Monday, February 15, 2010

Seven months and eight days: retreat to the suburbs

Look, I know I'm supposed to hate the suburbs. I turned my back on them long before San Francisco taught me that they're full of ignorant people who hate all of the enlightened tenets we urban types hold dear. I get it.

And I'm not here to tell you I'm putting my tiny, water-damaged hilltop Glen Park home on the market and decamping for Walnut Creek. First of all, we'd never get enough for our house to buy in Walnut Creek. Second, I'm not in a position to make such decisions, and third, I wouldn't want to live in Walnut Creek. I think.

All I'm saying is that last night, while walking my dog past the swollen, proud homes of my sister's subdivision in Simi Valley, California, the suburbs didn't seem like such a bad deal. Please don't throw me out of the urban warriors club for thinking this.

It's just that the sun was setting and it was warm enough for shorts, and the elementary school that had a nice wide dirt path running through the woods behind it looked very new and clean, and the park where other people were with their dogs had really thick, really green grass, and my dog was loving it. No stopping and making himself heavy because he'd rather go in the direction of the pet store. More like bounding through the grass, since grass is a complete novelty to him. He's used to concrete and mud. That's it.

That part was nice. Even the most prejucided city dweller would have to admit it, unless the thought of no sirens or horns or taking their time getting into their car because it's parked in a driveway and no one's going to come tearing down the street, forcing them to quickly jump into their car to avoid getting hit makes then nervous. I can understand if it does.

I've lived in cities since 1988, when I packed up my 1974 Alfa Romeo GTV and drove to Seattle. It was a long drive, as the legend goes; too long to drive back. Since then, I've never lived more than three blocks from the nearest bar.

When I was a little kid, living in Northeastern Pennsylvania, all I wanted was to live like the kids in "Family Affair," in a big high-rise building where you took an elevator to your floor and walked down a long hallway to get to your front door. I loved "The Odd Couple," too, when Felix and Oscar paused under the awning in front of their building before hailing a cab or heading to the subway to go wherever they needed to go.

That was it for me: not just a city, but THAT city. New York. Even later, during high school and college, when I carried out a very public love affair with Orange County, I secretly wondered if I would ever get to live in a big high-rise in New York.

Well, it's getting late and doesn't look like that's going to happen. Instead, I've had a series of apartments and then this small house in Seattle, Boston and San Francisco. No New York. I went there for business once (get that; me, for "business"). On the first morning, I strode down Fifth Avenue, thinking, "Here I am to claim my birthright." But that was it.

And now, a few months short of 45 and seven months and eight days to Bar Mitzvah, I'm starting to wonder if my big city mojo has dried up and abandoned me. The getting from point A to point B, the people cutting in line on BART, the constant budget shortfalls and mis-governing, and the uniquely San Francisco tendancy to cavalierly dismiss anyone who disagrees with you as lacking the great tolerance with which you conduct your life, it's all got me thinking a walk past a shiny new elementary school in a neighborhood full of 10-year-old multi-story stucco homes isn't such a bad deal after all.

Until, I'm sure, I ended up there. Noodle's Mom, my sister, was very clear on that. "I have to get in my car to go anywhere," she told me. "Anywhere."

"Well, sure," I responded, "but I'll bet getting in your car here isn't like getting in your car where I live." I'm working on a theorem that will measure the number of minutes you lose off your lifespan for every minute spent dodging obstacles as you search in vain for easy passage across the city. There will be an addendum for the lifespan impact of parking in Noe Valley.

On today's drive home, Sandra Bullock and I managed to squeeze in some conversation between traffic-induced psychosis and being reminded by our Jawa and future Bar Mitzvah boy that our instructions are actually suggestions and should be treated as such. At one point, she said, "If we were ever to come into some money, you know what I'd do?"

We were driving up 101 at the time, a half-hour south of San Luis Obispo, rolling green hills on either side of us.

"I'd buy a beach house at Cayucos (a town of 2,000 on the central coast, fifteen minutes northwest of SLO). What do you think that would cost? Two million?"

Since we were dealing with what-ifs, two million was a reasonable sum. "Yeah," I said back, imagining our small-town life -- the one I've always come back to after exhausting city and suburb options, ever since being uprooted from Clarks Green, Pennsylvania (population 1,200) to Anaheim and then Orange, California (population, 200,000) in 1976. In it, I picture us hanging out at the one bar in town, sitting around on benches on Main Street, learning how to surf and riding bikes.

"How about this," I ventured. "If I were a best-selling author," which, though as likely as mysteriously "coming into money," still seems like a possible option to my deluded mind, "We could get a place in Cayucos, have our place in San Francisco, and get a one-bedroom condo in Manhattan."

"I could do that," said my bride.

"Okay, then," I said. "It's decided."

With our future determined, I returned my attention to the road, where a fifth-wheel trailer being pulled by a moustache guy in a big pickup truck had decided to assume left lane supremecy. I figured he undoubtedly lives in a large stucco home, identical to its neighbors, on a cul-de-sac in a subdivision somewhere in Southern California, right? I was sure I spotted a sneer on his face as he passed me. Putting the pansy in the Volvo in his place, right? Big man.

And thus realized I was ready to return to San Francisco.

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