I SPENT THE FIRST FIVE YEARS of my life in a big city and got used to the kind of daily existence where you didn’t have to go far to find fulfilment. My parents and I lived in Hammersmith, in a Peabody housing association flat with square sash windows and nineteenth-century bricks an elegant shade of sand. They re-tarmacked the estate the summer I learned to cycle, the summer before we left, and the clean dark-grey surface felt smooth and good under my wheels. In the tiny garden between Blocks E and F, sunflowers wobbled twice as tall as me. Our neighbours kept basil and lemon mint in pots on the landing windowsill and my bedroom walls were pale terracotta. I was the best at maths in my class at school. From the balcony of my great-aunt’s council flat I counted tube trains clattering in and out of Hammersmith station, and when I rode the top deck of the bus, the city belonged to me. And then my brother was born, and we moved to the suburbs.
Something about suburbia seems the same wherever you are in the world. You feel adrift, anonymous, a sensation characteristic of what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls ‘non-places’. Non-places are in-between places, devoid of organic society and history: supermarkets, televisions, motorways, identikit housing developments, shopping centres, car parks. Non-places eschew identity for transience, homogeneity, and cold anonymity. And they also happen to form many of the building blocks of suburbia.
I spent the first five years of my life in a city. I spent the next nineteen adrift in suburbia. Then I moved to America for a year.
There’s a Bruce Springsteen deep cut I listen to a lot during my first few months in America. In Frankie’s opening riffs I see the hot open hills of a northern Californian summer, blue sky and sun intensifying the green of palm trees. The song has come to represent the stunned giddiness of embracing a new continent, of seeking identity in a space of suffused light.
Springsteen wrote Frankie in the late seventies after Born to Run, but the song wasn’t gritty enough for the record that became Darkness on the Edge of Town and has floated about his back catalogue ever since. Yet despite Frankie’s major chords and promise of freedom, you sense from the first line — ‘dark weekends in the sun’ — the idyll is an illusion. The song’s suburban perspective reveals the bleak anodyne restrictions of small-town existence.
California’s idyll is rarely an illusion for me. But the summer after UC Berkeley I live out transitory mini-lives in different American cities, from Los Angeles to Brooklyn to Philadelphia to Chicago. And this is when I really begin to notice that in suburban America, ordinary moments feel like the movies. Maybe it’s because my cultural diet is largely American, and I’m experiencing nostalgia for films and shows I watched as a child. Ordinary life feels like the movies, because I saw it in the movies first. Or maybe it’s because I am a stranger in a foreign land, and so all my senses are heightened, just as in front of a swallow-you-whole cinema screen. Or, maybe, there’s a deeper cultural comment to be made on the artificiality of film and the artificiality of so much of American life, from architecture to food to music to the freeway, and all the non-places in between.
The days reach their filmic peak in the evenings, when shadows crane into an imminent sunset and the light is long and lambent. At dusk the stars all appear on the screen, Bruce sings in Frankie. A teenage boy in a tangerine jumper curves past on a bicycle in suburban Chicago and gazes back, and my eye films those seconds in slow motion: the long sweep of the handlebars, the sight of him shrinking, still looking back at me. A lick of Dodger blue ice-cream on the sidewalk. A brick wall painted orange by the dipping sun. The filmic feeling lingers on suburban streets, where you’ll probably pass a vintage car rusting in front of a trellised tract home, and where there’s no room, among the identical buildings and rectangles of lawn, for any unpredictability.
What I hadn’t realised before I came to Chicago is that the city consists mostly of suburbs. These neighbourhoods are so doggedly gridded you only ever travel in perpendiculars. It’s good for figuring your way around, but there’s a bleakness in the unending streets, an arid regularity I’d not sensed before, even though most of urban and suburban America is gridded. Suburban Chicago, though heavily built up with tract homes and well-served by bus and subway, feels prairie-like, the same summer-bleached, picket-fenced square repeated over and over, identical vanishing points in every direction, a landscape of incessancy. It’s tenuous to draw comparisons between wilderness and suburbia, but that’s how it feels. And yet in its sterility, this suburbia also fits Augé’s descriptions of a non-place. Running is boring here. Straight lines and squares.
Sometimes I drive, sometimes I ride a Greyhound bus for twenty hours, but often I fly between these brief mini-lives, these American cities. And when I’m in a US airport, I’m in another of Augé’s non-places. Yet though blank-gazed and homogenous, airports contain all the extremes of emotion that non-places normally deny. Airports only exist in the present moment, hubs of impermanence, lacking historical or social ties to their location. Random cross-sections of society cluster to await the unnatural compression of time and place, the alarming hurtle through the air, too high and too fast. A friend once described airports as spaces of simulated control. Schopenhauer has this aphorism about goodbyes being a foretaste of death, the friend typed in an email, while reunions gives us a hint of resurrection, a sudden moment of immortality. Just spending a few minutes in the arrival hall of any airport seems to confirm this.
Because for all the smooth glass surfaces, the floors cleaned before they’re dirty, the overpriced bars, the endless corridors and escalators, there are always people running to gates, kissing, or crying, or both, swallowing or ignoring the fact they’re about to toss their body thousands of metres into the sky. Though spaces of transience, airports are host to a more permanent pattern of behaviour. The sterile control of the environment masks a messy emotional reality. An airport’s propositions as a place — the scene of painful goodbyes and earnest encounters with strangers, the mode of transport that seems anti-survival — create this realm of emotional intensity that fades as soon as you’re back on the dull firm ground of real life. Airports are kind of like a temporary heart, I write back.
On my last full day in America I make a pilgrimage to Springsteen’s hometown. Freehold, New Jersey on a misty August day is just like how he describes in his autobiography, but without the stark paint of my own imagination. The suburban town feels unexpectedly rural. The cracked grey lunar landscape I’d pictured reading Born To Run better suits urban Brooklyn. Freehold sits in late summer verdancy, belonging to rolling fields and country roads just as much as it belongs to the factories and parking lots of Bruce’s songs. Rain pulls the breath of nearby factories over houses and streets like a light blanket: the air smells gently of coffee and hops, an aroma not unpleasant but almost un-placeable. I can’t tell if I’m experiencing my own suburban nostalgia or Bruce’s.
Freehold is not unlike any American or English suburb in its small-town materials, its cropped lawns and chain stores, garages and industrial estates, ringed by highways, home to the 9–5 slog and the girl you’ll dance with then settle down with, relinquishing your dreams of the wider world. I guess it takes somebody like Bruce Springsteen to illumine the colour amid the faceless grey, the slight but significant details that constitute an individual life, an identity. Just like Chicago’s suburbs, and the London suburbs I did most of my growing up in, Freehold is a non-place, but it’s also tinted with my dreams and those of everybody else who lives in these kinds of places: dreams about home, dreams that determine the temporariness of your heart.
Over those twelve American months, I flew further and more frequently than my five-year -old self could ever comprehend. Yet I was often suspended by the same suburban feeling that confronted me when I left Peabody’s terracotta walls and sunflowers. Suburbs are the same wherever you go. There will always be the churches and statues, the places of organic history and society Augé believes constitute real identity. But when you exist in the suburbs, you bounce between non-places too. You feel shapeless, your identity constantly in question in ways it never is in the immediacy of a city. A suburb’s wider, younger distances warrant the transience of airports and train stations, not double decker buses and museums and faces and history just down the road.
In Frankie’s suburbia, the singer hustles through the glow of nightlights, searching for identity, wondering if he’ll find nothing at all, or a world he can call his own, call his home. But like Augé says, in that suburban, ephemeral landscape of non-places, ‘people are always, and never, at home’.