In America 8/16

Out on the back porch, someone is whistling “Copa Cabana.” Sam the golden retriever lolls in the sun, her green leash tied to a post on the steps. The whole deck shakes as the neighbor’s kid runs down with a trash bag. Life in the city — the Korean family next door repaints their garage. The girl around the corner has a license plate that reads “NO WAR.” Planes circle high overhead, between the stars. Welcome to life during wartime.

Another Country, 10 Miles Away

When we first moved to this town, four years ago, I was up all night. Couldn’t figure out what the problem was, why I couldn’t sleep. Then, at 4 a.m. the thrid night, it hit me when the train went by with a rush like the tide coming in. The traffic: not a lot, we didn’t live on a major thoroughfare, but still more than I was used to. The building across the street housed a drug rehab, and at 9 p.m. we’d hear meetings getting out, young men talking quietly as they walked to their cars.

We lived before this in a far-flung suburb, chain restaurants and strip malls, Barnes and Noble. Most people were white and everybody was rich. Shopping was the main form of recreation if you didn’t have children and most people did. It seemed like a good place for kids, with the huge lawns and the park programs. But nobody drew in chalk on the sidewalk, nobody rode their Big Wheels down the wide and mostly deserted streets. On weekends, on the huge and elaborate decks on every house, I never saw anybody grilling.

I’m not dissing all the suburbs; that’s been done and it’s not fun anymore, takes too little energy. I’m talking only about my own experience, and the place wasn’t quite right for me. I’m a white chick from Wisconsin, and I don’t put on lipstick to go to the grocery store at 3 a.m. for ice cream. Shopping is nervewracking to me, and after a while we ran out of movies to see. When I got a new job in a new town, we moved pretty fast.

Seventeen years ago our first apartment had been in a crack-dealer’s dream ‘hood; now artists were fixing up lofts. The eternal “urban renewal” struggle. One neighbor was from Japan, her husband a Navy man who met her while he was stationed there. Below them, a German artist and his psychologist wife, below them a South African couple whose 8 year old son liked to skateboard down the hallway (above our bedroom) at 6 a.m.

Another neighbor introduced himself thusly when we stopped by to measure for curtains: “I’m Bill, I’m gay and I’m having a party on the Fourth of July. Would you like to come?” To which we responded hi, okay, and sure. We showed up with a pasta salad that failed and a cheesecake that succeeded, the only straight couple out of about 40 men and women all drinking wine and singing. At dusk we piled into cars drove to one man’s apartment where he promised us a spectacular view of the fireworks.

All the small towns in the patchwork of neighborhoods and inner ‘burbs have their own fireworks show and from our window in the man’s tiny walk-up, we could see six, seven, eight fireworks displays, points on the horizon that flashed and fell. The apartment’s owner put Jimmi Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner on the stereo and we sang along. I looked over at my husband, who was deep in an argument about Hong Kong directors with a couple who would later become good friends.

Maybe in our former home, people were grilling on their huge stainless-steel gas grills and their kids were running around the lawn with sparklers. There are so many different lives possible, so many ways to live, here. And that’s what they are: lives, not lifestyles.

We are not what color our state turned on a map, we are not what we buy or where we buy it. Our lives and our choices do not automatically put us on teams to cheer for or oppose. We have reasons for who we hold hands with, where we worship, what we work at every day, and those reasons cannot be summed up in which side of the ballot we punch, or who is waiting in our beds at night.

We are three dozen or so total strangers, packed into a one-bedroom apartment, sharing a bottle of champagne and toasting the country we have in common, singing the national anthem.

Next week: Jesus carries a snow shovel.