Erik Larson

Sep 24, 2009

Texas. Suburbia.

I have this neighbor that throws weekend football parties in a weird mixture of bacchanalian and high brow. His home is large and new, with expensive looking furniture and large glass windows in the back that open up to a beautiful view of Texas Hill Country. He grills fajitas on the porch with a vigor that I’ve seen only in true Texans. The oak ice chest next to the grill is frequently opened to reveal local and domestic beers for plucking out, cracking open on the handy bottle opener affixed to the exterior of the chest. There’s this admirable functionality to partying in Texas Suburbia.

Inside, the wide screen is cranked to a pitch that makes talking difficult. It’s a faux pax, I think, but people are in the nice house, with the fajitas grilling, and so 30 somethings and 40 somethings are reduced to staring at T.V., or retreating back to the kitchen to stand eye to eye. His wife I’ve been informed is “bitchy”. No sign until there is one; she introduces the beautiful living room furniture by warning all that spills will be punished. The kind of quip that enforces the supremacy of her material things over our socializing, while she trots around with a thinly disguised patina of glibness. So, then, “bitchy”. She has this attribute, that’s all.

She drinks a Cabernet in a large glass. There are beers in hands elsewhere. Husband (his name is either “James”, “Jim”, or “Jimmy”, take your pick he says) later pulls out a fine few bottles of tequila, joyously filling shot glasses with people smiling nervously around him. We’re all feeling a little scandalous because it’s barely past noon, but in nice houses somehow it’s hard to feel like a loser, even slamming tequila for no obvious reason on a Sunday.

Later—within the hour, I guess—Jimmy’s face is red, and he rocks from one leg to another while scooping ice cream out for kids. I feel like this must be just pure work for Jimmy now; he’s drunk and the ice cream looks very frozen, and kids who are noisily running around upstairs and then downstairs and then upstairs and then demanding ice cream aren’t fajitas or football or tequila. The obligatory dog is a puppy— a gangly Golden Retriever —and is running this algorithm in its puppy head that brings each guest on the couch a slobbery cloth ball for retrieving. Each guest then prys the slobbery ball away and throws it somewhere safe in the house. Puppy runs and gets, returns to guest. Eventually puppy goes to next guest on couch and in this fashion manages to entertain himself for upwards of five hours, a feat that I’m confident not every guest quite manages.

In like a lion at noon, it’s all over at 5:00 p.m., and we’re all saying our good byes and rounding up children with Jimmy standing red faced at the door calling after us that he hopes we aren’t leaving hungry. I think his wife is sleeping now. A strange, quasi-depression is knocking at my consciousness and I’m looking at the other faces as we saunter back home to see if it’s intruding on them too. But I don’t think it is, or at least this kind of impromptu investigation won’t ever reveal it. The faces of suburbia are plastered with an impenetrable veneer of smiles and success and contentedness that admits nothing probing or philosophical or contrary. It’s admirable, really, this capacity for perpetual vacuity. Notable, at least.

But anyway Jimmy’s party is, like all such parties, quickly forgotten. New horizons in Texas Suburbia await. Kids go off to school the next morning and jobs are attended to; husbands march off to work, and wives (many of them) stay home, mixing in the child-free hours intervals of mindless Web surfing with determined spurts of house cleaning or the administration of various financial or other affairs. Weekends explode with laughter and tequila and serious talks of football teams and furniture and the water requirements of different grasses for lawns. Gossip breezes in and out and never ventures past what so-and-so three houses down is up to, or whether Nancy got too drunk or Mario blurted that he’s only with Sandra because of the kids, or that the Stearns’ dog keeps getting out and barking at Josh as he’s leaving for work.

Finding oneself deep in Texas Suburbia is like venturing past a cultural event horizon, where no information of broader interest can be transmitted. All is local, immediate, and desperately uninteresting to any poor sap who wanders in without first a proper period of acclimation. Conversational priorities are codified in game-like, deterministic, if unspoken rules, like rock-paper-scissors: Concrete beats abstract. Local beats remote. Ergo, the concept of “education” is a non-starter. But discussion of various events at a particular grade or middle school might carry folks past midnight. The principal at Winkley Elementary ignites discussion, a city-wide matter (like the mayor’s election) earns a friendly chat, a state-wide issue (like the state budget, or state senate affairs) a smattering of cautious remarks. Once outside the borders of Texas, though, all is necessarily perfunctory, if discussed at all. Offer up an issue of, say, international interest, like the destabilization of the Middle East, and you’ll get awkward, reserved, cooky-cutter responses that, if captured on paper, would not seem out of place inscribed with a crayon.

Yet, nowhere can one find such vast repositories of information on matters local and trivial. Discussion about potholes (there was a particularly deep and nasty one just down our street, caused by one of the custom home builders’ heavy equipment, no doubt), might last the entire second half of a football game, if one includes related stories. Gossip about a neighbor (one of our neighbors scolded another neighbor’s kid, for instance) might begin and end a get-together (if not by admission of those participating, by observation of any bored fool present who was not). This self-serving vapidness of upper middle class suburbia is everywhere, I imagine. In Texas, it’s Texas-sized.

But counteracting the existential nightmare of finding oneself trapped in such a web is the baser but entirely pleasant and mostly satisfactory realization that tequila, fajitas, cold beer and high definition football prop up the damaged spirit and coax one from week to week with only vague comprehension that life itself is passing by. Like a fish plucked from deep oceans of knowledge and deposited on the dry rotten planks of a junk, one will flop and flounder for a spell, but retreating not to nihilism but to a smiling numbness offers hope that the months and years will pass without great incident, and the possibility of eventual release can give quiet solace. Some may worry that such resignation will prove permanent, but for thinking types this outcome I’m convinced is not likely. Few people, knowing the treasure and majesty of the broader world, would embrace lengthy compromise of this sort in plain view of opportunities to the contrary. So then, fear not. Wait for such an opportunity. And in the meantime, Voilà! To Jimmy! The time passes by.