly left work early to take their kids to practice, others were stay-at-home moms like me and looked slightly frazzled after a long day of running errands and yelling their heads off or trying like hell not to yell their heads off. They were busy, they were stressed, who knows what was going on at home, but they got their kids’ butts to soccer practice every week at 5 p.m. and they cheered and signed up to bring snacks for the game on Saturday. They showed up. Maybe they showed up too much, I don’t know. But at least they were trying as hard as they could to do the right thing. Not everybody does. A lot of people don’t.

I have many days when I wished I lived in some cool downtown arts and crafts bungalow and had neighbors who could discuss the new Drive-By Truckers CD with me. None of my current neighbors can. I’m pretty sure none of the women I’m friendly with at the gym can, either. I’m downright positive nobody at church has the slightest idea who the Truckers are. It makes me feel a little lonely, if you want to know the truth.

But here’s the thing: living downtown, a yART sale would not yield the same delightful surprise it does in the suburbs. Of course you’d find a yART sale downtown, with all sorts of angel-headed hipsters milling about, making knowing comments and sarcastic asides, wearing supercool shoes. What fun is that? The big fun is when life pops out where you least expect it. Big flower decals on the side of somebody’s minivan, the cramped comic book store tucked in between the Harris Teeter and the TCBY, the guy who looks like your basic corporate pawn, but whose tee shirt on closer inspection reads “Rednecks for Peace.” Downtown, nobody would give that stuff a second thought. In the suburbs, it makes you happy to be alive.


Heather said...

My sister in law has recently moved into a ridiculously chic and expensive house in the heart of downtown San Francisco. She and her husband have no kids, work from home, and seem to have the perfect hipster life.
I am as far from jealous as one can be.

I wouldn't trade my little home in this small southern suburb for anything. I have had the luxury of finding myself because I don't have to "be" anyone here. I grew up in Atlanta, spent my twenties in what I thought was true urban rebellion, but now I realize I was just the same as every other punker kid trying to fit in! I am way cooler now ;)

jillypoet said...

the thing i like about being an "artsy" type in my suburb is if i have abad hair or clothes day, i can write it off as being an artist. if i am spacey mom forgetting things or being impolite in the grocery store, i'm just miss jill, the local art teacher. and most subversive of all, what i don't even admit, my husband is a republican! gasp! this in a town of democrats. i am an anomaly, i tell ya, and it's fun! (of course, he was a bandana wearing cool guy into zen and eastern thought when i married him...tricky, those guys...)

Left-Handed Housewife said...


It is definitely freeing when you give up worrying about whether you're cutting edge enough. It can be as exhausting as worrying about fitting in with the popular kids or the junior league. I'm 43 now, and I find that what I really like is being around sane people. I don't care if they're middlebrow as hell, or if they spent their twenties listening to Milli Vanilli instead of Mudhoney, just as long as they're not nuts. Coming from a girl who used to judge people solely on their CD collections, that's saying something.

jillypoet--You've got to watch out for those Republican guys--they'll lure you in with their good looks and iconoclastic viewpoints, and then all of a sudden--bam! You're married to a man who voted for George Bush every chance he got. It happened to me--it could happen to anyone. We should start a support group.