Suburban Birthdays

Just remembered to write a message to a friend saying “Sorry I forgot your birthday”. Man that sounds like something that would be on this website some e cards Don't forget to say Sorry I Forgot Your Birthday this year! I should at least call him up, shouldn't I? This is one of my close friends. I'm always kinda happy when people forget my birthday. Not in a Sixteen Candles way--where everyone forgets--but I like the sense that I am off the hook for other people, which reminds me of a non-acknowledgement clause a few friends and I once signed saying we agreed not to be offended if our birthdays were forgotten. 

Do people with anniversaries expect acknowledgment from friends on that date? I can't imagine that anyone would, but maybe I'm just a real jerk when it comes to that stuff. Do people send other people cards for their anniversaries or are those only something you buy for your partner? My ignorance doesn’t simply stem from the fact that I’m not married myself. It really goes back to my parents’ lack of emphasis on occasions. We mostly just trade “IOUs” back and forth, year after year. It’s more environmentally and financially sustainable than real gift-giving. And the person usually gets (an IOU for) something he or she really wants. I recently found a pile of money IOUs in my little cash drawer from when I was a kid. These weren't gifts, but just my parents borrowing money. They owe me several hundred dollars at least. Then again, they can always say it's sort of a wash compared to the $100,000 they had to shell out for Dartmouth. (A former boss of mine used to say that it was okay to underpay British vendors for books because they came here and bought nice clothes on 5th Avenue since the pound was stronger than the dollar. He'd do this thing where he'd wave his arms back and forth, one over the other, and say, "It all washes out".) 

Maybe part of my problem is I'm just not remembering things anymore.  I used to have a fantastic memory for dates. It surprised people at first and I think aggravated them after a while. Not every day has to be related back to what happened on that day last year and the year before that like a weather forecast. Outside the possibility that weather patterns are being influenced by human activity– global warming, the whole fact of the ozone layer wasting away– the record high temperature on this exact date last year is not particularly interesting to other people, has no real place in conversation.
The dates that stand out for me are generally not tied to universal turning points like birthdays, New Years, or the end of the school year. Nor are those seared into memory usually the record of high drama. They are usually instead the moments when circumstances converged to create an almost deliriously strong sense of looming possibility. So I can remember the weather really precisely. I can remember how it felt.

That same friend, whose birthday I missed, came to visit New York recently. He talked about it being the center. That he feels outside where he is (Hanover, New Hampshire), that life is passing him by. That is a comfort, here, in New York. I do feel here always at the center of things. Like even if you don't really go to all the Spanish New Wave rooftop film festivals and bamboo exhibits, you still feel you are a part of things. I really don't know how you ever leave New York, no matter how much you may grow to hate it. I don't know how you get over every other place on earth just about, save London or Hong Kong, feeling like a ghost town. 

In that adorable New Hampshire town we went to for Halloween we discussed dinner options for after the corn maze: there was one pizza place we could go to. The other restaurant was closed, it being a Sunday. Otherwise we could buy things at the supermarket and cook back at the house. We chose the latter. I always forget about the down side of small towns. Back in Massachusetts the following week my dad and I went out to eat one night while my mom stayed with Wally. We had to call around to see what restaurant would be open past 9 and decided on Lotus Blossom, a beautiful, popular place that feels like a country inn. We were the only ones there. Too late at night (9:30). Ghost town. Not to mention going out for Chinese in the burbs feels borderline irresponsible. (But the place is really good.)

I grew up in the suburbs and honestly can't imagine anything I like better. (Then why don't you move back there? The problem of how to leave New York. You sound insane. I know.) I think I'm the only person on earth who idealizes strip malls and boredom to such a degree. Yet my parents didn't mean to be there and I think always thought they'd leave. That, like in the song, they'd go back to New York City when they believed they'd had enough. During the summer after high school my friends and I often sat on the back porch of my condo listening to Visions of Johanna through the windows and sometimes slipping down in the dark to jump in the neighborhood pool after hours. Sometimes my next door neighbor Leslie would catch us there and tell us we had to get out. She was the town's Driver's Ed teacher so she had a bit of small-town clout. "Rules is rules" she'd say. "The pool is closed." It closed at 9. By 11 all the houses in the neighborhood would be dark. We'd go back to my porch and turn the stereo on again or drive down to Dunkin' Donuts or the Pool Hall. Where else was there to go? Nowhere. And that's how I liked it. In the Dylan song, Johanna is a lost lover. For us it was childhood. Some of my friends were excited for the next phase of life. To me it all seemed so cruel.


One evening in June after college ended I was sitting on the back porch at home and asked my dad if he ever imagined he’d end up in a place like that where people sat there stranded and all did their best to deny it. At night he says he still dreams of Coney Island in the 50’s when even if you walked the boardwalk the whole five-miles from Seagate to the far end of Brighton Beach, you couldn't find a place among the crowds to put your towel down on the sand. Talk about being in the center of things.

"Never, never thought I'd end up here." I caught the momentary disappointment, surprise undone by years of resignation, but also the wonder.  He had been twenty-two once as well, set adrift after college, eyes wide and swollen, with no direction home.  He’d had grand ambitions that could never take their place among the exigencies of the everyday.  He looked at the plain backyard that had mesmerized me so many summer evenings, but looked further than the houses as well, beyond it, into the past, and past it.


New York feels more hopeful these days. The amazing things and infuriating things balance each other, equally as strong. They're all awash sometimes, canceling each other and converging into another chance to begin. A new blank page, no matter how many terrible rough drafts. We always live here in that sense of possibility, that anticipatory moment. Almost, not really, but sort of like a muted version of the way birthday mornings used to feel as a kid. 

Birthdays weren't always traded IOUs that cancelled each other out. Sometimes they were cranberry-walnut muffins waiting on the table just for me, my orange cat in the windowsill, me creeping down the stairs alone in pajamas, the smell of fresh-cut grass, that brand-new-world feeling of the earth finally tilting back toward the sun. A ten-speed bike on my 10th birthday propped up in the dining room. That overflowing, overjoyful, unbearable sense of adventure. Just screaming, "I can't believe it, I can't believe it, I can't believe it" over and over again until you do. And even then, you still don't. Yet once I jumped on that bike--where did I go? Looping around that little neighborhood. And that itself was way more than I could ever have asked for. Magical birthdays like that--sometimes it's easier to forget them, too.  It just makes it all too concise and too clear.


  1. Not sure everyone knows the song, Rach. Last line might not make sense.

  2. How about this line from High Fidelity: "You don't have it? That is perverse. Don't tell anybody you don't own f*king Blonde on Blonde. It's gonna be okay."

  3. whether in the suburbs or in NYC, those moments like when you got your bike....these make up the American childhood we are so blessed in this country to have. Well-written...

  4. I also idolize the suburbs, but mostly for the ability to drive everywhere. Also want to go but don't know how to leave NYC, and if we can, even though I think I secretly hate it. At least almost everyone who's awesome lives here. By the way, have you heard the most recent Arcade Fire album? Called/is about The Suburbs.

  5. thank you GGW...we are so lucky, unbelievably so; thank you for reminding me. Evie - will check out the album. Love them but have not heard. Tho the one about "from my window to yours" always sounded like a great suburban anthem to me as well


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