Live Through This

This Must Be the Place

How I came to call suburbia home.

Illustration by Beth

Illustration by Beth

My family moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Oak Park, Illinois, the summer after I finished second grade. I missed St. Louis immediately. There we’d lived near a park and a botanical garden and just a short drive away from Busch Stadium and my favorite spot on earth, the Soulard Farmers Market. Meanwhile, Oak Park’s claim to fame was Ernest Hemingway. His childhood home is a landmark and there’s a museum dedicated to him, which is ironic because he hated the place, describing it as a town of “wide lawns and narrow minds.” I never liked Hemingway—I find his writing dry, not to mention misogynistic—but we agreed on this point.

Oak Park liked to think it was cosmopolitan compared with the subdivisions and strip malls of neighboring towns, but while I could stand on the bridge over the Eisenhower Expressway and see Chicago’s Willis Tower in the distance, the the heart of the city was miles from my house. Appearances in my new suburb were a much bigger deal than they had been in St. Louis, even in third grade. During my first week at school, the most popular girl in our class walked up to me on the playground, grabbed the zipper on my coat, wrinkled her nose, and said, “This is not a YKK zipper.” People in Oak Park wore the right zippers; their houses were bigger, their lawns greener. In St. Louis, my best friend had been the son of a truck driver who sometimes parked his rig right on our street. This is something that my neighbors in Oak Park would have tolerated with a big fake smile followed by a panicked phone call to the village hall.

By my sophomore year of high school, I’d found friends who seemed to share my biggest complaints with the town. The first and most troubling to us was the way real problems seemed to be eagerly glossed over in the interest of preserving Oak Park’s safe suburban image. In our predominantly white community and school, any trouble was blamed on the poorer, mostly African American neighborhood on the other side of the Oak Park–Chicago border. Parents and teachers wrung their hands about graffiti and gangs and heroin, but no one seemed to worry about the people who lived in Austin, just whether their kids would be in danger when they went over there to buy drugs. (As always, the availability of the drugs was the problem, not the possible reasons that my friends and I had for using them.) And so we dealt with our lives like many teenagers do: privately. For me, this also meant self-destructing and dropping acid at the “Punk Rock Denny’s.”

Which brings me to my number-two complaint: there was nothing to do. We spent our days smoking cigarettes and talking in the parks near our high school and our nights smoking cigarettes and talking in diners. There was the Punk Rock Denny’s (so named because most of the staff had tattoos, wore chain wallets, and played Dead Kennedys and Misfits when they could get away with it); Melrose Park Denny’s (in the nearby town of Melrose Park, where we went after all the punks at Punk Rock Denny’s quit); Bakers Square (where we went after wrongly being accused of ditching out on a bill at Melrose Park Denny’s); the other Bakers Square (where we went after the first Bakers Square got torn down to build an Old Navy); Jedi’s Garden (where we went when we realized that the second Bakers Square had no cool vibes at all); and Ambrosia Café (where my best friend and I went when we wanted to get away from everyone at Jedi’s Garden).

Junior year, I finally got a taste of what the world beyond Denny’s and diners was like. I’d started chatting about Riot Grrrl with some girls on AOL (yeah, this is quite a number of years back), and a few of them were older and lived in Chicago near the Fireside Bowl, a bowling alley/punk club where my friends and I had started going to see shows. I slept over their houses a couple of times and loved helping them cook exotic-smelling vegan chickpea dishes while we talked about workshops on classism or the time they walked along the wall in the tunnel between subway stations just for the hell of it. I wanted that to be my life every day. I wanted somewhere that was mine (and within walking distance of punk clubs and 24-hour burrito restaurants).

I graduated from high school a semester early and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, with a friend of mine. We rented an apartment downtown, near a record store, a thrift shop, an art-house movie theater, and the Nepalese restaurant whose dal soup had sealed our decision to move there. I’d never had dal soup before and it was a far cry from Moons Over My Hammy. We found a great Chinese restaurant where they didn’t card us for Mai Tais and a regular goth/industrial dance night called DMF (Dance Mother Fucker) where we weren’t asked for IDs. I had left behind in quiet suburbia a pregnant friend and a couple more who’d just been arrested for stealing ketamine from a vetinary office, and I couldn’t have been happier. I met Simon at DMF. He was 23 and when I was on his arm, I could get into any bar or club in the city. I spent the next three years in a blur, soaking in the nightlife and having a blast, until I eventually realized that my life had spun completely out of control. Drinking and dancing had become too routine, things with Simon deteriorated, and I hated my job, but couldn’t find a better one without a college degree.

So just like that I was back in Oak Park. I moved into my mom’s house, and I swore it was only going to be temporary. I knew I was lucky to have somewhere to go to put the pieces of my life back together, but I felt like a failure. One day, my best friend, Acacia,* and I went to Jedi’s Garden, and our old acquaintance Ray plopped down in the booth beside us. He told some rambling story about how the bread the Pilgrims ate when they landed in America had mold on it so “they were constantly trippin’ balls.” Then he pretty much brought up everything I wanted to forget about high school, including my abusive ex-boyfriend, and told us how he remembered us: “Acacia will always be the angry one and Steph will always be the sad one.”

“I don’t want to be the sad one,” I told Acacia after Ray finally left to join some other group of people I vaguely recognized and who seemed more amused by the questionably high Pilgrims. I didn’t want to be stuck in some town where I was the girl who dated an asshole. Ray and the people at his new table represented everything I was afraid of becoming. Most of them worked crappy jobs and appeared to have embraced their boredom. They weren’t bothered by suburbia anymore. It was just home now. Meanwhile, I’d worked my butt off to graduate early and avoid exactly this fate.

Then it became home to me, too. Or, well, not exactly. I discovered a neighboring town called Forest Park. I’d never paid much attention to it when we used to go to the now-defunct Ambrosia Café, but Acacia lived around the corner from a quirky bar (where I now work), and the place slowly grew on me. All of the things Oak Park tried so hard to be—diverse, welcoming, different—Forest Park just was. It reminded me of my neighborhood in St. Louis, where the lawns weren’t manicured and the cars weren’t ridiculously expensive. It had character: the candy factory that produces Lemonheads is based there, and the dead reportedly outnumber the living 30-to-one because of all the cemeteries (including the one where Emma Goldman is buried, so take that, Ernest). That macabre little detail filled my zombie-movie-loving heart with delight and made the town feel Lynchian.

After more than two years living at home, I’d saved enough to buy a place and I was choosing between schools in Chicago or Los Angeles. As a Weetzie Bat fan, I was tempted by the glamour of Los Angeles, but Weetzie meant sunglasses and palm trees; I loved candy and cemeteries. Big cities seem to belong to everyone. They pulse and thrum in such a way that it’s hard to hear your own heartbeat. After my partying days, I felt I needed to hear mine. Plus, I missed my mom and Acacia, and I liked the idea of staying close to them. So I bought a townhouse located somewhere between two of the graveyards. After so many years trying to escape suburbia, I chose it. I embraced it.

Here, I’m not the “sad one.” The couple who own the local record shop know my tastes and recommend music to me. When the editor of the local paper found out I was a writer, he not only sent someone to interview me, but he asked me to become a regular columnist. When my cat died last year, I was allowed to eulogize him, and people on the street actually stopped me to offer their condolences. I feel seen here in a way that I didn’t in Oak Park or Madison, and it’s given me the opportunity to live and write and develop my own identity without the distractions of constant entertainment or the confinement of snobbery.

I’m going to be leaving Forest Park this summer after almost 10 years to move to Seattle. This time I’m not doing it to flee suburbia—I’m just sick of Midwestern winters. But I’ll miss it. It was the first place I could really call home; it taught me what that means. ♦

* All names besides Simon’s have been changed.

24 Comments

  • littlebirdmo March 12th, 2013 7:26 PM

    I loved this so much. A suburb with character is something I can’t find here but it’s nice to know they’re out there.

    • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:01 AM

      I never thought they were out there either, but one was literally right next door so that was pretty cool :) And thank you!

  • rosiesayrelax March 12th, 2013 7:46 PM

    I can’t wait to move out just so I can say I’ve lived in more than one place, but once I do, I imagine I’ll miss my little village very much.

    http://rosieandthewolf.blogspot.co.uk/

  • stelliform March 12th, 2013 7:59 PM

    This is an inspiring story. I’ve lived in St. Louis all my life, in a neighborhood called Maplewood, which has a population of 8,044. It can be quite like the suburbia you described in Illinois. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind, living here. But I have made quite a lot of memories, and I’m sure I’ll revisit it with nostalgia someday. I know I don’t want to settle down here, but there is a certain beauty to a small, washed-up town. It forces you to use your imagination and paint it yourself.

    • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:02 AM

      Oh I know Maplewood! Like I’ve heard of it at least. My ideas of the STL area are not super vivid, though I still like visiting there. And yes, painting a town with your imagination, that is SO true!

  • Ariella95 March 12th, 2013 8:06 PM

    Stephanie, what year did you graduate OPRF? Because I live in Oak Park now, and although some of the problems you describe remain, I wouldn’t describe it the way that you did.

    • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:12 AM

      I was there in the early/mid 90s (old lady here). Glad to hear that some things changed. I think the classism struck me the most because I was moving from a working class place. And while racially it is more diverse than the average suburb, what they call the “achievement gap” always bothered me as well as the looking out at the city to place blame rather than within when problems arise. Don’t get me wrong, it is great when places like Oak Park try to develop diversity and I know they have made that a mission since like the 60s, but there are these insidious, subtle forms of racism and classism (which is not necessarily where they are trying to develop diversity, it’s a solidly middle class and up town) that come out in attitudes and particularly in opportunities for kids and teens and that is still so so destructive. Anyway, I didn’t get into all of that in depth since I really wanted to be about finding a place where I did feel comfortable, which oddly enough, especially considering how I felt when I was younger, was in a suburb, too.

  • momobaby March 12th, 2013 8:47 PM

    I love this. I live in a suburb and it drives me crazy sometimes. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to set out on my own and see the world a little bit, but I don’t know what I’ll do after that. It scares me that I might end up living a boring life, but maybe suburban life will be right for me someday.

    http://littlerebellia.blogger.com

    • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:15 AM

      Suburban life totally doesn’t have to be boring. You just have to find the right place for you. I promise you that no matter where you land that your life won’t end up boring. I mean you read Rookie, you blog, obvs you are fun and fabulous person and will continuing being one. :)

  • taste test March 12th, 2013 8:48 PM

    I relate to this, kind of. I come from a boring suburban town that is 70% suburbs and 30% strip malls. the place I go to college is 3000% more interesting, but I’ve actually found myself missing my hometown. mostly it’s my family that I miss, but also, my town just feels so much more comfortable than here. sometimes this place can be almost too aggressively quirky for me. and it’s irritating, because an interesting place to live is what I’ve always wanted and now that I have one, I can’t even appreciate it because no matter how much I hated it, my suburban home is my definition of normal and all I’m really familiar with.

    anyway, this is really nicely written and I like it!

    • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:18 AM

      I totally relate to what you are saying here! If you haven’t been in your college town long, maybe it will grow on you and feel familiar (or if not maybe you will eventually feel nostalgic for it like I do my weird college town that I was in for one year and thought I hated). At least you will enjoy rather than be annoyed by visits home, that is a plus! And maybe home is where your heart is, or the home of your heart is still out there somewhere, it took me a while to find mine.

  • jenaimarley March 12th, 2013 9:21 PM

    I’m reading The Geography of Nowhere which is kind of making me depressed about Suburbs because of environmental sustainability, sprawl and the like. It is another interesting facet to the cultural vacancies that many seem to find in that type of environment.
    (Disclaimer: I’m from a barrio in a downtown urban area, but I have been spending my nights in Suburban Pennsylvania for the last month.)

    • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:19 AM

      That is definitely true. I will have to check out that book!

  • eremiomania March 12th, 2013 10:53 PM

    There are two ‘the’s at the end of the third line of the second paragraph.

  • Marjorie Williams March 12th, 2013 11:33 PM

    Winters in Seattle are really really snowy and cold. Also it rains all of the time.

    • Stephanie March 13th, 2013 12:23 AM

      Lol, fortunately I love the rain, and having been to Seattle in winter, I can say it’s not nearly as snowy as the blizzard prone Midwest or as cold (I literally had to go to school once when the wind chill was -83 degrees. Insane!) LA would certainly be warmer and have no snow, but I need some seasons :)

      • airplanes.books March 13th, 2013 7:32 PM

        winters in seattle are not “really really snowy”, and it only ranks 44th in us cities with the most rainfall, so don’t believe all the hype! its beautiful and rather temperate here.

  • kirsten March 13th, 2013 1:38 AM

    REP THE PNW
    you’ll love seattle <3

  • Martinapovolo March 13th, 2013 3:04 AM

    I just moved from Los Angeles to the suburbs of Dallas. ://////// It feels like now that I’m gone there’s so much cool stuff going on there. It was sort of good though because now I am motivated to study hard at my community college so that I can transfer to a college over there.

  • wallflower152 March 13th, 2013 9:50 AM

    I know I’ll probably miss this place when I’m gone, mostly my family and our ranch and the Mexican food. But I’m tired of being surrounded by narrowminded, uneducated and therefore bigoted people. Last month I heard someone SERIOUSLY say “Obama is really f*ing things up, if he gets reelected again I’m gonna commit suicide.” I’m tired of watching all my former classmates get pregnant and get stuck here working crappy jobs to get by when they had other dreams, it’s just so depressing.

  • Megan R March 13th, 2013 11:20 AM

    That sounds about right for suburbia. I have lived and currently have moved back to the north shore suburbs of Chicago. Every chance I got I escaped to Chicago. Living here now I definitely have a love hate relationship with the place.

  • Rose Accola March 13th, 2013 4:35 PM

    Stephanie-
    I’m from Grand Rapids MI but my mom grew up in Illinois around Orland Park and my family lives there so I basically spent most of my childhood in Chicago suburbs. Yes they are certainly weird, but they feel like home. :)
    Where I’m from it’s just really weird and uptight and kids have trust funds and it’s a toxic environment especially if you’re slightly different. But it’s almost like growing up semi ostracized prepares you to be self sufficient and stick by what you like instead of falling into that mob mentality. It teaches you how to survive and be able to appreciate how good things are once you find an environment that’s right for you.

  • Dee Fills March 24th, 2013 12:56 AM

    “Big cities seem to belong to everyone. They pulse and thrum in such a way that it’s hard to hear your own heartbeat.”

    As a girl from the Chicago suburbs who goes to school in Missouri and just got off the phone with on of her best friends who lives in St. Louis, this literally couldn’t have been more perfect. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece. It’s really comforting.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 22nd, 2013 7:00 AM

    I really really love this article. I have lived in suburban Chicago for the vast majority of my life and while I did like it, I realize now that I never appreciated it enough (I have since moved halfway across the world…). I miss it so much. Sigh.

    PS I am swooning for Beth’s illustration!