Lost in the Suburban Jungle

Today I find myself in Coppell, by way of Plano, Richardson, and a brief detour into Garland. There is a certain eye appeal to upscale communities with their immaculate landscaping and uniform brick and stone construction of everything from Wal-Mart to gas stations, but at the back of it is something menacing. I feel that I am in a science fiction novel, waiting for the dystopia to manifest itself.

Of course I am not in the best of moods because I got horribly lost this morning. Anyone familiar with this area, as I am not, will understand my difficulty when I say that I did not realize that Highway 190 and the President George Bush Turnpike are one and the same thing. (I sure understand it now.) I spent about half an hour in confusion and futility, pondering the annihilation of space, and how little good it does you when you don’t know where you are going, before finally getting my son to his brown belt workout very late indeed. I traversed distances this morning that would have taken many days’ marches for characters in a fantasy novel. If you were to try to negotiate the area on foot, striking out like Frodo and Sam heading to Crickhollow, you would find no Black Riders as such, but you might well be run down by a luxury SUV. Crepe Myrtles and carpet grass you would find in abundance, and decorative mulch and manicured hedges, but no fruit trees, no nuts in the hedgerows, no edible growing thing of any kind.

It seems to be all highways around here—thoroughfares with five lanes to a side, intersecting each other by mysterious means hinted at by cryptic signs, and given deceptive alternate names to confound the outsider.

Maybe it’s the effect of knowing what the neighborhoods are like, but the people here in this Starbucks all look affluent, even dressed for exercise as most of them are. The racerback exercise tops, the little Spandex shorts, the purses, the haircuts, the backpacks, all have an inescapable, indefinable rich-person look. The people themselves are tanned, fit, coifed, bejeweled, educated, polished. And I feel like shouting a warning . . . only I don’t know what it would be. I feel that something that hates humankind is on its way to take over the planet.

I have only just realized that I am sitting in the kiddy corner. I chose this spot because it had a plug, but it also has a chalkboard and child-sized table and chairs. I have a companion now, a boy of about five, sporting affluent clothes and an affluent haircut, drinking a sort of box of prepackaged organic chocolate milk.

And now he’s gone again, perhaps to be ferried off to some sort of lesson or sport. The children of the affluent usually have a lot of structured activities, as observed by Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, Outliers, and indeed by anyone who pays attention. I cannot feel that this is an altogether good thing. These children may, or may not, be learning skills that may translate into future marketplace success, but they are losing the free association, the creative thought and play, that can occur only during large stretches of down time.

I feel that I am doing a poor job of describing what is, after all, a widely observed thing. And I feel a little nauseated. I keep remembering a photo I saw recently in a history book, of a post-WW II suburban neighborhood in the making. Its gridlike structure was ominously suggestive of a microchip. I know that these neighborhoods represented social and economic security to many of those for whom World War II and the Great Depression were recent memories, but the regularity, the conformity, fill me with horror.

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