I've been riding my bicycle quite a bit lately. In the past, I've had a habit of riding the same routes over and over again (rail trail out to Rosendale, back roads up to North Ohioville); but recently, rather than revisiting these routes, I've begun adding some variety to my peregrinations. There are roads in New Paltz that I never travel by car because they don't lead to anywhere I've ever needed to go. On bike, however, I'm much more inclined to investigate side streets and cul-de-sacs. I'm discovering that there are parts of New Paltz that I didn't even know existed. Over the past month, I have been pedalling through large developments of McMansions on five acre lots with manicured lawns and artificial ponds, tucked away on side streets off 299 heading up the mountain.
Now, as a dedicated conservation-minded pinko liberal progressive wacko, I know I'm supposed to bemoan the existence of these antiseptic monstrosities with much hand wringing and shaking of fists. (Can one wring his hands and shake his fists simultaneously? Perhaps this is a Zen koan for the modern age.) But I don't. I'm going to be honest here. When I pedal though these neighbourhoods, my first emotional reaction is surprise. My second is curiosity. (Who lives here? What do they do?) And much to my embarrassment, my next reaction is envy.
Partly, this has to do with money. Sure, I love the condo complex where I live now. (I love listening to my neighbour's radio blasting NPR all day through our thin walls; I love watching the college kids who rent here playing redneck golf out on the lawn; I love listening to my neighbours across the parking lot screaming at their kids.) All cynicism aside, I really do like it here. But a lifetime of indoctrination into the American dream has succeeded in instilling in me a nagging sense that I ought to be striving for Something Better, and by "better" I mean more expensive and more isolationist. I know it's retarded, but to some small extent I've bought into the myth. (I hope no one takes offence to my use of the word "retarded." It seems appropriate here.)
Partly, though, this envy of mine relates to something other than money. I grew up in a gigantic, beautiful, old house in the middle of nowhere, and I miss it. The place still shows up in my dreams sometimes, representing the past, familiarity, and a returning to myself. Am I seeing poor surrogates of my childhood home in the McMansions of New Paltz? I don't know. Maybe. But I fantasized about big, new, emotionless houses like that when I was a kid, too; then, I suspect what they represented were escape and the illusion of security - twin cradles which I craved when growing up, and which were in short supply.
The burning question on my mind is how the people who live in these houses experience them. What do they feel when they return home in the evening? What did they feel the first time they drove up the driveway? What most appeals to them about their dwellings? What concessions, if any, do they feel they've made in order to live there? What do they value? Who are they? Unfortunately, this other New Paltz offers me no answers. It is silent for me. I don't know who lives there, and I rarely if ever see anyone out in the well manicured yards.