(This is Part 8 of a series, Part 7 is here)
You never expect the Deep Suburbs.
Not when you’re a young person inclined believe they are dystopias, whose bookshelves are packed with searing indictments of, whose politics are starkly aligned against, whose internal jukebox comes programmed with so many songs decrying, whose family (you believed) were absolutely committed to the revitalization of the urban core and strictly anti- the interests, ideologies and infrastructure that hollowed out downtowns and created suburbs which in turn everything so much worse to begin with.
All of which is to say, that when your Bohemian, Historic-Preservation-minded mother tells nineteen-year old you that the family is moving into a brand new house in a brand new neighborhood on the far south outskirts of town, ten miles from city center, where an historic forest is bulldozed to make room for an adjoining shopping center, your first inclination will be something like, “Right. And I’m going to spend the rest of my young life living contentedly in the North Carolina Piedmont. Good joke.”
Mom wasn’t kidding, though. Once I cycled through Kubler-Ross, I realized my mother would not be swayed out either the closing or her marriage to my stepfather (who I blamed—unfairly– for this development) by my repeatedly accusing her of being both a hypocrite and a sell-out. This was gong to happen. So I took solace in the books, the movies, the articles, the playlists. Think of the many great minds that survived life in a suburban hellscape, I thought. Maybe I’ll go into urban planning and policy to spite them. Maybe this will be my opportunity to really get into classic SoCal punk rock.
Throughout the spring of my growing discontent, I would go home for visits and allow my mother to drive me out into a part of town I’d only recently become aware existed at all, where we would wind up past striped twin smoke stacks spewing out baroque plumes of smoke from a coal-burning power plant to arrive at a maze of well-landscaped, mostly empty blocks of gabled homes with enormous garages on the back-end of the property my hometown’s most famous robber barons did not sell off during the Depression. We walked through the framed house and I tried to imagine her living there.
“You see how they’re putting in trees and sidewalks,” said my mother. “In fifty years, your stepfather says this neighborhood will look just like the neighborhoods we like on the North side of town.”
I was dubious. In fifty years, Deep Suburbia would still be ten miles and a freeway thick with commuter traffic from downtown. But Mom would explain that the house was a compromise, an agreed-upon halfway between her aesthetic and my stepfather’s, her neighborhood and his, and I got it, I really did. Neither wanted or could stay where they had been living and forge a family together.
The weekend Mom emptied out Griffing for a moving sale, I stopped through for a night, on the way to a show in Atlanta with Punk Rock Roommate. I was horrified at what had already disappeared, the emptiness of my bedroom, the seemingly cavalier disposal of any past I was part of. Later, much later, I would learn that my mother was equally horrified that Punk Rock roommate and I shopped her sale in our piercings and hardware store jewelry and partially shaved heads. Your stepfather’s family were there! What must they have thought! She went on to speculate that I’d been acting out, which I really and truly wasn’t. My fashion choices had nothing to do with my mother, certainly not by then anyway. I genuinely thought she might think I looked sort of cool and interesting. So I vacillated between being gobsmacked that my mother was so offended (Weren’t you the artist? The Bohemian? The Downtown Savior? Have you already gone full Stepford?) and weirdly satisfied that I hadn’t been the only one upset that day.
Because honestly, everyone else seemed thrilled. They shopped. They planned. They talked about it. When house was finally complete, I came to town to help them move. My fifteen-year old sister, who’d spent the years at Griffing in the smallest room, got her own suite. I was packed off into to one of the spare rooms upstairs, decorated for guests and scrubbed of any trace of what looked like me. I remember feeling like I had been elided, my part written out of the next season of the family drama, as the rest of them discussed their new life, in what felt very much like a new city, miles away from the one I knew.
It was fair. By then, I had my own spin-off, as impenetrable and disorienting to my family as their choice to relocate to the least interesting corner of my weirdo hometown. And in some ways, I felt like the universe was doing me a solid with one of those, you know how you said you never wanted to come back? Well, we’re about to make that a whole lot easier for you.
At least, I thought, I’d never have to live there myself.
You never expect to find yourself living in the Deep Suburbs until you do.
I was twenty-three when I found myself washed up in the upstairs bedroom, my worldly possessions largely split between a storage room by the interstate and my father’s infinite basement.
My first weeks home were bewildering. I spent a fair amount of time watching cable tv and staring off into the middle distance. My mother put me to work at her office, so I might have spending money and also pay back debt. On lunch breaks, I’d spend my paycheck on records and smoke cigarettes on park benches unoccupied by the local gutter punks. I read big, complicated, sad books and wished I had anyone to talk to about them. I didn’t. I had no friends in my hometown that summer, but I’d sit in the old coffeehouse where I’d spent most of my high school life and pretend they were still all still around.
Downtown absent social life was still downtown—albeit a different downtown than it is now—and going home meant sitting upstairs making mixtapes for no one. Sometimes I’d wander the tidy, paved greenways of Deep Suburbia, full of jogging mothers with fancy prams, legions of ersatz 5000 square foot French Chateaus, Georgian Mansions, lushly porched Colonials, and a few sprawling Arts & Crafts “cottages” with hot tubs and four car garages, and be struck by how many of the people that lived in them were less than a decade older than I was. How do you end up owning a joint in Deep Suburbia at 27? How much of your soul do you have to sell for a 7,000 square foot joint with a turret and a two-story wet bar? It was nice to bully them in my head because it saved me from feeling like a failure. These people, I’d think. These soulless yuppies.
Of course, they weren’t living with their parents. They had their own lives. I might not like it, but at least they lived somewhere that felt like theirs. Was I jealous of them? Oh yeah. Totally. Insanely.
You never expect to become accustomed to the Deep Suburbs until you do.
I lived in my mother and stepfather’s house for about eighteen months, between 1999 and 2000. By the time I moved out, my mother and stepfather were talking about moving. Maybe we should move closer to town. Maybe somewhere with a view
That was twenty years ago, though. They’re still there. They’re still happy there, even though they grouse. My sister and her husband live out there too. I’m forced to concede that maybe I somehow gleaned the wrong messages from my childhood, or maybe I just missed the part that people can change, and that wanting something nice and big and new and absolutely yours doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on your moral character. And that the old houses I grew up in, that always struck me as fashionably imperfect and cool and chic and aspirational, maybe just struck everyone else as shabby, the kinds of place to aspire to leaving one day.
The house in the Deep Suburbs has been the home I go to when I go to my hometown for nearly twenty-five years. And it feels like it. Sort of. Even though it took me years to stop exiting off the highway on the other side of town and driving halfway to the old house by accident. Suburbs are no good for wallowing in the past. I’ve always thought that’s why the rest of my family like them, because, they were ready to let go and move on. I always thought I was that person too. The first to run away, jump headfirst into new adventure, try something new.
I was wrong, though.
I close on my first house in a couple of days. It’s not in the Deep Suburbs, exactly, but it’s closer, in style (if not geography), to where my mother lives than I ever thought I’d end up. There’s an HOA. There are garages. There are bay windows and gables and garden tubs. Moving away from the place I’ve been—a house that (more or less) conforms to all my youthful prejudices about what is right and cool and has also been my home for almost sixteen years—is hard, impossibly hard, and I probably wouldn’t have done it had circumstances not demanded (a more of that story to come). But now that they do, it feels necessary. It feels critical. It feels like a step I have to take if I’m ever going to unstick from the past and keep the nostalgia from turning pathological.
Also, the new house is nice and big and new and absolutely mine. Which, if I’m honest, feels just great enough that I’m not worried about being a sell-out, or a hypocrite or something far more improbable like a grown-up.
 The two worst absolute worst things a person could be, in my estimation, at the time.