Saturday, May 01, 2010

The LLVS Manifesto

This spring marks my 10th year living in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I ended up here as much by accident as someone can. I lived in western MA but had spent most of the previous two years in NYC going to acting school. I was now ready to relocate to the city for real, having gotten a few-years' fill of bucolic college town life (which I might add is a pretty awesome combo: country-n-culture!) after a stint in San Francisco. However, in looking for a place to rent in NY, I quickly realized my temporary loft-share in Tribeca had been a fluke of the finest kind--living on the cheap with an insta-soulmate whom I'd known at a distance in SF in an incredible, huge loft her dad had rented since the 70s.

After an earnest eight-month search of Manhattan, the boroughs and beyond (including, significantly, a quick drive through downtown Westport, CT, in search of coffee. My then-partner and I took note of the sea of luxury SUVs in the Starbucks parking lot--and the tiny blonds with the shake-n-bake tans wearing diamonds and tennis whites who drove them--and laughed at the preposterous notion of spending more than a hot-latte-minute in Stepford. I try to remember that sense of culture shock but can't quite summon it anymore. Those ladies are my peeps now, yo. Well, maybe not my BFFs, but I've been in their houses. When working as a cater-waiter.) Our norm at the time was lesbian families in vintage Volvos, hippie farmers and hipster musicians all coexisting in damn-near liberal bliss...and before that, San Francisco in all its tattooed freaky technicolor greatness.

I grew up working class in MA; I went to a monied school, but the college campus was common ground--I never visited the homes or witnessed the worlds from which my friends and classmates came. Any wealthy friends I had in SF were secretly, scruffily wealthy. So maybe I'd been in money's midst before, but never in the sort of ostentatious, "yeah, we're loaded and want you to know it" way of the Gold Coast, the 30-mile beachfront corridor of Connecticut from Fairfield to Greenwich) we signed a five-year lease on an industrial live-work loft on the Brooklyn/Queens line. The catch was it wasn't yet built, so we gave up our place in Northampton, put our stuff in storage and stayed with friends. And stayed, and stayed...our move-in date got pushed back; there were plumbing problems, then permit problems, then the landlord stopped taking our calls altogether. It was March, it was snowing, we'd spent the last year looking for a decent place to live and now this, and we (and our 3 cats) were wearing out our welcome.

So we called a psychic. Or tried to, anyway. But the psychic's ex-boyfriend no longer had her number, but DID know of an open apartment next door to his office, right across the street from the train into NYC, so maybe we could rent it temporarily (no lease required) and get on with our big-city lives while finding a place in the big city to actually live. So we checked it out. The landlady was 97 years old, owned a goodly amount of the town's commercial properties, said we could move in whenever we wanted and gave us a key, never asking our last names. The rent was inexplicably low for that zip code...or any zip code this side of Iowa. (We soon realized this was because neither the plumbing nor the wiring had been upgraded since the 1940s, but as long as we didn't plug in more than one item requiring electric current at a time, we were fine.) It was a mile from the beach and a short walk from a video store, cafe, grocery store, dive bar, a river, a dive bar on the river, several restaurants, a public park, a post office, and so close to the train we could watch it pull in from the living room window and still make it aboard. The apartment itself was adorable: an oddly shaped, slope-eaved cozy abode above an antique book store, ill-tended enough that we could have several cats and create art and not worry about making a mess, yet well-enough maintained for habitation (if one maintained a loose definition of "habitable.") Compared to a pup tent or a prison cell, it was luxe. And it was, of course, in Westport, Connecticut.

I can't really explain what happened next. What didn't happen is we didn't move to NY. I continued acting classes but got rapidly disenchanted with the whole breaking-into-showbiz thing. I liked the craft of acting but not the profession of it. I was catering to pay the bills when someone suggested I give proofreading a try. I'm a nit-picking Virgo and lived within walking distance of the marketing company that was hiring, so just as haphazardly as I'd stumbled into my new locale I began a career in editorial services. (I'd done a bunch of editing- and writing-type stuff since high school but hadn't circled back to it as a profession. Not that I considered proofreading copyright lines on beer posters a "profession" until I found I'd been doing it for, well, going on a decade. The material has changed, but I still wield a red pen for a living.)

Here's the other thing that didn't happen: We didn't gentrify a neighborhood, or contribute to its future gentrification, by moving there. The same week we landed in Westport there was a spate of break-ins and violence in what would have been our new hood in Queens. In SF I'd lived in the only neighborhoods I could afford but where my presence was clearly not appreciated. And I get it: First come the artists, then comes Starbucks, there goes the reasonable rent for working-class people of color. In contrast, we kind of livened up our new setting. We were (and still are) white, but were enthusiastically tattooed and drove a 20-year-old shit box of a car and were pretty obviously girlfriends. In a town with zero visible gay presence, holding hands at the library garnered the equivalent raised-eyebrow response as an orgy might in San Francisco.

Time passed and relationships changed and three years ago my boyfriend (did you catch that?) and I were faced with the decision to either stay in Connecticut or leave. Head to Brooklyn, perhaps. (Other spots we fancied, Vancouver or Seattle or either of the Portlands, were out for now; our radius needed to stay small in order to see his son on weekends.)

So we bought a house, and we got a dog, and because we got a dog we built a fence. And within 4 months his 9-year-old son came to live with us, and 4 months after that I got knocked up. I went from a shack on the tracks full of lezzies and cats to a mortgage with a man and a white picket fence; from midnight jazz shows and tattoo conventions to parent-teacher conferences, diapers and family dinners.

I went into total despair. I felt homesick but didn't know where home was. I loved my family but couldn't shake the sensation that they were somebody else's. What had started a decade ago as an odd and temporary change of address had become a lifestyle, and not an alternative one. And I felt ashamed and petty, ungrateful for this beautiful life I had in fact created. Not just the baby, but all of it.

So I decided to live here. Not just dwell, but live. Let my freak flag fly, as they say, and still love what the burbs have to offer rather than pine for the mythic thing I'm missing out on. We're still near the beach. My stepkid can walk there with his friends. He goes to an excellent, safe, surprisingly diverse middle school. I've found my peeps, finally -- other new parents and transplants and artists and artists at heart who still feel like they're playing grown-up. I have a yard to garden and a multi-culti neighborhood; locking the car is optional even if owning a car isn't; the air's fairly clean (when the wind's right I can smell both the ocean and Pepe's pizza from my front steps) and the downtown is downright pristine. And for golly's sake, I'm only an hour and change on the train from NY, even if it sometimes seems a world away.

What does Livin' La Vida Suburbia mean? Taking full advantage of and joy in where it is my mail's delivered, every day. Finding the humor in it, too, because it's a crazy-funny place. But not in the way I did before. No eye-rolling, no hating on the well-to-do for sport allowed.

Living in suburbia is purchasing a pedigree dog; Livin' La Vida Suburbia is adopting a multiple-pedigree dog from the Bronx.

Living in suburbia is a matching patio set from Pottery Barn; Livin' La Vida Suburbia is a kids plastic picnic table retrofitted with an umbrella advertising Hot Italian Sausages, both procured from the town dump.

Living in suburbia is wearing Lilly Pulitzer; Livin' La Vida Suburbia is wearing Lilly Pulitzer to clean the chicken coop.

I'd love to hear the ways in which you, my burb-dwelling brethren, are LLVS. Please do share!


Unknown said...

Jess, this is fantastic. Sometimes I forget what a great writer you are!!

anemone said...

i love this! although the middle of nowhere cannot really be called the suburbs, i really related to your manifesto. i went from always supporting myself since i was 21 (albeit on less than 24k/year), never living anywhere for more than a year or so, visiting 20 countries in a year as a private jet flight attendant, and regularly dancing til the wee hours of the night... to letting my husband do the bread winning, building a house, visiting 1 country a year (i made it to a mexican resort with my in-laws), and regularly waking up to nurse my baby in the wee hours of the night. it is hard to acknowledge the feelings of despair because of the fear of seeming ungrateful. i am very grateful for my home and family AND i really miss my less conventional (mortgage free) lifestyle. how am i livin' la vida? one of my kid's favorite toys is a grocery bag full of recycling? i still don't clean my house? hmmmm? well, my big idea right now is to go spend a few months somewhere in central america WITH my baby girl. we'll see!

HealthInRecovery said...

Jessica, I really love this. I knew you were a fantastic writer, so that's no surprise... but I totally relate to the feelings around ending up in suburbia far longer than ever intended! You are one of the saving graces among the sea of stepford. ;)

the ubiquitous mom said...

I don't even know where to start. Your comment about feeling homesick but not knowing where home was is spot-on for me. We even went back to Chicago because I thought that's what I was homesick for--and then ended up back in Fairfield, buying a house a year later. This may not have been the place I thought I would call home, or that my husband wanted to call home, but home it is...for better and for worse. I think embracing all the benefits of living in an upper-middle class area while challenging any stereotypes about the kind of people who live here is the right way to do it!

Lexie said...

I loved this entry and want so much more.... I guess I will start at the beginning and read from the bottom up. Finally something to do for the next couple of hours. So glad to know you.

Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr