Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Happiness, As Defined by the Times

I've started crocheting again. Don't get excited--I don't make anything except scarves and the occasional baby blanket. But it's something to do while "watching" TV at night so I don't feel completely idle and useless as I sit like a lump on the couch. Truth be told, I've started several crochet projects and finished only a handful in the past few years. I am easily bored with the hobby, but occasionally the yarn bug bites. So lately, if I don't want to sew, I pick up the yarn. Sewing, though...that's my real love. I'm almost done with that quilt, and it's only because I've got 65 other balls in the air that I've not yet finished it.

Last night I was up late, working on a little pink and brown scarf while the Sox game played and Sparkles slept next to me on the couch, both of us huddled under a fleece blanket. I followed my up my long crochet session with a big glass of milk (I've practically given up booze completely) and some late night reading, burning the midnight oil before Ian came home from his shift at the bar. I weighed my options: domestic goddess magazines or the New York Times' latest issue of Key, its home-oriented magazine. I opted for the former.

But this morning, as I cupped a warm mug of tea (I've totally given up coffee at this point) in my hands and listened to the kids munch away on their cinnamon toast, I picked up Key and finally gave it a read. And lo! What did I find there?

My old neighborhood.

Mark Oppenheimer, writer for the Times, lives on West Rock Ave. Actually, he lives on one of the two more charming blocks of West Rock Ave in the Westville section of New Haven, where I lived in my former life with my former husband and my former friends and my former definitions of happiness and success. My former home on West Elm Street was just a couple of houses from the zone of West Rock on which Oppenheimer lives.

So, as I flipped the pages of the magazine and stumbled upon a photo of the neighborhood, I felt the blood go out of my face: There they were, all my old friends and neighborhors. Everyone I had so much trouble leaving behind when I kicked the dust of my marriage off my pants and moved out of Westville. In a two-page photo spread, I saw my Goddaughter, my old friends, people whose houses I knew inside and out--and vice-versa. I stared at the picture. For a minute, I didn't breathe. I only exhaled.

I didn't read the article. (I waited until I was at work for that.) I scanned it and let all the requisite emotions sprint their course, feeling wistful. I shook my head and closed the magazine.

West Rock Ave. "It's a Wonderful Block" is the article's headline. Indeed, it is. To a point. It has beautiful, early 20th century homes and sidewalks galore. The front yards are abbreviated and the backyards are large enough to have several neighbors over for a cookout. Many of the homes have wide front porches leaded-glass windows. My old block was very much the same. Charming. Idyllic. Pure Americana. Leafy and liberal, crowded with writers, college professors, politicians, community organizers, union workers, corporate jocks and stay-at-home moms. That is West Rock Ave--and Westville--in a nutshell. It's also pretty white.

The article honestly doesn't say much. It's really just a self-congratulatory piece by Oppenheimer about his decision to live in New Haven and the validation he feels every time he opens his front door. But I can't blame him. Don't I do the same, obsessively so, in this space? I don't fault the guy for loving his neighborhood--I loved it too, until I left. And now? My God, now I love this place even more.

Still, I felt a few twinges of regret and sadness when I looked at the pictures. Those were my friends--or were they? One photo shows a family who purchased my friend Ginna's house after Ginna and her husband moved out to Boulder in 2005. Ginna's house was my favorite in all of Westville. And when she left at the end of June 2005, I can honestly say, the axis of my entire world shifted. She and I spent many, many days together as stay-at-home moms with boys the same age. Looking at the picture of her house with another family in front of it--a nice family, all the same, for I got to know them before moving out--I realized: That's not my Westville. That's not even my neighborhood anymore. Sure my family were founding patrons of St. Aedan's Church in the 20s. Sure I thought I would live there forever, buying my old house from a lawyer who moved a few blocks away into what I later discovered was Ian's stepmother's old house.

Everything comes full circle.

So this morning, as I wrapped my scarf around my neck and threw my purse over my shoulder, Ian commented, "What are you huffing and puffing about?"

I hadn't realized I was huffing and puffing.

"I read that article in the Times' "Key" magazine about my old neighborhood."


He hadn't seen it. I grabbed it and handed it to him. And Ian, for all of his WASPy lineage being the 13th direct descendent of William Bradford and proud card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, groaned. "Ugh!" he said, looking that picture of neighborhood perfection. "Aren't you glad you don't live there anymore?"

He was right. After all, what did I have to miss? The article was about West Rock Avenue. That wasn't even my street. Besides, a mention in the Times carries with it the air of a Papal blessing of sorts. It's ridiculous. I can honestly say, I've been in the Times--my first marriage was annouced in the Styles section back when it was actually a mean feat to get in those pages. And you know what? It wasn't a blessing. It wasn't a guarantee of happiness. It wasn't a promise that things would always be idyllic.

And now?

Within six weeks I've spent more time chatting with my new neighbors than I did in the last six months at my old house. And we have sidewalks. And porches. And big back yards. We have neighborhood schools and neighborhood playgrounds, neighbors who invite us over for dinner and friends who walk our kids to or from school. We have it all and even more. Our block is more integrated than my little zone in Westville ever was. And, bonus, I don't have to deal with prostitutes giving blowjobs to Johns outside my livingroom window--a common occurance during work hours in Westville, especially on West Rock Ave and West Elm Street, since we were so close to Edgewood Park.

I don't miss that at all. And Tony, the old retired fireman who lives across the street from me now, would probably beat the living crap out of someone with a baseaball bat if he saw that on his block.

Ian was right: Wasn't I glad? I am. Before I could answer him, Sean walked into the foyer with his backpack on.

"Yeah, Mom. Stop your huffin' and puffin' or you're going to blow your own house down! Haha!"

The kid nailed it.

Happy Tuesday.



Mary Faulkner said...

Really? Mark is being self congratulatory? I think you missed the point.

Milk Money said...

Nope. I don't think I missed it. I think he made a lot of great points about why the neighborhood is so wonderful--and it is. But overall the article smacked of isn't-it-lovely-that-we're-(mostly) white-overeducated-and-liberal? I never realized how saturated Westville is with that kind of attitude until I left it. Then again, as my lawyer once put it, "Everyone in Westville is a politician."

Milk Money said...

PS. Mary, don't discount the fact that I've gone through some heavy sadness over the loss of my first marriage and subsequent need to move out of Westville. It's going to color the way I read that article, perhaps a little defensively. ;o)