Another Clean, Well-Lighted Place

It’s mid-June and you decide that it’s time to take a vacation, so you hit up your one rich friend who lives in a wealthy Connecticut suburb of New York and decide to fight the turnpike north for a visit. After a somewhat less-than-stellar five hour drive, you pull into his driveway—opposite a tranquil river that reminds you of the parks back home—to find him already holding an iced tea in one hand and his gardening trowel in the other. You each say your hellos and he gets you a drink and the smell in the air seems cleaner than the breezes back at your own suburb, where the houses are lined up next to each other in the distinctly all-American G.I. Bill fashion.

He invites you out back for you to kick your feet up on the porch, sip a glass of unsweetened ice tea, and enjoy the late-spring Connecticut weather. You take in the sound of an unseen neighbor mowing his lawn. Serene, idyllic—the sound of the nearby river rushing over the small dam lulls you into a dim, comfortable grogginess, aided surely by the spiked drink. And as a gentle breeze rustles the green leaves and your friend’s dog lays down on the porch, a brief thought enters your head: this is great.

And it is pretty great. The dog suddenly moves and barks at the neighbor’s dog. On the street below, barely visible through the dense but immaculately manicured foliage, two joggers flash a couple of alien smiles. The neighbor mowing his lawn looks across at you and waves. You friend has gotten bored, so he suggests taking a quick walk up to the bakery nearby for some sweets.

It’s about now that the world of this wealthy Connecticut suburb begins to come into focus. The houses here are quite spacious and very well designed, though most fall short of being mansions by any American measure. The lawns are all well-kept. The gardens are fruitful. The people are nice and friendly, and most of them are white. Everyone has a dog, sometimes two. There are a lot of Subarus in driveways, and Priuses, and a couple Cadillacs. The average age range of the folks living in these parts seems to be, you estimate, between thirty-five and sixty. But you don’t see any children. At all.

Your friend mentions that there are only one or two elementary schools in the area. Down where you live, there are five within walking distance of your house, and they service about the same number of households, give or take. And your neighborhood is only slightly more densely populated than this one, in terms of living space. Does nobody have any kids, you ask your friend. “Not really,” he says. “Everyone works. The ones who don’t are retired. Who has time for kids?”

These folks are mostly all moderates or liberals. They value certain core conservative values, certainly; a few of them own a gun or two, they aren’t frivolous with their money, and they respect the rule of law. But they are, after all, New Yorkers transitioned out of the heavy bustle of the city. They all went to top schools for their bachelor’s and many of them for their grad degrees as well. They worked in finance, medicine, and law; they studied a few of the classics on their own time. They enjoy jazz and going to see the new shows on Broadway, as well as practicing their cooking and tending to their gardens, walking their dogs, or rearranging their libraries. They are cultured. They all know how to drink wine and what articles out of the Times to discuss with their neighbors, what colors of tie are acceptable with what shades of suit, and how to get a perfect pleat.

These are the folks who were supposed to be the culture bearers, you think to yourself; this is where the lowest tier of the upper class and the highest tier of the middle class intersected, where the old money of the century of American prosperity fermented in the same pot as the up-and-coming generation of lawyers, doctors, and hedge fund managers. These were the people that had all the knowledge of the arts, the critical ears for music, and the discerning tongues for food and drink. But who is there for them to pass it along to?

In ten years’ time, the older folks around here will have moved along, your friend says. That man that owns that house will be in a home by then, he tells you, and he explains how the man’s wife had early-onset Alzheimer’s and has already been institutionalized. Those two are pretty young, he references another property, but they’ll probably move closer to the city to be with the wife’s parents as they age. In ten years’ time, much of this neighborhood will have a lot of different faces without having really changed a whole lot.

Far from being the retirement homes and mobile home communities of Florida, you realize, this isn’t someplace people go to die, nor even someplace anyone goes specifically to retire to. No, this is where the fruits of civilization—the people in whose care the culture and learning of their ancestors was placed—has gone to live out the rest of it days in the comfortable embrace of what wealth its people have provided for it. These communities, sometimes gated, sometimes remote, are the nursing homes of the West. The post-aristocratic sophisticates have accumulated civilization as if it were comprised purely of the commodities it can be found in—the works of art, the books, the jazz recordings and metropolitan opera tickets—and they’ve stashed it all away in these nicely-designed homes nestled in forested New England developments off the Merritt Parkway. And that’s where it will all be in ten years’ time, and twenty, and probably even a hundred, long after everyone has forgotten how to read or who Monet was or what distinguished Charlie Parker’s playing from Coltrane’s or Rollins’, long after these last vestiges of Western culture have bred themselves out of existence and these houses are auctioned off to the next sophisticated dilettante and their well-fed, highly trained, genetically engineered canine companion.

Because the people who are having kids don’t even know what commodities are, much less where to find them, or how to afford them. Because the people who are having kids have very little interest in reading their own language, much less English. Because outside of these bubbles, there isn’t a whole lot of civilization to see anymore, except the endless ruins of townhouses, urban sprawl, and the remnants of where civilization used to be.

“The market’s all dried up,” your friend tells you while enjoying a coffee outside the bakery. He’s referring to a commodities market that he day-trades on. “A couple of rich guys cornered the market and crashed it. You’d think that sort of thing would be illegal, but no one seems to really know.” The coffee is pretty good. So is the breeze. A decline like this doesn’t seem so bad. You ask him if one day he’d like to have children. He’s a little older than you are, after all.

“With this money? I don’t even want to get married, man.”

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