I'm sure you know it: Middle America Is Rotten. It's a message that's easy to get from movies, television, most journalists and most liberals. There is a powerful and consistent presentation of the notion the we're rotten to the core here in the suburbs. I've seen and heard people refer to the population of suburban America as "Sheeple" (Get it? Sheep-People? Ha! Those liberals are so clever!). We're nothing but a bunch of Burger King snarfing Survivor watching cell phone yammering paycheck collecting big car driving beer guzzling baby making drones, living in anonymous suburban sprawl and forever cut off from the high points of culture, socialization and enlightenment. We're basically worse than useless.
You're not going to believe this, but I disagree. I have lived in several different kinds of neighborhoods, ranging from dangerous urbanity (West Philadelphia running gunfights in the street outside the house), to depressed rural (burned out former coal town, four stop lights), to almost nowhere (pop. 500, 1 bank, 2 mechanics, 1 general store), to standard American suburbs here in Pittsburgh. I grew up in a small town, population around seven thousand, in Central Pennsylvania. I have to tell you that, in my opinion, small towns and suburbs are, despite what John Kerry would have had you think, the heart and soul of this country.
What makes it so? Your neighbors. Much fun has been made of the American style of being "HeyNeighbors", as in you know them well enough to say "hey" when you see them, but that's about it. In my experience, though, it has always been more than that. The relationship that I have seen between suburban neighbors is greater than the "Hey" stage, but less than that of bosom friends. It's almost like a relationship that develops from a shared sense of work and striving. We are, dare I say it, comrades. My one neighbor, Paul, has a nice slavic accent. I have no idea what country he is originally from. We haven't spent that much time together, and frankly, I don't really care. But you know what? When I was fruitlessly trying to saw the end off my Christmas tree trunk this year, he came out in the cold to offer me the right saw for the job. Thanks, man. When they went out of town for a week this past year, they gave me a key and asked if I would feed the cat. No problem. I think I've fixed everyone's computer in our cul-de-sac. I've borrowed tools or time from almost everyone, too. That's what American neighbors do for each other, and that is most certainly good.
It's time to move on then, to what got me thinking about this. A prime example of a good American neighbor: Norm Forest. Sadly, Norm passed away two nights ago, a victim of esophageal cancer at 54. He leaves behind a wife, several grown children, and a teenaged step daughter who is, despite the awful things you hear about teenagers these days, an excellent kid. I don't know a whole lot about Norm and his personal history. I know that until last year, he smoked. I know that he always referred to his wife as "my honey," even if there were only other guys around. He was always giving me useful tips when I was working on outdoor home improvement projects. And he was interesting. Even though I can watch 4th of July fireworks from my back yard, he invited us to watch them from his driveway because the view was better. He suggested every year that I build an observation deck on my roof so we could all see them better still, which wasn't a bad idea. When I would start some new project: my off-hill deck, the electrical work on my broken air conditioner, whatever, he would smile, shake his head and call me a "wildman". I never was able to figure out if he was being ironic, sincere, or both at once. Although his grown children deliberately had no contact with him until recently, I never knew to be anything less than polite, considerate and extremely generous. Norm was a good man, and a perfect example of an American neighbor. His death has put a hole in our small community of shared striving.
Norm, much as myself myself, liked Burger King, watched Survivor, drank beer, drove a big car and had kids. To refer to someone like Norm, or myself, or any of my good neighbors for that matter, as Sheeple or mindless drones or whatever the condescension du jour
may be, is to hurl a grave and very personal insult our way. Although we are bound together in ways that may make us indistinguishable from outside observers, each of us in suburbia is indeed a unique individual, a fact to which I'm sure that Norm's grieving family would attest. There can be no replacement or substitution for his absence. That people on the outside of the culture so completely fail to understand this says far more about them than it does about us.