April 07, 2005

Split-level life

After touring two of the major cities of South Africa and their environs, I have been pondering suburbia, the land where my parents chose to move when I was of school age. In retrospect, my unhappiness apart, they choose the town wisely.

I lived in one of about three Westchester communities that was legitimately "diverse," as the word is now used. It had a wide socioeconomic mix as an entire entity. Regardless of color, our own neighborhoods consisted, in the first house, of very middle class families; in the second, or "new" house, the families were more established, with more money.

The schools we attended were integrated, overly representative of Jews (about 50% in my elementary school in the tri-state area, where schools are closed for Jewish holy days and have been since I was a child in 1965), with about 25% minority children and about 20% a mix of Catholic and Protestant offspring.

It never seemed fair that the Catholic kids got to leave school an hour early on Wednesdays for "religious instruction," while the Jewish kids had to put in their time after school hours -- Hebrew school for the more observant, and Sunday school, for the Jews like me, who still don't know the major rituals of religious life. Protestants were a distinct minority.

Ours was not the Westchester suburb of white flight, neither 40 years ago or now. Most of the towns surrounding ours were much smaller and much more inclined to be 98% white, and homogeneously upper-middle class.

The first house (herein referred to as "the old house") was one of about 40 in this particular 1950s development. The builder had two models: the side-to-side split level, or the front-to-back split level. We lived in the latter, which had cathedral ceilings and afforded considerably more privacy than did the other model. But was that suburbia?

When I was six, the barn belonging to the house across the street burned down. Also across the street was an unused, uninhabited red-painted one-room schoolhouse. Three houses down the road, our neighbors bred horses.

About a ten-minute walk from the old house was our commercial intersection: 2 gas stations, a bank, a liquor store, a drug store, the corner store (where we got groceries if no one had taken the car to the supermarket), and MilkMaid, our local hamburger joint where I went weekly with my best friend after sleeping over at her house. (Her mother was the president of a local college, so the housekeeper, Missouri, was mostly in charge, and didn't have hard-and-fast rules the way my parents did. We could stay up all night and eat ice cream, if we wanted.)

On Saturdays, my friend's parents would make us do a couple of chores around the house -- polishing brass door-knockers is what I remember -- then her dad would give us $1 each for lunch. En route to MilkMaid, we passed my house, where we hit my dad up for $1 each -- the idea being that I was going to treat. In any case, by the time we got to the restaurant, we had more than enough cash for two solid meals, with dessert and money left over.

The town was known, in the pre-mall days as now, for its shopping -- Saks, B.Altman's, Alexander's, Macy's and Sears were the main draw. We only went to Saks and Altman's, since my mother refused to pay for parking the car. (Yes, logically, the other stores were less expensive, but that was beside the point. Parking money came from her household allowance; store purchases were charged to our accounts and paid for by my father.)

In sixth grade, I hemmed my girl scout uniform very short, so it wouldn't show under my winter coat, which I refused to take off in public places like MilkMaid. I never was a fan of uniforms, at least not for myself.

That was the year we moved to "the new house." The new house was part of a tiny development -- perhaps six to eight houses, all different -- with a stable half a mile up the street. Until the trees were knocked down to build our house, the land had been completely wooded, and much of the mile-and-a-half-wide circle (and its entire interior) on which we lived remained wooded. My brother walked to his riding lessons. I waited for the junior high school bus watching the horses get their morning exercise.

Both houses were located in what previously were individual estates: you could pick the original house out of the split-level or Colonial lineup. The original homes were always huge, and, if the owners hadn't sold all of the property, there were occasional outbuildings as well, mostly in deep decay, ready to give themselves back to the wooded land that had preceded them.

On the other hand, not ten minutes away by car, was some semblance of a downtown, including an IBM office building on Main Street. I was not allowed unsupervised trips "downtown" until the seventh grade.

Within two years, I was allowed to go to "the city," as we called the place of my birth, with friends. Within that same stretch of time, my mother decided I could wear jeans to school. In elementary school, I wore a dress or a skirt every day of my life, even after the official "dress code" had been dropped.

This all occurred in the early 1970s, when our junior high school teachers took us on a "field trip" to see "urban renewal." In retrospect I think how embarrassing it must have been for the primarily black and Hispanic children who lived in that section of town. What the school saw as a perfectly logical outing in fact underlined our differences more than anything else could have. No one ever went to my neighborhood on a field trip.

These days, when I see the city vs. suburb debate as a huge issue for parents, whether on blogs or in my office, I think about the schizophrenic nature of my split-level life. I think about car pools, as well as the endless waiting for my mother to pick me up or drop me off at any lesson or party or school. I wonder how horse-farming lived not ten minutes from urban poverty.

I know the stables on the "new house" street have long since been turned into expensive houses, that the woods where I smoked are no more, and I know I am grateful that I do not live there anymore.


Blogger the dot said...

You make life where you grew up sound so beautiful. Makes me want to pack up and move right there.

4:16 PM  

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