(Originally published in The Place Within: Portraits of the American Landscape by 20 Contemporary Writers (W.W. Norton).
There’s a bit of a story to this essay, as well. Or at least to its publication. When I was editing The Place Within, a collection of essays about American landscapes, I realized with some horror that I’d omitted to commission an essay about suburbia. Of course, in collecting pieces for this anthology, I sought out beautiful, unusual, and striking landscapes. Suburbia was none of these things, and so it snuck under my radar. And I certainly never imagined, as editor of this anthology, to include myself in it. But, three days before the final edited manuscript was due back to my publisher, I realized that I needed to add an essay on suburbia. And I just happened to have one. Here it is.
I was born in the Bronxville Hospital, two weeks early. It was a warm morning in August, but I was so cold and small that to keep life and limb together they put me in a straight jacket. My father, needing flowers and finding no store open, stole a heart-shaped wreath of gladioli off the back of a hearse. My mother was not fooled.
My parents took their tiny bundle of joy back to a custom-built split level house in Hartsdale, New York. The family had recently moved from a dim tenement apartment on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, a place so drab and charmless that at the age of six my sister vowed to marry wealth and surround herself with beautiful objects. The little house (my mother still rankles at the fact that my father’s sister was too cheap to loan them enough for a bigger model) sits atop a hill midway up Caterson Terrace. At the base of that hill close to town, the smaller, seedier families lived. The boys from these homes would come to school in worn white T-shirts and faded Levi jeans. They had pale, freckled faces and frightened eyes, and one always had the sense that their mothers neglected them for drink, and Pell Mells, and vain dreams. Westchester, Westchester: rolling lawns and tennis courts, Bloomingdales and psychiatrists, and stolid homes behind whose doors alcoholic parents joked about “kikes” and “niggers,” homes so cold inside they felt as if no one lived in them. I didn’t understand this Westchester in all its bigotry or spiritual impoverishment. Instead, I knew safety and beauty, violence and vulgarity, the suburban child’s parameters.
Safety was in my mother’s kitchen, whose warm, paneled walls grew the artifacts of my mother’s collecting: a rubber jewelry mold, Currier and Ives prints, an old brass lock and key; a bronze harness from her childhood farm, shaped like a pair of wings. I stared at that wall from my mother’s arms as she fed me a bottle, and the room seemed as large and dark as the universe.
And beauty was waking up every morning to a pale pink and green room. There, from my bed, I was able to watch the incandescent green leaves of the mock cherry tree shiver and sway outside my window. The light of suburbia was cool and the air soft. Stretched out before me was the discreet wholeness of a suburban day, invisibly circumscribed but full of possibility nonetheless.
At the top of the hill were the newer houses, like ours. They belonged to the Jewish families, ones who had made a little money and were one step out of the Bronx, like us. Down the hill at the other end were the landed HartsdaliansGentiles, mostly. Their enormous brick Tudor homes, decked with wreaths and holly during Christmas time, were awesome terra incognitae. For the longest time I remained in awe of these homes, set back from the street as they were, surrounded by old stone retaining walls. Only later would I come to know their drafty coldness, and the weird, unliving frigidity of their inhabitants.
As one drives up Caterson Terrace, our house is on the left, just past a towering row of privet hedge belonging to our neighbors, the Donsons. They put up the hedge when our house was built, presumably to avoid having to speak to my parents. To this day, my mother accuses the Donsons of having poisoned our pet poodle, Oliver.
This is suburbia, after all. It’s not a particularly friendly place. Home is hallowed ground, and its inhabitants defend them like prehistoric tribes. Neighbors look suspiciously at one another, just waiting for a nuisancea barking dog, the wrong color fence, snow not blown or blown too farbefore calling in the cops. Once, our neighbor, annoyed by another neighbor’s complaints about her barking dog, placed an advertisement in the real estate section of the paper, listing the complainer’s enormous colonial home for something like $20,000. The harassed family had to switch to an unlisted number.
In suburbia, one’s home is both castle and prison. To leave it, one needs a definite purpose, like shopping. Shopping is the Westchesterite’s main hobby, and shop we did: Bloomingdales, Saks, the ever-crowded Loehmans, and the nearby malls. The other purpose was to go to “the club.” Everybody belonged to some club. Gentiles went to the Westchester Country Club, Jews elsewhere. After a day at the club one shopped some morefor groceries, or an item for the home.
Our home became filled with things: antiques from my mother’s collecting, string and keyboard instruments for my father’s musical proclivities. Soon after he moved in, my father converted our basement into a nightclub. Life-size cardboard cutouts of chorus girls in sequined bikinis are pinned up behind the trapezoidal stage. There is an electric organ, a synthesizer, and a set of drums. My father glued album covers, set askew, of Herbie Mann and Henri Mancini next to the near-naked girls. He glued glittering gold stars around the ensemble. A twirling red and yellow light above the stage completes the scene.
Looking at this room now, it all seems sad, the worn, tacky remnants of an era when my family had been more alive. As a child, though, this room was magic, a place where music often pounded late into the night and adults, beautiful and glittering in dress-up clothes, danced and laughed, eating on small plates from steaming silver chafing dishes. We had our world, however strange, and small.
It is a gossamer spring day in the town of Hartsdale. The year is l959. My mother has left me on the sidewalk in front of the Hartsdale Bakery (alone? with my grandmother?), and I can smell the intense sweetness coming from the shop. In 1960. Hartsdale consisted mainly of a single strip of stores along Hartsdale Avenue, which ended in a cul de sac by the old railway station. Everything, and everyone, in the town was split, invisibly, into Jewish and Gentile. I could not say which I thought was better, only that “they” lived in some other world with its own rules and ways completely separate from our own. This never made any sense to me, and it seems that the difference lay in the pure circularity of it always having been so. But to my mother, the differences were real: the Gentiles kept to their own clan, and so were clannish; they were thinner and fairer than we Jews, tighter-lipped. Their foodif one could even call it thatgave them an anemic pallor.
The houses of the Gentiles were larger than ours, and far colder. They drank aperitifs with pretzels or those mixed sausage and cheese baskets with green plastic straw that one could pick up around holiday time from International Foods. They drank, but not out of sorrow. The Gentiles drank, it seemed, out of sheer, terminal cheeriness.
The stores along Hartsdale Avenue could be separated according to the race of their patrons. The stationery store where I delighted in buying my first school supplies was “Jewish.” So was the pharmacist, a taciturn man who already seemed resigned to the death by colon cancer he would not contract for another twenty years. There was the Gentile book store, whose owner my mother believed to be an anti-Semite; a disorganized toy store with whose owner my mother had some long-standing feud and therefore, although Jewish, had joined, in her mind, the ranks of the Gentiles.
It was always still just light out when my father came home, a suburban twilight that softened the frayed edges of the hundreds of husbands making the trek up Caterson Terrace from the train station. I would run to the door, shielding myself behind my mother in case of a bad mood from that tall, mysterious stranger. He would set his feathered hat down on the walnut console, hang up his coat, and walk directly to the kitchen doorway. There, his arm would swing back and forth and I would see his set of keys go flying through the air, clear across the kitchen, where it would land with a clank in a copper pot upon the windowsill. He always smiled at this miraculous success, his talent all the more pleasurable for its uselessness.
My parents were always around; at least, my mother was. But many of my friends seem to have been abandoned, left to wander the caverns of those large Tudor homes like orphans. I remember playing with my friend Paula in her house in Scarsdale. While we played, her mother sat in a far-off bedroom, staring at herself in a negligee, puffing on a cigarette. Our voices echoed through the empty house. I never once met Paula’s father. Paula wound up in a boarding school for emotionally disturbed children.
Then, there was Carrie, a dim girl who lived around the block and whose main claim to fame was to have placed her head in the way of a baseball bat. For months she went to school with a soft, pulsing hollow in her skull. We gaped at the slow, steady pulse that pushed its way through the fragile casing of her scalp. Carrie’s brother Curt, the bat-swinger, left Westchester and, some years later, put a bullet through his head.
Westchester’s children were unhappyat least, the ones I knew were. Perhaps this was because their mothers were. My image of Westchester’s mothers is Paula’s mother: sitting alone in their fine silk nightgowns. Plush carpet silences the movement of their feet. Their bodies go neglected, untouched by love or even tenderness. As if sleepwalking, they get up, open a can of vegetables and frozen shrimp egg rolls, or fry pork chops. Absent participants in their own lives, they could not begin to take part in those of their children. They sit smoking, alone and caught up in vague, distant reveries, a cup of instant coffee the only warmth their hands feel.
My best friend Julie’s mom never seemed to be home when she got home from schoola commonplace now, but nearly unimaginable in the l960s. Julie’s mother, a beautiful opera singer, would be out all day and then come home just long enough to get all dolled up before going out again. Julie’s brother seemed chronically depressed, and would wander around their large house in silence, wanting nothing to do with his little sister.
Julie was a big, hulking bully of a girl back then. Once, she almost strangled the life out of me, trying to impress the boy next door with her prowess as she easily tackled me to the ground.
“Bruce! Bruce! Look at this!” she cried, as I sat choking my sobs beneath her.
I didn’t speak to Julie for a while after that. But ours was a lonely neighborhood, and one warm spring day I caught sight of her standing down the street, mid-way between our houses. She looked so lonely, staring up at me. We ran to each other and hugged tight, and the boy next door was–for the time being–forgotten.
There was no limit to the games Julie and I made up together. Our favorite game was to pretend to be The Beatles. We would bounce up and down on her canopy bed with tin-foil microphones, crooning, “Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody! Help! I need somebody, Heeeelp!”
That game seems telling to me now.
Most of what Julie and I did together got us into trouble. For a while there we were hoodlums just like hoodlums everywhere, except that instead of hubcaps and spray cans we used rotten eggs and Ambesol. It was my idea to dig a trench one time in Julie’s yard, fill it with water, and cover it over with dirt, so that hapless Beth , the retarded girl who lived across the street, could trip and fall into it.
We made poor freckle-faced Beth’s life miserable. Beth would run toward Julie’s house on pink flamingo legs, her face filled with mute, guileless delight. And there we’d be, waiting like twin vampires, with our poisonous concoctions and traps. Once, in our insanity, we mixed together a noxious brew of dirt, Ambesol and rat poison. We fed it to her, convinced we had discovered the “cure” for her low I.Q. We even devised a “test” which we “administered” directly after she had taken her firstand, sagely, lastsip of our concoction. When Beth was subsequently able to answer a few of the question on our “test” we exulted like doctors of the Waffen SS.
Julie’s parents never socialized with mine, but they often had cocktails with Carrie’s and Beth’s parents and other “Gentile” neighbors. They liked to sit around and drink mixed cocktails and eat miniature pretzels, which Julie’s father bought in enormous brown tins. Sometimes they told off-color jokes, about Poles and Jews and Niggers. Sometimes when I was with them I would smile at their jokes, too cowardly and confused to say a word.
I wasn’t much of a Jew myself, then. When my father moved out of the Bronx he cut all his ties to Judaism save a strictly cultural one. He changed his name, and for the longest time I thought our family was from Alsace Lorraine. My father, wanting to spare me any shame at school, had created an entirely fictitious heritage to go along with the new name. In fact, our name is Davidoff, and we come from Kovna, a village in what was then a Lithuanian Pale of Settlement. My great-grandmother didn’t spend her life sipping riesling wine on a snow-capped mountain; she spent it running for her life from Cossacks.
I had my own bout of Jew-hating when my Grandma Bobby came to live with us. Bobby had no possessions except for one black bag and the clothes on her body. She had been rendered homeless when city planners in upstate New York evicted her from her farm, to build an airport. They gave her a pittance for each acre, and for the rest of her life she was passed around her three daughters, Gertude, Molly, and Francis, leaving each as they grew tired of her. As it turns out, Swan Lake never used that airport; it now lies fallow, my grandmother’s wild strawberries growing up the cracks in the asphalt.
In our house, it seemed, Bobby was least welcome of all. My mother and father used to get into terrible fights about her. My father didn’t want her staying with us. Neither did my mother, but she felt too guilty to send her back to Aunt Gertie’s. She would appear at our door with her black lizard bag clutched tightly in her wrinkled hands. She had not yet removed her old wool coat when already I could hear my parent’s hissing whispers on the stairs:
“No way is she staying six weeks with us, Fran.”
“She’s my mother.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass. Call Gert and tell her we’re sending her back. Next Day Mail.”
Bobby spoke a thick, broken English, and her face was as wrinkled and coarse as a walnut shell. Her squat body seemed too slow moving and massive to walk inside our house, which was filled to bursting with my mother’s delicate treasures. Bobby’s stockings were always ripped and sagging, and I never saw her put them on or take them off. It seemed to me she never changed them. Her skirt was always some wool plaid remnant with the zipper askew and the hem falling down. I disdained and pitied her, and loved her only in hindsight.
Everyone in Westchester had a Bobby, that sorry relic from their family’s recent history, that living reminder of everything they had sought, with such fierce vengeance, to renounce. Of course, in many ways, the suburbs are a pleasant place to live. I live in one now myself, outside of Boston, and feel lucky to do so. But many of our suburbs happened too quickly. People got money in a single generation and moved into fancy, hollow places, leaving their spirits behind in the rush. They didn’t entirely trust that what they had bought with all that money was really theirs, and it made them mean. And frightened of losing everything.
Bobby was always losing that precious black bag. We would hear her cry, “Veyah’s my poise? Veyah’s my poise?” Everything she had to her name was in that purse. Often, after a fight with my mother, Bobby would root around in the closet for that bag and, finding it, out she’d walk, announcing, “I’m goink! I’m gettin’ out of heah and I’m nevah comink back!”
She had no suitcase, no hat, and with only her dignity she would start walking up Caterson Terrace, toward nowhere. My mother always had to go after her. Sometimes, she just sighed and waited a few minutes, enjoying the peace and quiet. Bobby never got very far.
Bobby was coarse, disoriented and sad. She looked like a poor, uneducated Russian peasant, which is precisely what she was. My sister, who loved her deeply, was, at the fragile age of thirteen, also mortified by her. In her diaries from that time she recounts how, once, smooching on the sofa with a boyfriend, she happened to turn around: there was Bobby, lying curled up on the floor behind the couch, sound asleep. Apparently, Bobby had picked a place she thought would be inconspicuous to the young lovers. But Lynne was not moved. “The damned jew kike!” she fumes. Why, I always wondered, hadn’t Bobby chosen a bed to sleep in? Did she think herself not good enough? Was she, to herself, just a “damned jew kike?”
By the time I knew her, it was hard for Bobby to pick up her feet. The blood of seventy years’ farm work had settled into her ankles. Her legs were little more than swollen stumps stuffed into heavy black leather shoes. Her knees wouldn’t bend anymore, and I hated her because she would shuffle across my pretty room, inevitably crushing some sacred doll or the Adams Family puzzle that I had been working on for months.
By this time I was a young Westchesterite used to tennis games, velvet riding hats, and Bloomingdales. I had a pink velvet custom-built sofa in my room with matching silk curtains, and to me Bobby was a pathetic and altogether foreign intrusion. She hardly seemed of the same species as myself, with her wrinkled, nut-brown face and tiny, bright green eyes. When Bobby fought with my mother it was always in Yiddish, a language I didn’t understand. But I came to know certain phrases all to well, like “Du gist mir a cup vetik” (you’re giving me a headache, said with hand to left temple and head tilted) and “Don’t mitcha me (hands placed despairingly over solar plexus). Usually, I wanted nothing to do with Bobby.
But I didn’t reject her when, late at night as I lay in my bed, she would come over and sit by my side and gently scratch my back with her long, thick fingernails. Nor did I disdain her when she sat next to me behind a white designer chair in the living room, next to a heating vent. In this warm spot Bobby sang me plaintive Yiddish songs, some of them quite theatrical. One began, “Standink on da CAWnah.” Full stop. “Minding her own biz-NISS” Stop. “Sadie Green was waiting for a car.” Full stop. “Her feet was very TIRED.” Stop. “Her head was very dizzi-NESS.” Caesura, then, sotto voce: “Along came a caw and said, ‘Hey, kid, ya goin’ FAW?'” Then it had some refrain whose tune I loved although I didn’t understand a word of what it meant: “To whom ya talkin’ to whom, HA? To whom ya talkin’ to whom?
It was only years later that I developed a conscience about Bobby, and then I got it double for the delay. When we had to visit her in the nursing home, my grief was so great that I would not get out of the car to see her. I grew outwardly cold, and my mother, misunderstanding, said, “You’re a cold, unfeeling child.” Someday, she said, I would regret my heartlessness.
But I had gone inside that place before, that place they took us to die. Bobby had greeted us in the hallway. She was tied into a wheelchair with a white sheet. At first, she didn’t seem to recognize me but then, with horrifying suddenness, she reached out her arms and uttered a terrible cry: “Veyah, veyah have you been? Vy haven’t I seen you?”
I had to turn my face away. This was no way to die, inside white walls, wrapped in a white sheet, with white nurses who wore their fake smiles as they fed you from spoons, you who were loved no less by them than by your own family, who had moved to Suburbia and therefore, presumably, would never grow old, or senile, or die.
And I didn’t get out of the car, either, when they put Bobby into the ground. It was a Jewish cemetery in Hicksville, Long Island. Aunt Gertie was there and Uncle Bernie and all my cousins. The rabbi stood over the hole as a light rain covered the cemetery. He stooped like a black raven in his robes as he said the Kaddish and my aunts and uncles stood in a circle with their heads bowed. I sat a distance away, huddled in one corner of my father’s Thunderbird, which still smelled faintly of the vomit I’d ejected on the long trip to the Island and which my father, swearing vocably, had hastily cleaned up. I sat and mourned inside myself, furious at my family. I knew they were all glad to get rid of Bobby, that last sad vestige of who we once were. They would sit Shiva with the mirrors turned respectfully to the wall, gobbling up Aunt Gertie’s copious display of food. Cousin Eddy and I would play Career, or Monopoly. And my world’s coldness filled me up a little more.