Sub-Suburbia

“If you’re afraid they might discover your redneck past,

There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past.

You’ll show them all back home.”

–Ben Folds

Whenever my parents keep Jack for the night, G. and I try our best to muster up enough energy for a restaurant worthy of date night, but invariably, we end up at the nearby Woodfield Inn.*

Some backstory is necessary: About a year ago, we moved from suburbia to sub-suburbia. We moved primarily because we lived in a condominium community and wanted something bigger for our growing family. We couldn’t afford a single-family home in the area, so we had to go “further out.” And although both of us liked the city we lived in, going “further out” seemed like a better and better idea as we watched drug activity and crime increase in the neighborhood. After our sweet, hard-working, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly Mormon neighbor got mugged at gunpoint right outside our front gate, we started scheduling appointments to look at homes.

“This is outrageous,” I’d said to G. “Who the fuck mugs a Mormon? I mean, the undergarment thing is weird, and so is their avoidance of caffeine, but everyone knows they’re the nicest people on earth.”

And so we ended up raising our son in a place very much like the one in which we grew up. Sub-suburbia. Safe and spacious, with people who, while warm and friendly, are homogeneous, insular, conservative.  My husband and I had been away from such a place so long that coming back was culture shock. “Um, have you noticed that everyone here is wearing camo? And that the Wal-Mart has an unbelievably extensive hunting section?” I’d said to him.

“Yeah,” he replied. “But the one back home has that too, remember?”

I didn’t remember. I’d never really paid attention. It was also weird that cashiers made conversation with us, even about mundane things like the weather, or my reusable bag: “Where’d you get a bag with them there handles like that? I sure could use one of them bags with handles like that.”

We thought about—and voiced, on many occasions, to each other—whether such a community could actually be bad for Jack. I hated that we’d had to give up raising him in a place that was so culturally diverse, where he’d have friends of all backgrounds. My dreams of Korean mothers making me pork buns or African immigrants teaching me an obscure dialect evaporated, as I realized I’d spend Jack’s childhood warily accepting freezer bags full of venison and bluffing my way through conversations like absolutely, guns don’t kill people, the people who took God out of the schools kill people. Shoot me now, I thought.

With Jack not in school yet (he’s still in day care near our old house with a lovely woman who sings to him in Farsi), I’ve been spared most of this culture shock—until tonight at the Woodfield Inn. They appeared to be having a Halloween party of sorts. A server dressed as a slutty Dorothy had just brought us the kinds of country cooking our palates still crave, like limp green beans that serve largely as a sodium delivery system, and we were enjoying our meal by the light of a wall lamp made out of a deer leg. An elderly woman stood in front of the “Big Buck Safari” arcade game, waiting for the bathroom. Suddenly, a man dressed Al Jolson style, in a straw hat AND BLACKFACE, blustered by, singing “Myyyyyyy Mammy!” (Jazz hands.) He hugged the woman and she squealed with delight.

My eyes went wide. I stopped chewing and waited for G. to see the spectacle that was just beyond his line of vision. When he caught sight of Al Jolson, his eyes went wide too. He swallowed.

“Did that just happen?”

I nodded slowly. That just happened. Unable to talk much without being heard, we gave each other a look that intimated, Oh my god, WE ARE IN THE FUCKING TWILIGHT ZONE.

iconsoffright.com

On the way out, Al Jolson was drinking beer on the porch with several other locals, and we overheard one of them exclaim, “Well, you wouldn’t be the first n****r I hugged by mistake!”, followed by riotous laughter.

“Oh damn, I gotta slow down,” said Al Jolson. “This is only my first drink of the night.”

Please tell me I dreamed this. Nope, it happened.
Please tell me I dreamed this. Nope, it happened.

When we got in the car, both of us just sat there. “Jesus Christ,” said G.

I put my head in my hands. “What have we done?” I asked him tearfully. I’d had two drinks myself and quickly went from bubbly and breezy to profoundly depressed. “How can we raise Jack here? We should never have left [previous town].”

G. was quiet for a minute. “It’s gonna be OK. I heard that word a lot growing up; so did you. And we turned out all right. We’re gonna be good parents. If he says it—“

“He’ll never say it,” I interrupted.

“He’s going to say it, because he’ll hear it at school. We smack him in the mouth. And we tell him, ‘We don’t use that word.’”

I continued ruminating, thinking about how I should have leapt over the railing of the elevated porch and started pummeling those guys. I couldn’t imagine any next steps, because I don’t know what you’d even say to people like that. Not to mention it would be exceedingly poor judgment for my 5-foot-4, Banana-Republic-wearing self to attack a giant-ass redneck in blackface. (Exceedingly poor judgment…OR AN INCREDIBLE ACT OF HEROISM? You decide.) So I spent the ride home mulling over how I should have responded, knowing that there wasn’t really anything I could have done, and feeling both relieved and guilty that I could hide my godless liberalism behind my white skin. I worried even more about Jack’s future. What if he becomes a target? What if they call him “fag” because he doesn’t wear camo—or what if he really is gay and has to suffer? What if he gets attacked by rabid Christians and they bite him and he turns?

G. says the kids in this town are of two types: Camo-wearing rednecks who aspire to work at the local feed store, or scarf-wearing hipsters who bemoan their parents’ choice of locale and can’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge. I think Jack will be the latter. I hope he will—because while this place will give him roots, it can’t give him wings.** I suspect that as a parent, the roots are way easier to provide; I can’t bear thinking of Jack flying away to a semester abroad. But G. and I are committed, however hard it may be, to prepare him for life beyond sub-suburbia. At the very least, to make sure he doesn’t end up on the porch of the Woodfield Inn drunk in blackface on Halloween, about to be attacked by a profoundly depressed liberal hiding in the bushes.

And Now, Footnotes

*Not its real name, to protect the identity of those involved.

**What a weird metaphor. It makes me think of my child as some sort of fucked-up tree/bird hybrid eternally struggling to fly away, but too mired in the ground to take flight. Perhaps that’s why it’s brilliant, though—aren’t we all so mired, in one way or another, by our childhoods?

Photo credits: iconsoffright.com, ebay.com