On this warm, wet Christmas, I ambled without purpose somewhere in America. I prefer the inevitable disappointment of a sodden Christmas–the remains of an earlier December snowfall dribbling down storm drains, the exiled smokers unshivering, unbothering with jackets, exhalations elongated in the humidity, the theatrical coziness of houses all the more fake against temperatures well above freezing.
Through the neighborhood I wandered, a grid of streets imposed upon what I’m told was farmland when this house was built. It was now crowded with houses, fences, carports, patios. It was some kind of aspiring suburbia, a place with no center, a feeling of eerie quiet despite the driveways crowded with the cars of holiday visitors, a quiet broken not by the sounds of anything living but the insistent rush of cars down the main road nearby. Speeding cars could obtain equally fast food there on any day but today.
All that seems to differentiate most places in America from one another are the variations in the sizes of driveways, the crab quotient of grass, the gaud of Christmas decorations. This neighborhood was modest; it was fighting for its notion of suburbia against the odds of limited space and funds. It’s been described to me as the “Queens” of the midsized city it calls home, and I have accepted this analogy as mostly accurate. But as I wandered and took it in I thought with the indignance of a Queens native how not Queens this place was, how many tiny things about it made it a place entirely different from the borough of my birth, how the energy was all wrong, the scale of the highway overpasses was wrong, and there was no sight nor even the remotest hint of a tsunami of skyline looming nearby, no intimations of a shabby proximity to greatness and ruin at once. The reassuring sadness of the Chinese takeout restaurants was not the same here, and why did they not smell of grease from a hundred yards away? This was not the Queens of this other place, there was still only one Queens and thousands of these places, and this is no less true just because Queens is mine and all these others places are not.
But they are. I prowl the streets of an unfamiliar middle-class suburbia one bleak holiday afternoon and I am uncomfortably aware that I am in the place that is stamped on my passport. I know these streets, these cars, these Christmas lights. The Christmas lights in other countries are different. Differently shaped, differently colored. I bought a strand of the big, multicolored kind of Christmas lights in England once to decorate my room, and they were the same as the big, multicolored American ones, but not. How could they be the same? They were called “fairy lights.” (It is not the intent of the British to make us feel like strangers in our own language, but it happens anyway.) It’s the little things that are different in foreign countries, the things you never think about. The light switches, the toilet flushes, the shape of the flat people on signs that mark bathrooms or warn of imminent danger. So why in America, where the light switches and toilet flushes and signage and Christmas lights are all familiar, do I prowl through suburbia, imagining myself alternately as predator and prey to these innocuous raised ranches, feeling so alien and lost and full of menace and numbness?
My only company on the street was the smokers. A thin man with a thinner mustache smoked morosely on the hood of a red sports car. His all-black outfit was too big on him, the leather pants included. I turned the corner and on the next block a woman in a bright red sweater jangled her charm necklace with each drag on her cigarette. Her hair was long and perfectly straight. At first she appeared young, but as I approached, her face revealed her to be older and older. I wondered if she was married or divorced, if she had children or not, how she would fit into the gathering she was soon to rejoin. Was she the single sister who helped aggressively with the dishes? Was her voice raspy from smoking and, if so, was it sexy or sad?
I was walking in circles inside the neighborhood, so I made for the main road. I hate to walk on main roads where the cars punch through the air at highway speeds, and you can’t walk in the middle of the street. On a quiet side street you can walk in the middle of the street, right on the line if there is one and it pleases you.
There was a park not far away, a collection of well-maintained fields for every imaginable youth sport, bleachers for spectators and a tightly locked building for equipment storage and child molestation. On these fields the unseen children in the decorated houses played their organized sports. Runty kids got hits and fat kids bobbled slowly toward third, soccer was viciously mothered and local businesses were advertised on the small, heaving backs of children young enough to have shoulder blades like the stumps of wings. The park was empty. Bits of snow melted here and there, no longer snow but frozen and re-frozen into something resembling Sno-Cone before the colored syrup is added.
I turned around and made my way back across the main road, scurrying as I always do, looking left, looking right, looking left, as I was taught in the streets of the borough of Queens. The street we lived on there was so enormous and dangerous that I was never allowed to cross it. As if to protect us permanently from those hurtling cars, my parents moved us to the holy grail of American suburbia: a dead end. It is the job of parents to keep us out of the street, and off if it, to keep us safe from the street in any and all prepositional phrases, and if we must venture into it, to teach us which way to look. The whole time I was in England, my father would end all our phone calls by reminding me to “look right!” He didn’t have to. The words “LOOK RIGHT” were painted on the ground, because the British Empire fell, and in the empire that rose in its place, we drive on the right and look to the left.
I made for the only house in this neighborhood whose secret interior I knew. I didn’t remember exactly how many blocks it was, or even what street it was on, but as I got closer, I recognized the cross streets. First State, then Federal, then Empire. Empire is where we live.