Adventures in Uppity Suburbia

September 18, 2009

Taking my five-year-old son to the dentist one morning, he and I got into another conversation about tigers. He had initially pointed out, after toughly shrugging off a bonk on the head while getting into the car, that nothing in the world could hurt him. I pointed out that in fact, tigers might be able to. He countered that tigers are always in cages at the zoo, so they can never get him. After a digression on the necessity of ceilings on tiger cages and then on the general climbing and jumping prowess of tigers, we turned to the question of whether M. might ever be exposed to tigers in the wild. “Maybe when you’re grown up,” I suggested, “you will end up living in India, and there are places in India where tigers roam around the forest, outside of cages.” M. was certain he would never live in India, averring that he had no desire ever to live there, whether in a tiger-infested area or not. (He did not explain why he feels this way, and I suspect that he was just being contrary, since he doesn’t really know anything about India except that it has tigers, elephants, and a lot of people.)

That made me think about the way we end up in places we never even planned to visit when we were younger, let alone clean the gutters of a red Dutch colonial three-bedroom house in. In my case, that place is West Hartford, to which A. and I moved because she got a job at Local University. I thought at the time I might transfer from the Cambridge public defender’s office to the Springfield public defender’s office, and W. Ha. would pretty much be in between Springfield and her work. (I ended up getting a job that has me between Hartford and Bridgeport, so New Haven would have been a more sensible place to settle, but now we are staked to a house until I persuade the federal government to give me $4500 to trade the house in for a new Chrysler under the Cash for Clunkers program.)

You see, I’m a Brooklyn boy (I may take some getting used to), and as I pointed out to M. this morning, when I was younger I was fairly certain I never wanted to leave New York in my whole life, a sentiment that took root when my dad moved with me to Portland, Oregon, when I was 13, forcing upon me a four-year stint in real America. After that, I went back to New York for college and planned never to leave – if you had told me I’d end up in West Hartford (and if I had known anything about what living in West Hartford connotes), I would have said you were crazy. But here I am, and two years in, I’d say we’re making a pretty good go of it. We are lucky enough to be able to (not really but sort of) afford to own a house, we have jobs and a two cars, and we don’t want for food or clothes. I’ve even started to appreciate some aspects of the suburban life: We have a yard with room for a big garden, so we can sit outdoors, watch birds and rabbits and squirrels all around, and eat food we actually grew; after dark, we can see a lot of stars in the sky; and last night I realized that rain-slicked suburban streets at dusk are oddly beautiful.

Still, though, there is a certain culture here in West Hartford that I just don’t get, and I feel it acutely when I interact with other parents of kids M.’s age. Maybe (probably) it’s just the biases about suburbia that I bring to the table, but I always see little ways that my neighbors are a little uptight, overly conscious of appearances, &c., whether it’s the lady across the street who recommended the Marshall’s near the Hartford line in Elmwood over the one at Bishop’s Corner (less picked-over) but cautioned that “it’s in kind of a sketchy area” (I refuse to believe that W. Ha. has sketchy areas) or the dad who congratulated me for being so “green” when he saw me picking up M. from camp with my bicycle and the trailer (I don’t think that by “green” he meant “owns a car that needs a new engine but there’s no money to get it fixed or replace it”). I am probably falling into the fallacy of imbuing examples that confirm my prejudices with confirmatory significance while ignoring frequent counter-examples (like my father-in-law, who grouses all the time about his numerous incompetent white managers without drawing any conclusions about white people, while harkening often in discussions about race to the one time he worked with a black engineer whom he deemed somewhat lazy). But today at the dentist, I saw a poster that seemed to me evocative of West Hartford’s aesthetic:

Problems i don't have

It’s small and blurry (click for a larger version) but it addresses the problem (?) of “How to Avoid Over-Aggressive Brushing,” and the guy in the poster looks like the kind of preppy, goody-goody West Hartford resident who would have a problem with “over-aggressive” toothbrushing (it’s such a weird notion to me, I have to keep putting it in quotes).

Then, as if to ward off the rational angels in my head who were trying to talk to me about prejudice and misconceptions and all of that, there was a six-year-old getting his teeth cleaned in the chair next to M.’s, and he was wearing a crisp white polo shirt tucked in to clean white shorts with a white woven belt, with white tennis sneakers and matching bright white ankle socks. And his hair was neatly combed. Here’s a blurry picture that conveniently protects this child’s identity while showing his wardrobe (also, take note of the GQ smooth, hand-in-pocket walking style): 0724090834a.jpg

I mean, it’s possible that he had some important event afterward for which the Pete Sampras get-up was necessary, but still, I was fairly impressed that anyone would bother to get a kid that dolled up (or raise a kid in such a way that he wanted to get himself that dolled up) for an 8:00 a.m. dentist appointment. (Also, the hygienist asked the kid what his favorite drink was and he said “milk.” Then the hygienist asked, “What flavor of milk?” which I though was a perplexing question, and the kid responded “Vanilla,” which was even more perplexing to me because I’ve never heard of vanilla milk.)

I guess that’s the thing about West Hartford: Even though I’m a lawyer (a public-interest lawyer, but still) and even though I come from a more-or-less middle-class upbringing (more in the sense that my grandparents were a doctor and a shrink; less in the sense that both my parents are perennially unemployed), I feel a social class divide between me and other West Hartfordites.

Whatever. The trip to the dentist was a success. M., in all his uncombed, groggy, t-shirt-and-sweats glory, was very well-behaved and picked an awesome ring from the prize box, which he loves:

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One Response to “Adventures in Uppity Suburbia”

  1. fatbo said

    it’s like M and the other kid are maybe rival super heroes. the white shadow and orange lantern or something.

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