The suburbs dream of violence.
Bienvenido to the first book review for the Beast...sort of. Rather than review the entirety of comedian/writer/man-boobed social critic Patton Oswalt’s hilarious Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, we decided to review exactly three pages of it. That’s right, three. Why? Because it is a remarkable set piece within a larger set piece. Titled “The Victory Tour,” the chapter mostly concerns Oswalt’s nightmarish trip to Canada as a nascent standup comic and the giant sloppy hero sandwich of disrespect he experienced at the hands of a coke-addled club owner, a phalanx of bowling-ball-with-ears audiences and other, more “popular” hacky comics. This in itself is no big whoop – tales of comedy club or rock club dregs are quite rote (see David Cross’ DVD Let America Laugh, although Cross is kind of a dick in it and somewhat deserves the sorry predicaments he finds himself in), but what sets Oswalt’s account apart is that he doesn’t just jump from indignity to indignity, he actually talks about the lonely down time a comedian (or any entertainer going on after 8pm) experiences between insults and abuse, usually spent in arid, emotionless hotel rooms or wandering strange neighborhoods during the day. Here is a sample of Oswalt’s interior/exterior experience:
This is my first of two days off. No show in the evening. Nowhere to be. I’m waking up in a hotel in a still-strange town, not knowing anyone. Theoretically, I could wake, live my day, and fall back asleep without ever once uttering a word….I want to pretend like I’m a truly silent drifter…So I head east (I think) through the suburbs. It’s 12:30 in the afternoon, and there’s a pudgy stranger in an over coat walking the streets of your neighborhood, Surrey [a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia]. Head down, brooding, pasty from starches, and blinking in the sunshine. The Dave Clark Five’s “Because” starts playing in my head. It’s a song I often think of in the middle of the day in an empty suburban street. There’s something accidentally sinister under the gliding organ and falling vocal harmonies of that song. Whenever I hear it, I think of the words ‘daytime menace.’ For instance, what if someone were peering at me right now, through the curtains, the inside of their house dark and still—maybe they’re manic-depressive. And they look outside and see me, the personification of a defeated sigh wrapped in an overcoat, trudging along the uneven sidewalk. I’d call the police if it were me. That’s what always stayed with me, growing up in the suburbs—any outdoor activity can be viewed from dozens of curtained windows. Am I missing some hidden, nurturing vibration, under Surrey’s streets? Can only the insane hear it?
I’ve had many walks like the one he describes, through the eerie and landscaped fjords of the modern suburban experience, what Norman Mailer once described as “nature as an outdoor hospital” (or, as a character in a play called Suburbia referred to as “This tarpit of stupidity we’re all stuck in.”) I find them boring while I’m wandering through them yet fascinated and endlessly thinking about them when I’m not. Sometimes I stare at the endless black-glass eyes of a thousand seemingly empty homes and feel some sort of existential dread. Part of it is being over-educated (no, literally being in school too long) and squinting too hard to see overlapping maps of meaning in their creamy-green lawns and well-defined zoning.
But another part of is satiation with about 25-plus years of reading about the sleepy evils and subterranean mind rot of places like Sandalwood Lane or Whispering Stork Way, in Cheever, in Thomas Berger, in Grace Metalious, not to mention seeing them on TV (Desperate Housewives, Doing Time on Maple Drive, Crime and Punishment in Suburbia) or movies (American Beauty, The Ice Storm, The Virgin Suicides), hearing them on headphones (Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers," The Eurythmics’ Savage) and a plethora of concept albums about urban sprawl like Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish and last-year’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs from The Arcade Fire (escapees all from a similar Canadian suburbia that Oswalt stumbled through). Oswalt even admits as he tromps to a nearby shopping mall that he’s been so inundated with the evils of such places that “pretentious assholes like me…go to the mall to watch people, as if we’re going to discover some hilarious new revelation or angle no one’s hit upon before. George Romero covered it in Dawn of the Dead, but that doesn’t stop me from entering, observing, and judging.”
In looking at an innocuous setting with an innocuous pop song in his head, Oswalt hits upon the very terror of innocuousness. When The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl writes about “the ocean of interminable American afternoons,” he is writing about the peculiarity of the suburban mindspace, where he imagines “the droning, sheer duration of days in suburban neighborhoods in mild climates, an immensity laced with a familiar terror: boredom, our foretaste of being dead. Nothing can happen there. Or something can—a family of four pauses beside a station wagon, whose predictability makes matters worse.”
Recently, I took a walk though a Midwestern ‘hood that lasted a lot longer than I would have planned, but the flurry of thoughts about these peculiar spaces in our life echoed that of Mr. O. Here’s what I wrote down with my numb arm when I got home:
You wake up, let’s say, on a bright gray Wednesday, tangled amongst the blankets; outside is silent, save for the sound of a vacuum cleaner, birds, a car alarm from far away. It’s the kind of vault-like silence that itself is like a thick tangled blanket. You brew your coffee and watch shadows of the tree branch with every leaf perfectly in place dance on the crosscut Formica of the kitchen counter. Something is moaning beyond the glass. You decide not to switch on the digital cable box this time.
You get dressed and go down to the street. Things seem so calm and clarified in the sodium-hued sun. I walk and try to weave myself into the thread of humdrum everyday life, the areas of urban sprawl. There are endless complaints that they erase the identities of individual communities, that they are turning this country into one flat strip of insurance companies in buildings shaped like small manors, of tiny bank branches and furniture showrooms, of the cold neon humming in the same red signs over a parking lot while everything else is dark. A whole world lit by neon signs that are the only sign of life when there is no life left and all of it has gone home. The cities themselves are abandoned for the manicure of lawns and the rectangular divisions of business routes.
But I find these urban sprawl areas—pure and honest in their functions—kind of comforting. How can I describe it? Yes, there are those obnoxious restaurants with automobiles sticking out of their roofs and staffed with young people with a need to serve their customers bordering on the hysterical (“If it were up to me you’d have those buffalo wings by now!!!!”); yes, there's the grey-carpeted baldness of AAA offices, of law offices, of dentists offices, of physicians’ offices, all tuned to the same station, all inspiring the same dialogue.
To look at suburbia we must first look at the single directive of such zones: pure business. That’s it. The familiarization with product names, signifiers of American business buildings in perfect lawn oases with their slightly indented letters across the side as if speeding by: Westinghouse, Oster, Insinkerator, Kohler. The crackling of the signs at night. The hum of the bank vaults. The preset lighting of auto showrooms. Simple and true. Not a plastic bag or dirty diaper or scrap of paper blowing across those equally shorn blades of grass, those cut areas of perfect green sea between the malls and their satellites. The grass in its uniformity of purpose and every green blade pointing the same way, not an anthill or weed in sight, the differences eliminated. It looks fake and hyper-real at the same time.
"Suburbia" by Leonard Koscianski (2001)
Suburbia does not need signs like city parks saying ‘Don’t step on the grass’; nobody does anyway. People come and go in cars and there is no reason to even think of walking on the grass. The grass connects the lots and industrial parks to the cul-de-sacs and village greens of Home. They are meals prepared so expertly as not to be eaten, to just be looked at, no ‘Keep Off’ signs are needed because it just doesn’t FEEL right to trod on them, and if you did your feet would sink into the green and would be rather cumbersome to walk, one might even slip and get a good embarrassing splash of mint up one’s trousers or smeared clippings on one’s forearm. There are no sidewalks, which makes the well-trained uneasy, why even walk where there are no sidewalks? And who wants to hike across such an expanse unless it was a golf green? Besides the flow of cars going to and from the HomeMart or Pier One or SaveCo would see you, a lone figure tromping on the beautiful green, looking as out of place as a clown shoe in Macy’s. You are an adult trying to be a borderless child and cut across neighbors’ lawns, but it doesn’t feel right. You can’t walk in the street. So you need a car to hide in. To merge with the others coming and going in an endless circle from Home to the Mall.
There is no surprise in these spaces. That red car will always be parked there and you can rely on that because the whole damn continental plates are shifting and colliding underneath you, but the concrete parking lots and the sturdy buildings with their delivery trucks and dumpsters and at the edge a grove of trees with flurries of gnats keeping their distance, the orderliness of order, the smell of a garden center, the rows and rows of swag in the drugstores, the mouthwatering array of paper products and pens in the office supply store, the wide gaping maw of electronics all turned on at once—they all stand tall and strong and unchanging. Wars fought in this world and the bloodshed and endless exchange of blame would end at the entrance to the parking lot, generals and soldiers would lay down their weapons and slowly be absorbed into the showrooms and the department stores and the air-conditioned calm and the sweet smell of merchandise that will never rot and the subtlety of the kind of humming normality only known to the housewife. Names on tags become old friends and the men are at work and the children are at school and the April sun shines on the rows of parked cars and off the rows of hair dryers at the Beauty Bee. All business.
At night though the collective roar of the neon signs are enough to squeeze out sparks in the stiff air; the whisper of surfaces stating, ‘Find me.’ Cars cut across the empty parking lots that are clearly marked with white lines, and when this happens see how cars that break free of white paint always are in danger of colliding. People need the lines, and when they jump outside of them, even in stadium-sized parking lots, where there is plenty of empty space, and plenty of horizon to spot anything coming your way. Yet jag out of the lines and soon you will be nose to nose with another automobile who decided the same thing: conflict despite all that space.
I walk past the mall at closing time and I stare so intently at this uniformity that my eyes water. It’s a particularly hallucinogenic experience, staring at the geometric perfection of a newly mown lawn until the green shag morphed into whirling pylons and gears and switches all chugging with an underwater sort of factory-ness precision; conversely, staring at the spires of a cathedral, or the brown monolith walls of the University Hospital or the shiny faces of a Business Park, I imagined them festooned with hanging kudzu vines and Bougainvillea and wisteria, morphing into giant teeming forests.
The object of suburban sameness is supposed to hide things like chaos and disorder and rebellion—yet, it winds up underscoring the very possibilities it hides. I think of the following as an example:
Fourteen years ago this week, on Friday, March 21, 2011, a party of 39 people arrived at a Marie Callendar’s restaurant at 5980 Avenida Encinas in the town of Carlsbad, California, about a half an hour north of San Diego. The pilgrims, led by a dying man named Marshall Applewhite, chose these suburban astral planes to be their Last Supper. A Marie Callendar’s of all places, with the swirled logo, the neat parking spots arranged in row around a birthday cake-like structure. The blue marked handicapped spots, always plenty of those. They were all dressed alike in short pageboy haircuts and flowing tunics and ordered identical meals of salad, turkey pot pies, iced tea and blueberry cheesecake. All of them lived at the same address: 18241 Colina Norte Drive in the moneyed suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. They were polite and happy and seemed almost celebratory; the 24-year-old waiter found them extremely pleasant to serve and when he inquired as to where they were from they made silly jokes like “From the car!” or “All over!” They were all smiles and polite laughter, grasping each other’s hands, fluffy fruit pie pictures on their placemats, tulips with plastic buds of water clinging to their plastic petals, soothing acoustic guitar music lulling them to a sort of pre-sleep, don’t eat too much wink wink, we have applesauce for dessert, everyone laughs. They stacked their dishes neatly and gave the boy a $26 tip on a $531 meal. When they left, the waiter shook all of their hands as they left the restaurant.
This leaves the waiter walking to his car with a spring in his step, reaffirmed in his belief of human nature to constantly surprise. If only all his customers could be like those beautiful people who smiled all through dinner and thanked him over and over for the water he poured and the straws he produced from his apron. If only everyone could be like them, he might have thought, I felt blessed by their presence. They should take it on the road and visit all of the restaurants in this national chain so she could confirm with the other miserable waiters and waitresses that these were people who shot something contagious into your veins and made you ready to serve Cobb Salads from now until doomsday. With a smile.
Six days later, all 39 diners were dead in the largest mass suicide in the United States. "It was a celebration," the waiter told a local paper. "It was the last time they were going to be together."