Seven years ago, my husband, children, and dogs moved to Montclair, New Jersey, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where we had lived for 13 years, taking a year off in Glasgow, Scotland. Before Baton Rouge, we lived in Washington, DC. Before that, in Los Angeles. Before that, I had neither husband nor children but lived happily with my house plants in a sixth-floor walkup on East 11th Street and Avenue A in the East Village of Manhattan, where my friend Megan and I would occasionally climb up to the roof at sunset and watch pigeons do this lovely and weird circle dance, over and over, and I’d look out on those tar rooftops and onto those shimmering window panes and think: How could anyone, ever ever ever ever, so much as think about living anywhere but New York City?
I was raised in the suburbs, in McLean, Virginia, which was then something of a horsey, liberal, semi-rural wooded and watered paradise, and though I loved tromping to the Potomac River to gaze at the wildflowers that grew along its banks and the river itself, with its brown and chugging currents, by the time I left home for college, I knew that McLean, at least for me, was poison. It wasn’t about McLean; it was just that McLean was a suburb, and, like other suburbs, it was boring, it was soulless. It was worse than soulless: It was soul crushing.
McLean was about comfort, conformity, paying off your mortgage, the Boy Scouts, high school football games, community planning boards, SAT-tutoring, a new car, a new house, a new baby who would then grow up to have her own house, her own ruffled curtains, her own mortgage and new baby. Ugh. So long, suckers. I went to college in Boston, a place with a subway, with triple-deckers, with grit, vowing to never to return to anything like the pretty, spacious, green, pleasant and bland comfort in which I’d been raised.
Ha ha, joke’s on me, because along the way, something shifted in me. When my husband, a law professor at Louisiana State University, accepted a faculty position at Rutgers School of Law, in Newark, New Jersey, I thought about moving back to New York City for approximately three seconds before flatly rejecting the idea, end of story, case closed.
It was weird, too, because at this point there was nothing holding us back from moving to New York—which for all those years I’d kept in my mind as a kind of urban Paradise Lost. Our three kids were all but out of the house. My husband was willing to do a reverse commute. More to the point, though we’d have to downsize, we could afford to live in the city, and we both absolutely loved New York, always had, always would. The arts! The buzz! The energy! The messy and intoxicating swirl of accents and styles and hot dog vendors. It’s where we’d dated, fallen in love, planned our future … in anything but suburban New Jersey.
I can’t imagine a phrase more freighted with visions of where you don’t want to be, or more calculated to send me to the psyche ward than “the New Jersey Suburbs,” except if it’s attached to the phrase “I live in.” But I do. Live in the New Jersey suburbs. Had I known, at 21, that I’d land here at 50, I may well have thrown myself off the roof of my Avenue A walk-up.
Not so much anymore. Good public schools, plenty of space to park, sidewalks, quiet, back-yard barbecues. For me, it’s about things like groceries: I buy them by the giant bag-full, and I’m in and out of the store in an hour! When my old vacuum cleaner died, all I had to do was hop in the car and head to the Target, all of 11 minutes away, where I not only bought a dandy new dust-buster vacuum cleaner combo, but a giant bottle of bleach on sale. We have two dogs, who are always doing things like eating someone’s cast off, mud-covered sock, and then walking around like they’ve got a vise in their stomachs. One phone call, a five minute car ride, and the vet is feeling Amir’s guts and telling me that it’s OK, he’s pooped most of it out.
When it rains, I hear the rain pattering on the roof. When the leaves fall, the air smells like autumn. When I need to clear my head, I go out and walk. When I need overpriced coffee, I go to the overpriced coffee shop. I’ve become such a creature of this strange American invention, neither the countryside nor the city. Now, when I return home from a day in the city, I feel like I’ve been delivered to something akin to paradise.