Our new neighborhood is a network of quiet residential streets that was founded in the 1950s. Many of the homes are split-levels, like ours, and there’s a modest middle class feel to the place. Newish Hondas, Toyotas, and Fords in most driveways—nothing fancier than that. The lawns are neat but not fetishized. The speed limit on our street is 25mph. It takes some concentration to adhere to it, but I’ve tried hard on account of wanting to make a good impression on our neighbors.
Speaking of our neighbors, we met most of them over Labor Day weekend thanks to Jay, who’s wandered our block with complete disregard to property lines and personal space. On Saturday our immediate neighbor Rick was out shoveling leaves that had accumulated against the curb. Jay ran over and commandeered Rick’s blue shovel. For twenty minutes he scooped street debris and tried with half-success to dump it into Rick’s compost bin, while Rick and I talked about our move and his family’s recent driving vacation through New England.
We had a similar encounter when Jay ran across the street to help an older woman named Ellie weed her garden, and when he ran into the garage next door in pursuit of a 9-year-old-boy named Kurt who’d just pedaled home on his bike, and when he followed 6-year-old Megan who was out with her mom on their way to a yard sale. A toddler, it turns out, is as good for meeting your suburban neighbors as a puppy is for getting a date in Central Park.
Jay and Wally are the junior members of the block, and it appears that Caroline and I are too. There are some empty-nesters, retirees, and widowers sprinkled about. All the parents we’ve met are in their 40s, with elementary or middle school-aged children. Caroline and I are not all that far away from that stage of life ourselves, but I guess my self-image hasn’t caught up with reality: I see a Dad with a beard and a paunch standing before a garage filled with tools and recreational equipment and I don’t feel much closer to being that person now than I did when I was 10.
It may be taking me and Caroline some time to get our legs under us, but Jay has taken eagerly to our new surroundings. He still can’t get over the fact that our car, which was often parked blocks away in Philadelphia and which he only saw every few weeks, is now parked right outside his front door. He wants to play in it all the time, opening and closing the doors, announcing that he’s “going to the supermarket to buy fruit bars,” turning the flashers on and off.
And he’s not exactly a “leave no trace” kind of visitor. Last night I had to run out to buy milk. I got in the car and found the driver’s seat in the complete recline position and the rearview mirror pointing down towards the ground, and when I turned the ignition it was like a carnival come to life: radio blaring, wipers going full speed, a sleeping toddler’s masterwork.
Jay seems like a good fit for the suburbs in other ways, too. For example, he seems inclined to keep tabs on other people. Last night at dinner he was sitting in his booster seat telling a story, “I made a circle with a marker and I use the yellow paper make a card for Mama and I saw a squirrel,” when all of a sudden he whipped his head towards the window.
“What’s that?” he exclaimed, pointing his finger towards the street.
We turned and looked. It was neighbor Tom going out for a drive. (And after dark no less!)
Before we left Philadelphia I was talking with my good friend Rob about what the transition might be like for Jay. He made an observation I liked, which was that because so much of Jay’s world is Caroline, Oscar, and me, it’s relatively easy for him to transplant his life into a new place. After a week here, I’ve found the relationship runs both ways. There are times, when I’m running after him down the sidewalk to keep him out of our neighbor’s flowerbeds, or I’m cajoling him into the bathtub, that life doesn’t feel much different than it did a month ago.
But there are other times when it does. Last night I read Jay two books, put him in his crib, and then went downstairs to the kitchen to wash the dinner dishes. I was scrubbing a pot when I looked out the window above the sink. It was dark and drizzly outside, and I was seized with the feeling that I didn’t know where I was.