Literary Orphans

The Making of a Suburbanite
by Anna Leahy

CameraAwesomePhoto (1)Some things I swore I’d never become: a nun, a lawyer, a Cardinal fan, a suburbanite. So, when I moved from small-town Missouri back to Illinois more than ten years ago, I rationalized: Oak Park didn’t seem a real suburb. The homes weren’t sterile prefabs on cul de sacs, and the train, just blocks away, offered a twenty-minute ride to downtown Chicago, into the Loop. Oak Park was the Village—as in, it takes a village—of Oak Park, with promotional materials that boasted a history of purposeful diversity. I welcomed this aspect especially, after living in St. Joseph, Missouri, where a woman once came to my door to ask me to tell my colleagues at the college about her rental property; she feared that, if she listed the rental openly, Blacks would want to move in. When I mentioned that denying housing to African-Americans was against the law, she put her hand over the cross on her chest and said, Oh, I’m not a racist. It’s the neighbors. They’d make it terrible for those people. And the neighbors would blame me. She spoke as if I’d understand, as if I could do nothing but sympathize with her predicament, as if everyone should live where they’re supposed to.

When I moved to Illinois, I did a very good job to convince myself that I wouldn’t be a suburbanite in the true sense. Oak Park has independently owned restaurants and shops, not chains. It boasts the homes of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. I found a reasonably priced, one-bedroom, third-floor apartment with hardwood floors but, as I reminded myself, no disposal in the kitchen sink, no central air conditioning, no linen closet or garage. None of the amenities that mark suburban living, that are taken for granted by a certain segment of the middle class. Chicago’s edge, Austin Boulevard, was just a few blocks east of my apartment. It wasn’t as if I were moving to Wheaton or Wilmette. I was still keeping it real.

 

When I told people that I had moved to Oak Park, they asked where exactly. One friend’s response was, I wouldn’t go any closer to Austin. A relative asked which parish I lived in, because his kids played sports against Oak Park schools. When I couldn’t remember the name of the tiny Catholic church across the street from me, I mentioned that Sts. Catherine and Lucy wasn’t far. He said, But you wouldn’t go there.  That church was on the Oak Park side of Austin, across from a large park on the Chicago side of the street. Sts. Catherine and Lucy is, as my relative pointed out, where the Blacks go.

On an El trip into the Loop not long after I moved to Oak Park, a Black woman and man ran a shell game. They boarded separately. She put her money down and won. She could barely walk, and her eyes kept rolling back in their sockets. A White, goth, teenage girl asked the man about the game, thought she was getting a demonstration, chose the wrong shell, lost, and got into an argument about whether she owed money. If you chose, you lose, the man told her. For every argument the teenager made, the man had a rhyming comeback. The goth girl wasn’t very quick on the uptake. He was. It was the teenager’s mistake, really, but she couldn’t believe she’d been duped by the real drug addicts.

 

A few months after my move, I realized that my old car had almost 150,000 miles on it. I was coming to terms with how taxing the Eisenhower’s traffic was on my eight-year-old sedan, and interest rates on car loans were 0%, no payment for three months. So, I decided to trade my car in for a new one, just a direct replacement. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. AC and cruise control, yes, but all the upgrade I really wanted was a CD player. I discovered, though, that my model was being discontinued. So, naturally, even necessarily, I began to ponder other options. Looking back, this was the first, firm step in my transformation into something I had thought I wouldn’t become.

I looked around the showroom floor, sat in this car and that car, and finally climbed into the SUV just to see what it was like. My response was immediate and deep. I wanted to drive it, to own it, to fill it with groceries and furniture. I wanted to become someone who didn’t roll down her windows by hand.

When I was sixteen, I started driving my dad’s tiny, old, gray car to school, where I studied with doctors’ and lawyers’ daughters and then hung out with the wrong crowd when I bothered to hang out at all. A small car was maneuverable, quick to respond. I felt at one with that first car even though, or perhaps because, the tires were the size of dinner plates. When it stalled, I could push-start it myself. After a minor accident only months after I got my license, my father’s mechanic took a sledgehammer to the inside of the trunk to pound the panel back into rough shape. That was repair enough for us. I needed no more. Not all my friends—either in high school or in college—had their own cars. Once the car had been damaged, I felt free to cover it with bumper stickers, and, later, college friends painted a peace sign on its roof. My car was a statement. I drove that car until rust had eaten through the floor and I saw the pavement going by under my feet.

My second car was a Yugo, which my mother bought for me new for a few thousand dollars. Yugos came in just three colors; mine was white, with tan interior. The tires were the size of salad plates, and the hubcaps were plastic. I heard the jokes:

How do you make a Yugo go faster? A tow truck.

What do you call shock absorbers in a Yugo? Passengers.

I’d like a gas cap for my Yugo. Sounds like a fair trade.

The Yugo factory was destroyed by a dozen NATO bombs in 1999. I thought about what that meant, about how the people who built that car I had driven had been bombed, their workplaces and homes destroyed. But that was half a world away, and I was busy with graduate school and embarking upon a professorial career.

I drove my Yugo for almost 50,000 miles without any repairs except to the plastic window handles, which broke off again and again. In the end, the heat stopped working, and the windshield wipers couldn’t handle Midwestern snowstorms. I once drove with my roommate through Iowa in winter; we pulled off every few miles so that I could clear my view with my driver’s license. I needed no more from a car than to get a person from here to there. I was proud to be in the underclass of car owners.

Why was I so enamored, so comfortable, then, with the spaciousness that surrounded me in the Saturn VUE? Why was I lured by five doors—three more than I needed? I began to rationalize. The vehicle—it wasn’t just a car—got decent gas mileage for an SUV, I convinced myself. As SUVs went, this one was small, built like a car not like a truck. I’d have a higher vantage point, thereby helping me avoid dangerous traffic situations. Someday, yes, I might need to fold all the passenger-side seats down to carry a ladder and some two-by-fours. I could go to IKEA—I’d never been there—and buy whatever I wanted. The SUV promised desires I didn’t yet even have.

This new car was, in fact, pure luxury to me. The rearview mirror had anti-reflection technology so I wouldn’t be blinded by—or even squint from—headlights behind me. I needn’t roll down the window in order to adjust either side-view mirror—that could be done from my seat like laparoscopic surgery. Can you call it rolling down a window if it’s just pushing a button? In the far rear compartment, plastic pieces folded up to form a box to keep my grocery bags from falling over. Even the flat backseat floor—no hump—seduced me. All this luxury was tempting, alluring.

But it was also disconcerting. I hemmed and hawed. I worried that Bill Maher or Arianna Huffington would slap a bumper sticker on my car that said I was unpatriotic, that my gas guzzling funded terrorism. I imagined the shocked, disappointed looks of liberal friends. I saw my mother, from the leather seat of her convertible, tsk-tsking quietly over my lack of restraint, of my succumbing to the luxury of proper middle-class adulthood.

Then, I calculated monthly payments. I calculated yearly gas costs. I did the math. Everything added up: the SUV was a good choice. I spent an hour on the phone with my partner; his advice was not to get a black car because it’d hold heat in the summer. I purchased the green. I talked myself into it, just like a pair of shoes I didn’t need specifically but would certainly wear plenty.

Several months after I bought the car, I stopped at the mall on the edge of Naperville—a real suburb, I thought—where I taught at a private college. It was just before ten, just before stores opened. Every car in the lot was an SUV. Mine was the cheapest, the smallest, and glaringly lacking in child safety seats. It was just like high school, all of us in our navy uniforms and, still, a hierarchy everyone knew. I’m sure mine was the only stick shift, which comforted me a little, as did hanging out on a side street with the unkempt girls in high school.

I should have seen this suburbanizing coming when I switched to a cell phone the year before. I’d thought about the consequences, the brain cancer it might cause me, but eliminating the landline phone was less expensive overall, not a step toward frivolity. I told myself that, had I been able to afford a hybrid car, that’s certainly what I would have purchased. My choices were constrained by my salary.

 

Many weekends, I took the El from Oak Park into Chicago. I could have driven, but that wasn’t who I wanted to be. Most real suburbanites drove into the city, wasted an hour and gobs of money for parking. One weekend, two men across from me on the train talked about gang-bangers and corpses. Paraplegics left on hospital steps, one said. It’s a lifestyle, and you have to go to school to get out, they agreed.

These two men reminded me of the students I taught at a correctional facility a few years earlier. There, one man was worried about his son making the same mistakes he did, that his son was already selling drugs instead of going to high school. The inmate talked with his son once a week to offer advice that he knew his son wouldn’t believe from a felon. Another inmate talked about college courses as the way he would figure out, as a Viet Nam veteran and an ex-con, how to fit into regular society again. Mostly, I remembered being the young, nervous woman walking across the prison’s open yard to the classroom, men eyeing me from all directions, no one there as white-white as I was.

The two men on the train probably lived near me, perhaps a ten- or twenty-minute walk, on the other side of Austin Boulevard. Somewhere a few blocks away from the tracks, maybe under the rooftops filled with broken bottles, maybe in the houses with the fenced lots filled with muscular dogs. I imagined these men talking on porch steps after work, with children riding bikes in the carless street, like those children I had seen in Columbus, Ohio, on the other side of High Street, or in Baltimore, Maryland, on the other side of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Their dividing lines. Every city has them.

Austin was the well-accepted division between flowers in window boxes and metal bars on storefronts, between young couples walking their little dogs and groups of men congregating in the liquor store parking lot. On my side of Austin, the only empty buildings were those waiting to be torn down so that condos could be built for commuters. One map based on the 2000 census put the African-American population at 90-100% on the other side of Austin and, on my side, 80-90% White. A 1999 map put the per capita income range at $2465-13,488 for the other side of Austin (in 1998, the poverty line was about $13,000 for a family); in my neighborhood then, per capita income was $23,710-30,696. In the snazzier parts of Oak Park just west of me, it was $30,741-111,209—what a range—and probably even higher in those real suburbs even further west.

So, at the time, I was well enough off, making 50% more than Illinois’s average per capita income and more than four times the poverty level for someone under 65 years old with no dependents. I understand math. But I didn’t feel as if I made a suburban income. I knew I was privileged, but not terribly so.

On another El trip downtown, a White woman was telling a White man about her kitchen renovations. She talked loudly so we could all hear how much she needed more cabinet space, about the best configuration. She talked for six stops straight, as the car filled. A little Black girl with tiny braids secured at their ends with plastic barrettes turned around in her seat and exchanged funny faces with me. Her mother kept a close eye on her.

On the way in, the White people who got on the El in Oak Park—the two stops at the beginning of the line—took the first seats. Would the green line go through the west side of the city if Oak Park weren’t the outlying destination? As the cars filled, mostly with Black people once we passed Austin and all the way to Clinton, the White women didn’t end up sitting next to the Black men. On this route, there were always young Black children with mothers but rarely young White children. There were sometimes Blacks with grocery bags but not Whites hauling food from the store on public transportation. On commuter runs, I saw more White men with briefcases or backpacks and cell phones. Everyone seemed to know who should be where, when. We were all on the same train, leading different lives.

On yet another trip, I listened to a man and woman talking. The woman spoke of a bus driver who took a liking to her. She was flattered but wasn’t sure why the bus driver flirted with her, why he wanted to take her out on a date. I’m not rushing it, she said. The man asked her if the driver was Black. No, she said, he’s a Caucasian guy. That’s a word the two kept using: Caucasian. It’s a word I use myself only when checking boxes on official forms, not a colloquial name for myself. As they neared their stop, she wrapped up the conversation, Can’t beat that. Can’t beat that.

On the east side of Austin—the Chicago side—Lake Street, along which the El ran, was crowded with people, with men on stools outside shops in the afternoons. They shared cigarettes, sometimes liquor, and, presumably, stories, advice, jokes. They laughed and jostled. I could tell just zipping past, aloft. I wondered if one of these men had fired a handgun on New Year’s Eve in celebration, despite the police warnings and the flyers distributed in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods all over the city. On New Year’s Day, I’d found a bullet on the sidewalk in front of my brick apartment building. The bullet seemed un-aimed, was misshapen.

Further east, further into the city, during the late summer, kids gathered to play baseball, a pick-up game without uniforms. Adults pulled up in cars, moved around from front seat to front seat as if playing musical chairs. Different cars, all of them old and large and loud. Young men and women there leaned into car windows. People waved to each other when someone sauntered away toward the El station. From the vantage point of the tracks, from the swiftly moving train car, the neighborhoods east of Austin seemed utterly social to me, as if people were seeking each other out and paying attention to each other. Yet, I never walked those streets myself, and I knew only two of my own neighbors.

 

In Naperville, where I taught college and which I held off in the western distance as much as I could, there were few sidewalks connecting the new residential areas. There was no twenty-minute walk in a subdivision there, no way to walk to the closest strip mall from anyone’s home. The only bus system was the PACE bus for commuters using rush-hour trains to and from the city. The narrow streets of the historic downtown were filled with stop-and-go traffic, lined by parked cars in thirty-minute and two-hour spots. Everyone drove. One Naperville neighborhood had airstrips instead of driveways, houses filled with United pilots. On the verge of a pilot’s strike in 1997, a commercial pilot with a major carrier averaged $120,000. In 2004, a study found that Naperville had the lowest percentage of children living in poverty and the highest percentage of children living in a married-couple family, 2% and 91%, respectively. The suburb’s web site announced that it was not only the best place to raise children, but also the best place to retire, start a home business, and go to the library. Everyone was buzzing about tear-downs, and McMansions rose out of the earth.

Even in Oak Park, though, with its three-flats and bungalows abutting the streets of old mansions and with its multiethnic kids walking home from school, I had succumbed to—and was confronted by—my own suburban life, something I should have seen coming but didn’t. In the morning, I walked two short blocks to my parking lot next to a schoolyard where little girls played softball on Saturdays, then pushed a button on my key chain, and heard my car doors unlock. I allowed myself to be welcomed again and again by my relative luxury. I turned the radio to NPR, backed out of my parking space, and heard all the doors click locked. The suburbanite had been made; I had sealed the deal.

That settling into Oak Park became a trendy fence-straddling I couldn’t sustain. Traffic was heavy on my commute between Oak Park and my teaching position in Naperville. And my partner, who’d moved in, worked even farther west. On Fridays, it could take us more than two hours and a leg cramp to get home. We had to move, didn’t we?

Even after we re-settled in Naperville, I still rationalized. I was only a couple of blocks from the Metra train that ran downtown, and we went to the city often but hardly ever drove there. Colleagues assured me that we’d need a second car; instead, we lived within walking distance of the college where I worked, and Doug drove to Fermilab. I got a dent in the hood of my SUV that I didn’t repair. I wasn’t pushing a double stroller into J. Jill after two years of fertility treatments. My partner and I rented instead of buying—an apartment, not even a real house. As the familiar and terrible rationalization goes, I even had some African-American friends.

 

After Naperville, it became Orange, California, a version of the same suburb with a quaint downtown and an abundance of conservative Republicans with high incomes. Median household income in Orange County is more than $75,000 for 2007-2011, 30% higher than the national average. Houses of a thousand square feet can run a half-million dollars here. The home ownership rate in my county tops 60%. In almost every block in my neighborhood, one, usually two cars, are parked in every driveway and a couple of Mini Coopers sit on the street. I’ve seen a Rolls Royce and a Bentley. Santa Ana lies to the south and Anaheim to the west of Orange; Santa Ana is almost 80% Latino, and Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, is more than half Latino. Even in Orange, the Latino population accounts for the majority of the White population, though there are dividing lines here too. African-Americans make up less than a few percent of the populations of Orange, Santa Ana, or Anaheim—only two percent of Orange County as a whole.

I can’t pretend that who I am has little to do with where I live, to explain away my current destination as if I hadn’t seen the trajectory all along. We are what we make of ourselves, the saying goes. I am embarrassed at how few times I cross dividing lines or venture very far from home at all, not even to vibrant Los Angeles, just thirty miles north. But that shame hasn’t led me into new neighborhoods. It is difficult to cross a dividing line, no matter which side is yours.

When a young White woman walks across a prison yard to the classroom where she will teach a handful of inmates—when she leaves her comfortable life for a couple of hours and inserts herself elsewhere—she feels some sort of badge of honor, as if she has done the world a favor. Looking back, I know, even in those uncomfortable moments, I serve myself somehow and, in a sense, am not leaving anywhere or going anywhere. Even when I’m listening to NPR and am deeply saddened about the terrible injustices occurring elsewhere right this very minute, I feel separate and safe. Even when I do what’s right and good in this world, I still walk out to my driveway, get into my ten-year-old SUV, and, as I pull away from my home, the doors lock, all at once and automatically. Clunk.

Most often, we stay put, even when we move. We remain where we’re supposedly supposed to be, even when we don’t realize we’ve made the choice. With every choice to be in one place, we lose the possibilities of elsewhere. Our lives—our minds—narrow, no matter on which side of the dividing line we stay. One’s making is always an unmaking as well.

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Anna Leahy‘s book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and her poems appear in journals and anthologies. Her essay “Half-Skull Days” was a Notable in The Best American Essays 2013. She co-writes Lofty Ambitions blog at http//:loftyambitions.wordpress.com. Leahy teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, where she edits TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics.

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–Foreground art by Jayme Joyce