Sub Mission

Come winter, when New York’s street life grows scarcer and the public parks become frozen stretches you either race through or avoid, my fantasies of suburban life are revived. They began when I was a boy, and I’ve held on to them, I think, out of a deviant nostalgia for a way of life that remains almost as alien to me as that of a farmer. The houses, as I thought of them, were like miniature castles, with their small bubbling furnaces and hideaway rooms. They seemed complete unto themselves, each set in its own apron of soil, with its inviolable border, able to contain the entirety of a person in a way that an apartment could not. You could become absorbed in such a place without leaving for weeks at a time.

Maybe it was the term “bedroom community” that first captured my imagination. I thought it referred to some dreamland to which one crept away in the evening after work. Later, I would understand the sexual pressure of that “bedroom,” its injunction to reproduce and send the children to the suburban school whose excellent reputation was a major reason for moving to the suburbs in the first place. In some neighborhoods a childless couple was in danger of falling under suspicion of subversion. A man living alone would automatically appear on the local policemen’s watch list.

My suburban fantasy involved a house on the side of a hill surrounded by a scattering of second-growth maples, with the Hudson River visible in the distance, and the horn of the commuter train within earshot, but not too loud. The person who lived in this house was a version of my future, adult self, but more intense and exotic. The house weighed him down with a burden of privacy that people in the city were spared. He was more spiritual than I was, more contemplative, more neurotic and lonely. He existed in a brave agony of conformism and boredom.

Those who lived through the mass migration to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s remember its messianic nature: better cars, better health, better churches, and the warm patriotism of ownership. By comparison, New York City was a parade of old-world hustlers, dope addicts, and welfare moochers—all of them renters, and on the way out, we were assured. Yet my family was glued to the place, with its faint European traces, its tenuous ties to a world they both hated and missed. Our persistence in the city made me feel as if we had been left behind, on some evacuated island where people continued to fight a war that the rest of the world knew was over.

When I was in my late teens, I told myself that I was going to get under the surface of the suburbs, though there was little real prospect of my doing so. It was part of my project to “understand America,” and my compulsion to seek out writing material in what I knew least about was at full force.

I would barrel through the suburbs of Westchester in a borrowed car, taking notes on lawn sprinklers, shopping centers, post-office chitchat, and the like. I scratched out a story about a young Vietnamese woman who worked in the home of an electrical engineer and his wife. I pretended to know what the Day Mart at the shopping mall looked like to her: eighteen aisles of painkillers, cleaning products, odor cover-ups, and other unclassifiable prettifiers, cosmetics, and masks. I imagined her pondering the toothpaste section, trying to decide between regular or mint, tartar-control formula or your normal dose of fluoride, natural paste with myrrh essence or no-frills baking soda, pump or squeeze tube, medium size or jumbo . . .

I was working out through her the uneasy feeling that those Westchester towns invariably produced in me. Today, Manhattan is filled with such wide-aisled emporiums, like everyplace else, but at the time shopping in New York was a crammed affair. You developed an eye for jumbled peg-boards and bins and overflow merchandise that hung from the ceilings. You knew how to scan these shops; you lived in a similar state of compression and shared with their owners an understanding of how life was arranged. Instinctively, your eyes fell upon what you needed.

My suburban project eventually proved to be hopeless. I had no way in. Peering through the picture window of a Dutch Colonial split-level revealed less to me than a glimpse through the partially lifted shade of a Lower East Side apartment. I would think of Neddy Merrill from John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” looking in at his own locked, empty house as if it belonged to a stranger.

In the mid-1980s my older brother and his wife bought a house in Irvington-on-Hudson, the final step, as I saw it, in my family’s sixty-year march toward total Americanization. I relished riding the train from Grand Central to visit them, and then climbing the steep hill from the station to their house. Fieldstone Terrace their street was called, a series of connecting lawns with no sidewalk; a pedestrian became a trespasser just by avoiding an approaching car.

My visits almost always included some subtle and sincere flattery of their lives. In the suburbs one bears a special onus to be happy. And I did marvel at the planted quality of their existence in that house, the self-confidence of my brother’s daughters, the splendid oak tree in his yard.

My sister-in-law began selling real estate in the area. “If the wife sits in the front seat with you when you drive a couple to view a house,” she told me, “then write the husband off, because she’s the one wearing the pants.” What if sitting in the back was merely a gesture of politeness on the husband’s part? “When it comes to real estate there’s no such thing as politeness,” she said.

It wasn’t until I read Cheever’s Journals that I got a sense of the way a suburban house can operate on its owner’s psyche. In his entries of the 1950s, Cheever makes incantatory lists of his homeowner’s blessings. He rakes the leaves off the flower bed, puts chemical fertilizer on the lawn, and greets his wife and children when they return from church “still in their stiff clothes.”

He insists on his happiness. The morning is “brilliant and fresh”; he wakes “on the verge of an irrepressible joy.” His wife takes him to the train in the convertible. The children and the dog come along. Their arrival at the station seems “triumphal.” Why then can’t he bring “calm and intelligence to this old house, this cozy room, this gentle rain”?

He is “homesick” for something other than this place, and suspects that his house has “depressing powers,” that it renders him passive, that with his “autumn roses” and “winter twilights” he is “not to be in the big league” as a writer. He seems to interpret his unhappiness in the face of such bounty as a personal moral failure. One is at least absolved of the pressure to be happy in the city, where a good time is encouraged but lasting contentment amid the misery of others would seem inconsiderate and callous.

Shortly after my brother bought the house, I went into business selling firewood in Manhattan. I acquired the wood free of charge from a developer upriver who was glad to have it hauled off his land. I arranged with my brother to store the wood in a shed at the end of his driveway, and, as I was stacking a cord one night when he and his family were away on vacation, a neighbor called the police, thinking that I was breaking into the house.

A patrol car came roaring up the driveway, its light bar flashing. One cop pointed his gun at my face while the other shone his flashlight into my eyes. The one with the flashlight looked anxiously at my van, with its crumpled doors and Manhattan parking tags, as if expecting my posse to materialize and open fire.

Finally, they allowed me to slide my wallet over to them, on the ground. After studying my identification, they escorted me out of town, keeping me in their sight until I had nudged my van onto the Saw Mill River Parkway and was heading south again, back to where I belonged.