suburban soul

March 19, 2001

My fellow American hipsters, old freaks and fandango dancers, I’m fired up this week and I need to get this stuff out of my system. ‘Cause the system’s got holes.

There are holes in the American dream, and that’s blood dripping from our tree of liberty.

An article two weeks ago about the suburbs reminded me that we are truly living the American Dream. The very dream our immigrant forebears were seeking, if not for themselves then for those generations to come.

Check it out: right now, even the poorest of us in this country live better than ninety-nine percent of the rest of the human beings on this planet. And the people we call part of the American middle or upper middle class live better than everybody now or before. These folks get to drive whatever kind of car they want, a BMW, a Lexus, an SUV. Geeze, they even have jobs that they like!

I recall being a young man and telling my father that I wanted meaningful work. He didn’t tell me that was a bad idea and he didn’t disagree with me — he just had no idea what I was talking about. To him, any job was a good job. But now, in the American Dream, the middle class does what they want to. We take for granted what has never even occurred to most of the world in all of time. That’s why it was called the American Dream in the first place. Mass affluence was a dream, but lots of folks today are living it.

We have suburbs, which are one of the best physical representations of the American Dream dreamt by our forebears. They all just wanted some land of their own and a very large lawn. Lawns are important to the American dream. It’s fertile land on which we grow nothing of value and then mow it down. A big lawn is proof that you have attained the dream.

One would think that all would be well and that we would be very happy living this dream. Or if not very happy, then at least very satisfied. And if not very satisfied, then at least safe. But be careful what you ask for, ‘cause Jack, you may just get it — and worse yet, your kid may inherit it.

Most of our suburbs are full of white people, ‘cause for most white people, the American Dream is to get away from people of color. In the suburbs, the houses are far enough apart that you can easily have no clue who your neighbor is and never have to listen to noisy children playing on the street

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Partridge Family — all representations of the American Dream. Notice too, that they’re all white, all Christian — not even Catholic Christian — there’s definitely no Jews and forget about black people. There were no minorities in Dick Van Dyke’s neighborhood — there weren’t even any dykes!

I’ve always sort of hated the American dream; it seems more sterile to me than your average fourth-stage contagious disease laboratory. Kids, there are places in America where your parents cut a deal with the devil to get it all, only it was your souls that they sold. Check out Columbine, Colorado, for example.

And now, when we have masses of Americans living out there in the American Dream, it’s just getting kinda weird. I mean, the dream lives on in places like the suburbs of Colorado and San Diego. And yet, what are they doing in those places? Well, the children of the American Dream are showing up at their beautiful, colorful, architecturally well-designed high schools and blowing each other away.

The whole system is dripping blood onto school hallways and the people who thought their police were there to protect them from those greedy, needy outsiders are now hiring police to protect them from the most dangerous people around: the kids inside the schools.

And it’s happened again. A tragic young man killed two classmates and wounded fourteen others with his father’s gun in a suburb outside of San Diego. And the politicians and the media rehash the event over and over and they wind up blaming everything but the truth. In their “analysis,” they say “It’s the guns,” while others say, “No, it’s the media.” Forty years ago they would have both blamed it on communist infiltration.

But suppose it ain’t the guns and suppose it ain’t the media. There’s something wrong with the American soul — and boy, do these kids know it.

It has nothing do with kids picking on other kids; give me a break on that one. In any given high school anywhere, ninety percent of the kids believe they are picked on — that’s part of being a kid. They get picked on, I got picked on, and the majority of us didn’t pick up an uzi to solve our problems.

And it’s not just the media, either: all kids are exposed to the media and to those video games, but not all kids kill other kids. It’s not just access to guns, either. Lots of kids have access to guns, which is really stupid, but they don’t all shoot. (By the way: will somebody out there explain to me why anybody needs a handgun at home? Self-defense, okay you can try that excuse on me, I won’t buy it. A shotgun, okay, maybe I’ll buy. But I have fired carbines and handguns — as a matter of fact, the same year that I won a carbine sharp-shooting contest I still couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a handgun, so I doubt I’d be any better trying to hit someone invading my home.)

Let’s take a look at these kids: what do they all have in common? Most noticeably is that they are all white. Not only are they all white, they are all Christian. That’s the fact, Jack. These types of killings do not happen in urban environments; have you noticed that?

It seems to me we ought to be asking: what’s wrong with middle- and upper-middle-class white suburbia? Why aren’t the children of the American Dream more appreciative? They don’t seem to get it, even though they have every toy you can imagine, more electronic devices than hands, feet or ears — all kinds of stuff. These kids seem plugged in, but are most assuredly tuned out.

Maybe it’s because the American Dream is hollow.

Man, I know places like Columbine. They scare the hell out of me. They lack soul. They are so white that they make me feel colored. They are so clean, I feel like a slob as soon as I hit town. The schools are so nice that I’m afraid I’d get expelled from them, even at my age.

What is wrong with middle- and upper-middle-class suburbia? We are talking about places where one can easily believe that the invasion of the body snatchers is almost complete. These are places where, in theory, the family values that the right-wing preaches actually seem to exist. And George Bush wants federal money to fund programs for character building. Now, that’s just dumb. If the kids in these suburbs, like the kids at Columbine, are this alienated from their own hearts and souls, what use is character building? How do we imbue values in an empty space?

If you think about it, there is a reason we refer to African-Americans as having soul: my soul brother, my soul sister. Check it out: soul kids don’t show up in suburbia killing other kids. Why not? Maybe because they are in touch with their souls. Just maybe.

Thank God Orange County isn’t one of those suburbs like Columbine. Our towns are funky and diverse, and they actually have real working people and old cars.

We need to start a dialogue about the American Dream, and how hollow it is. We know it’s hollow because we obviously have kids who feel hollow. Don’t get mad at me, but the kids I pity the most at Columbine are the shooters, because they have been dead the longest. Dead inside.

Part of the problem is that these kids have very little in their daily lives that is actually rooted in reality. They live in cyberspace, unconnected to their own hearts, so they just don’t really know that everyone has a heart that can bleed. And they know that they are pissed off, but they don’t know exactly what they are angry about. They don’t have a name for it, but they feel impotent.

But, as a nation, we still want to talk about access to guns and/or the media as being the problem. Both miss the point by a wide margin.

The truth is: kids, your parents may have made a deal with the devil for all this great stuff they have in their pristine three-car suburban homes. Unfortunately they sold your souls, not theirs. Demand a refund!

Now, I’m going to suggest a possible cure. Here’s what you white people have to do: keep it funky, keep it soulful, dig up the lawn and plant drugs, unplug your Walkman and plug into the kid sitting next to you. Fingerpaint on the walls if they are too perfect. Kids, tell your folks you would rather be poor than never see them because they are commuting four hours a day to give you the American Dream. Occasionally, go outside at night and take a whiz on that big old front lawn.

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