Van Chronicles – Chapter 12

Lost dreams and found dreams in America

The countless stories of America welcoming the downtrodden, the poor, the detritus, the fleers, all looking for freedom and the chance to make a buck, if they just put their nose to the grindstone, are the newsreel footage of the immigrant. That’s the white story at least. The black footage – well, not a lot of Statue of Liberty stories there.

Our arrival on the shores, or the equivalent thereof, of America lacked a certain drama. It was one of those hot days you can get at the end of June, and the lineup of cars on the Canadian side of the border in Buffalo was long. By the time we got to the front of the line, the kids were becoming less and less convinced that this was the big adventure mommy and daddy were talking up and more like the road trip from hell. Hot hell. When we opened the front window to talk to the guy in the booth, he got one look at us, checked off detritus on his report and waved us through. Didn’t want to look at our papers, didn’t stamp our passports. Nothing. So we drove on. The hardest bit was telling the kids that yes, we were in America, but we still had eight hours of America to cover before we got to our corner of it.

But something did happen when we crossed that imaginary line that separates Canada and the United States: we stepped out of whatever economic zone our lives had been in up to that point and stepped into a completely different zone that seemed a whole heck of a lot wealthier than what we’d left behind. It would make a great O. Henry story, except for the part that we didn’t have to pull up any bootstraps or show much ingenuity to move up the rungs of the ladder, we simply had to drive over this invisible line.

And on the other side of the line was something that resembled the lower-upper middle class, or the lower-middle-middle upper class, depending I guess on whether you had two cars in the driveway or three. And we were smack dab in the middle of suburbia.

I don’t think once in the entire year we lived in that house, did we ever speak to our neighbors, let alone get invited over to chew the fat over coffee. The basketball stand two doors down at the end of our cul-de-sac left the impression that there were kids around, but I never actually saw anyone shooting hoops. It stood there waiting for a game to break out, but none ever did. Where were the road hockey games, the hopscotch chalk marks, the bikes, and girls playing jump rope? Where was youth?

Hiding inside. Maybe there was a noise ordinance, a variation on kids should be seen and not heard, only here, just to be on the safe side, they weren’t to be seen either. Ah, suburbia. Where moms are the chauffeurs and kids get ferried around to preplanned play dates, all which apparently take place inside soundproofed homes. We probably raised a few eyebrows every time we walked down the street to head over to the park, where there also was never a soul in sight. It was great not having to fight for a swing, but it was hard to get anything going on the seesaw – there was a lot of seeing but not much sawing going on.

Maybe the parents wouldn’t let the kids play outside because it might wreck the lawn. Because if there is one thing people in suburbia really like, it’s their lawns. This particular town was zoned for one-acre properties, which means every house in town had to have a minimum lot size of one acre. You could have bigger, but you couldn’t have smaller. I guess there was a certain level of detritus that simply would not do. So our one-acre lot wasn’t your Covent Gardens, but it was a sight bigger than the postage stamps we had been living on up till then. The beauty of the postage stamp lot is you put out a couple of lawn chairs and a picnic table and basically, that’s the yard taken care of. An acre meant we were actually going to have to mow. Actually, as we were to find out, in suburbia, it means a lot more than mow – there’s clip, weed whack, dig, mulch, prune, landscape, manicure, and fertilize. And fertilize some more. It’s the twenty-eighth amendment to the American Constitution – thou must fertilize thy lawn.

I wouldn’t know the first thing about fertilizing a lawn except for one thing: it’s like dying your hair – once you start, you’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life. Our Kalamazoo guy must have been huge on fertilizing…at the end of our twelve months, this lawn didn’t just need a touch up, it was in serious need of a root job. It was a blight on the American way. What started off as a luxuriant green had turned into a swath of crusty brown with splashes of dandelion yellow. I wanted to go out and spray paint the whole thing with “Suburban Green.”

They’re not kidding when they say it’s tough trying to keep up with the Joneses in the burbs. If you can’t keep your grass green, there’s really no hope – you either move back to the city or find yourself somewhere to live with a long winding driveway, preferably with a tall fence around the place. While we pondered those options, we watched our lawn go from a sad state of repair to a complete landscape disaster, and with each new dying blade of grass, our status as neighborhood pariahs was further cemented.

Our town was in Fairfield County, the county closest to New York City without actually having to leave Connecticut. The western edge is the part you see in the movies – where rich ex-New Yorkers come to live, places like Greenwich and Stamford. A world unto itself. Very attractive over on that side. Mind you, we were more on the other side of the county – the ’67 Buick edge, as opposed to the Lexus/BMW one. But that didn’t stop us from thinking of New York as ours. That’s the beauty of New York – you take out a subscription to the New York Times and the browner your grass gets, the more you wish you were in the city. The sun sets and rises over the Big Apple – the twenty-ninth Amendment.

But the first big news to hit after we moved in didn’t come out of New York. Less than a week after we arrived in Connecticut, we heard it on the local radio station – Van was coming to play in Bristol, Connecticut – just up the highway. Talk about luck. I knew I was going to get to see more of Van by moving stateside, but in the first week? I had a personal moment when I thought all the stars were shining down on me, and it blinded me for moment; I was thinking this could get to be a habit. A bit of wishful thinking there – as it turned out, it was years before it became anything like a habit.

I was in the market for a different habit – if we were going to a show, I was going to have to develop the finding a babysitter habit. The bane of any mother’s existence. Bless the babysitters of the world. Really, bless them. Babysitting was never one of my chosen fields. I could barely be responsible for myself; it didn’t seem like a good thing having me out there trying to be responsible for someone who was a lot shorter than me and would not likely be any help in an emergency. I was not called on often to look after other people’s children – there was a certain sense that a mother was at the very bottom of the barrel if she had to call on my services.

Now it was my turn to find out what was in the barrel. For the most part I was just eternally grateful that someone would actually want to come and look after two complete strangers, short little strangers whose best tendency was to remind everyone that children are placed on this earth to be amused. And fed. Whenever I came home, I would do a mental three stations of the cross that the house was still standing, the children were asleep, and the babysitter wasn’t handing in her walking papers. It meant she might actually come back.

How I found the kids’ first babysitter remains a mystery to me. Certainly not through the neighbors. She was probably the daughter of a someone who used to go to the same church as a friend of one of Dennis’ coworkers – something like that. She didn’t have much in the way of babysitting experience, but she did have a younger brother with whom she did have a relationship that mainly consisted of showing him who was boss. That was good enough for me. It turned out her other major skill was playing Nintendo. She liked coming over to our place, because she could play it for hours, and in the process became Sean’s Nintendo guru. She was the best – he could hardly wait for her to come over so she could show him all the new cheats she’d learned to get Mario past some of the trickiest levels.

Jennifer trained me well. As long as everything was still in one piece when I arrived home, I was good. For years I simply assumed that babysitters do not do the dishes, clean up toys, or take phone messages. The only minimum requirements were that I have enough chips and soda around and a television set that worked. Other than the dishes, the toys, and the taking of messages, she did all the rest. I did my part and she did hers. We headed off to our first American Van show on August 31, 1990, with the kids in good hands.

to be continued …

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