At Starbucks, Facing the Parking Lot

I found this piece from a few months after I moved back to the U.S. It pretty much describes my internal urban vs. suburban fight:

After four years of living in various cities in Latin America and working as an office assistant, freelance writer and English teacher (alternately), I’ve moved back to the States. Gone are the days of 10 hour work weeks, exploring a giant, complicated cosmopolitan city everyday and watching House Hunters International all afternoon. No more tiendita deliveries at all hours of the night, no more $3 ajiacos or lunch menu specials and no more middle-aged construction workers catcalling me and creating improvised street poems complimenting my botero-esque physique every time I step out of my home. I suppose that’s a small price ]to pay for years of being an  international slacker.

So in this new normal life of mine, I work evenings and have my mornings free. I’m not quite ready to take on a completely conventional schedule and enjoy being off when everyone else is working. Right now, I’m at Starbucks in my gym pants and brand new $8 knitted sweater (thanks, Kohl’s!), wondering what you lose — and gain — by living in the suburbs. I don’t know that any other country in the world has anything equivalent to the American suburbs. Right now, I’m sitting at my generic but very cozy Starbucks table and when I look out the window I see a jungle of  Toyotas and Hondas, pine trees, pear blossoms, sidewalks and grassy medians.  I could be anywhere on the East Coast. While I completely understand and empathize with criticisms of the suburbs, there is also something comforting about knowing exactly how a place will make you feel. For better or worse, I will feel the same at a Starbucks in metro DC as I will at a Starbucks in metro New York. 

A few weekends ago, I visited a few friends who live in Hoboken, just a short subway ride from Manhattan. New York, of course, is seductive. Most suburbanites who have visited the Big Apple have probably uttered the phrase “I love New York” at some point in their lives, fantasizing about a glitzy, incredible life surrounded by skyscrapers, important people, meaningfulness and purpose. I’ve been that person who wonders how anyone could spend their entire life in the suburbs. Because I tend to be the kind of person who always thinks that “real life” and happiness are elsewhere, somewhere different from wherever I am now,  I couldn’t help getting caught up in this fantasy, imagining myself in a small Astoria townhouse, typing away on my laptop everyday at the neighborhood cafe, buying fresh flowers from the florist everyday, hand-picking bread rolls at the bakery and taking my cute little puppy to the dog park. In my fantasies, my life would be full of meaning and depth and I’d never be bored. Of course, in real life, boredom has a way of finding you once in a while and as for meaning and depth — I guess it’s easy to be shallow and superficial no matter where you live.

But New York does have something the suburbs don’t: It has layers, both obvious and subtle. It has a subterranean maze of subways that connects the city from one end to the other, hundreds of stations bursting with noise, fluorescent lights, struggling musicians, weirdos, business people, students and artists. It has a creative scene in a way that D.C doesn’t. Every narrow little street has hidden doorways you might miss at first glance, unassuming delis, minuscule cafes, flower shops, pastry shops and Irish bars. Then  there’s an entire world that goes up half a kilometer, where I imagine important things go on everyday. It’s the kind of place you can never fully know because it’s always changing and there’s always a little nook you’ve walked past a million times without noticing. It has soul, character energy and vibrancy — all those things creative people love and talk about so much. I guess the best way I could describe New York — or any great city — is to say it has a collective soul in a way the suburbs don’t. My town is comfortable, beautiful even (in that wholesome, American suburb kind of way) and it’s a great place to raise a family, but I’d be kidding myself if said there was any real sense of belonging, community or character — at least not that I’ve ever felt.  I don’t have to be in this town to know this town. Whatever depth, excitement or meaning I want in my life, I have to find it, because it’s not going to get it from the strip malls, parking lots the nice, colonial four bedroom houses or well maintained tree-lined neighborhoods. At least I don’t think so. If you are the kind of person who has creative ambitions, you have to work a little harder in the suburbs, because it’s very unlikely that your neighborhood Giant will fill you with that joie de vivre  you might frequently encounter in an amazing city or even in the countryside. I guess the suburbs are kind of the purgatory of living situations in a way — you’re neither here nor there. 

Dazzled by New York, I immediately imagined living in this kind of world. What would I do? Where would I live? And most importantly, how much would it cost? (About $1,200 for a one bedroom in an up-and-coming Brooklyn or Queens neighborhood, just in case you’re wondering– not nearly as much as I thought). Of course, that $1,200 apartment hasn’t been renovated in 50 years, has cracks in the ceilings, no parking spot, no elevator and lacks any of the amenities you might find in a suburban apartment. 

But right now — at least for now — that decrepit New York studio is just a fantasy. Because at this moment, I’m here, in the suburbs and I can’t afford to move anywhere else. Because I chose to be a poverty-ridden international semi-bum for most of my twenties, this newly repatriated former expat will probably be a suburbanite for a while. So I guess the only thing I can do is make the best of the situation and not become one of those people who live so close to D.C but never actually go into the city. 

Categories: Suburbs

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2 replies


  1. What to do When Feeling Suburban | A Nomad Life
  2. What to do When Feeling Suburban Part II | My (Former) Nomad Life

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