Columns » Outsider


The messy reality of life


For the past several weeks, The New York Times has been running a series of articles loosely linked by a common theme: class in America.

Last week, The Times profiled a family living in a "Relo Community" in the Atlanta suburbs. The Links and their neighbors are rootless nomads, moving around the country from new suburb to newer suburb, rich gypsies with six-figure paychecks. Their lives are busy, comfortable, and predictable: good suburban schools for the kids, tennis and yoga for Mom (and a big SUV to schlep the kids to soccer practice, music lessons and play dates), a long commute in heavy traffic for Dad.

Their corporate employers, present and future, pretty much rule their lives. At any time, they may have to pull up stakes and move to another city, another 5 BR 4 BA mini-mansion on a cul-de-sac much like the one they just left.

It all sounded eerily familiar. Back in 1981, my then-spouse and I moved back to Colorado Springs, where I had grown up, and bought a house in Rockrimmon. It was an easy, pleasant place to live. Our neighbors were friendly, conservative, churchgoing Republicans. Some were in the military, some worked in high tech and one or two were in real estate.

There were about a dozen houses on the cul-de-sac, faintly contemporary two-stories, none more than three years old. To all outward appearances, it was a stable, prosperous little enclave -- the American Dream in wood, stucco, and shingled roofs.

Prosperous it was. Stable it wasn't. Within four years, we were the longest-tenured family in the neighborhood. People moved away -- to Austin, to Charlotte, to San Diego. We'd stay in touch with our former neighbors for a year or two, and then we'd disappear from each other's lives. When the kids were in high school, we moved downtown.

Of the dozens of families that we knew, some quite intimately, in those days, I can think of only one I'm still in contact with. It seems strange, because we were all so alike: white, well educated, fiercely ambitious for our kids and perfectly happy to lead sheltered, insulated lives. Black people? Hispanic people? Poor people? Old people? None of those on the cul-de-sac.

Now I live in a rickety, sprawling Victorian on the West Side. Things are a little different down here. The police gun down buffalos a few blocks away, homeless people camp in the creek bed and my immediate neighbors range in age from 7 to 101. There are no restrictive covenants in the neighborhood. One guy paved over his entire yard and decorated it with patriotic signs; another started painting his house six years ago, got bored and left it half-painted. Last summer, my next-door neighbor's teenage son built a manifestly illegal bonfire in the backyard, and the kids had a noisy party. It didn't occur to anyone to call the cops. Hey, this is the West Side.

Two or three times a week, I hang out with my geezer homies at a downtown coffee shop. Most of 'em grew up here, so there's a lot of reminiscing, a lot of affectionate joking. My life in late middle age is, in many respects, what I imagined it would be: deeply rooted in the community of my birth, surrounded by friends and family, walking the same streets that I walked as a child.

The time in Rockrimmon seems remote and dreamlike. I might as well have been in another city, another state, so little was it connected to any real community. We were living, as are so many Americans today, in a make-believe world.

Have you ever seen what happens when you try to turn an indoor cat into an outdoor cat? You force the cat outside, and what happens? He'll cower by the door and try to get back in -- he won't go exploring. That's because, never having been outside, he's terrified by unbounded space.

Like frightened tabbies, a lot of us prefer the illusion of community to the messy reality of real communities. That'd be OK, but lives of illusion breed the politics of illusion: strange, incomplete people with stranger ideas.

Spend an afternoon with County Commissioner Doug Bruce, and you'll know what I mean...


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