I’m sitting here thinking about the suburbs today, and it’s bringing up some feelings. I’ve been reading an essay on Criterion about the wonderful punk films of Penelope Spheeris, in which author Nick Pinkerton discusses Suburbia, Spheeris’ feature film that chronicles the lives of lost teenagers and young adults from chaotic households who have come together to live on the street and in punk houses and form a kind of family. He writes that the film’s themes are “child neglect, child endangerment, [and] the hostility of the suburban environment,” and the phrase snags at my heart.
My upbringing was more carefully arranged, and more often affectionate, than the ones suffered by Spheeris’ punks, but the idea of suburban hostility is true to my own experience. I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, not the kind that’s a development of just houses, but an old town that sat alongside the city limit. It was well served by public transit and somewhat diverse, so—urban by suburban standards, but socially stunted, ruthlessly competitive, and boring, the way suburbs tend to be. Constructed as they are around the ideas of “safety” and privacy, they create a distance between the people who live there that is so unnatural, it can only be upheld by certain kinds of hostility. The fenced-in yards reinforced this distance; so did the silence. Behind every front door was an entirely separate world, and god help you if yours was dangerous or just plain miserable. These days people also have spooky shit like front-door cameras and smart home devices that talk to you in a robot voice, things I can’t get used to and don’t want to. I find myself wondering where all this is leading to, just how extreme our feeling of alienation from each other will become.
As a kid I was always measuring the distance between myself and other people, trying to understand it. Why did it seem like I could understand people when they spoke, hearing even the things they didn’t say out loud, but they couldn’t properly understand me? What was it that separated us all from each other in such brutal ways? How could I solve the problem of my never-ending loneliness? I knew I loved to read because of the way books placed another person’s consciousness inside my own, like having two minds, two sets of thoughts at once, and I think the reason I first started writing stories myself was so that I could live inside another person’s mind in that same way. It’s certainly one of the reasons I continued doing it. To bridge that gap, close up that space, create a community I could live in, even if it was only in my imagination.
When I got a little older, I discovered that music had the same powers of connection and was in some ways even more vivid. In the sixth grade I begged my parents to buy me a copy of Ramones Mania even though I didn’t have a CD player to listen to it on because I had the hazy idea that they were punk, and that punk was cool. When the silly movie The Crow came out I bought the soundtrack on tape because there was a Nine Inch Nails song on it. I loved, loved, loved that song (“Dead Souls”) but it was some years before I learned that it was a cover of a Joy Division song, which led me down new paths of discovery, new kinds of angry music that spoke to the devastation of feeling disconnected. Dead Kennedys? That sounded tough, so I got a copy of Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death and found that Jello Biafra was hilarious and angry, and for good reason.
By the time I was in my 20s I started meeting people who called themselves punks. I found the idea fascinating, the many different ways people define the concept of punk and find an identity for themselves within it, even 20, 30, 40 years after the movement was started. When I started publishing zines and attending zine fairs, making friends with artists who were sharing their work outside of galleries and writers who were sharing theirs outside of traditional publishing, I started to think that there was a way in which I was a punk too. I still think this, though my understanding of what punk means changes day to day. At the very least, the ideals I learned through lyrics and zines have stood by me throughout my adult life, and have served as a kind of guide for how to be: angry but kind, passionate and strong, ethical and upstanding, and prioritizing a certain kind of fuck-you fun.
All these years later, I still idolize the punks of the 80s and their radical world-building, the way they created a space for themselves where they could belong within a larger structure that had rejected them. I still fear the psychic death of the psychic suburbs that seem to be growing up around us more and more each day. I’m still writing my stories, building my own worlds, trying to understand and be understood. It only happens in small moments, but I’ll take what I can get.