Little Boxes

by on November 19th, 2014
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My wife and I sit in our black camping chairs on the sidelines of a high school sports field. The black chairs smell like a recent ocean campfire and sandy remnants of the American West Coast fill the tiny cracks of the chair’s seat. I watch our oldest boy run as fast as he can and work very hard to impress his coaches. He periodically looks in my direction, looking for a wave or nod of approval, to ensure that I am watching him. This is his first year playing football and though his mother is not sure if she likes the violent brutality that is the nature of this American sport, she has been very supportive of his quest for masculinity. The idea of football clashes with her liberal peace loving gentle tendencies but I can assure you that by the end of this season she will be on her feet in full team regalia screaming, “GO EAGLES…!” As we sit here on the sidelines, it is hard not to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. The conversations that take place at a suburban Peewee football practice are extremely intriguing, especially in such a turbulent economic time in our country.

I live in the epicenter of the American middle-class rat race. The best way to describe the socio-economic group that I reside in is to listen to the song by Pete Seeger called, Little Boxes, “Little boxes on a hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same.” I don’t think I could write words that describe American suburbia any better. This song was written as social and political satire during the American suburban explosion of the early 1960s. Most of us became familiar with the song because of the Showtime program Weeds where the little boxes are actually very large boxes. However, the point still remains that they all look just the same.

Today’s little boxes are suffering an interesting and exhausting misfortune as the recession has taken it’s toll on our ticky tacky housing market. In my neighborhood alone we have at least three homes that sit empty due to foreclosure or bank repossession. In the last few years the value of our homes have plummeted. In some cases nearly 100,000 dollars. Today what used to be hundreds of well-manicured lawns now suffer a jungle of two-foot high weeds. Homes that once could have been featured in Better Homes and Garden lay in neglect as their former owners endure lay offs, adjustable rate mortgages, and a struggling economy.

As I drive down my street I can’t help but wonder what stories each of these homes hold within their tick tacky walls. Stories of late bills, laid off adults, strict budgets, teens without summer jobs (as most have been taken by unemployed adults with Masters Degrees), and for some families, times of unreserved financial ruin. Each of these homes has a different tale, but as I pass the last home on the right, my nameless neighbor smiles and waves as he puts his trash can on the curb.

My neighbor’s smile is what gets me the most. In America, people are usually afraid to draw negative attention to themselves. One could be in the middle of a life crisis and when they place their trashcan on the curb, they will still smile and pretend that everything is just great. It is difficult to talk to these people about hard times unless they offer the information up during a three-minute conversation next to the mailboxes. One neighbor moved out of their house in the middle of the night. I am still not sure if this was because they wanted to hide their shame of bank repossession or that perhaps the nighttime was the best time to move according to their schedule. Nevertheless, one day they were here and the next they were gone. A few months later the husband returned to the home to get a few left over items and I asked how things were going. “It sucks brah, we are livin in a two bedroom apartment in a shity part of town. They cut my hours and we just couldn’t keep the place.” He shrugged his massive shoulders and tried to hold on to the only dignity he had left. Perhaps it’s a male machismo thing or maybe it is just human nature to feel like a failure when you lose your home, even if the circumstances are not in your control.

There have been plenty of times in the last few months when I have wondered how and when we will get that check we have been waiting for in order to pay our bills, so far we have weathered the storm and hopefully this economic hurricane will end soon.

Though times are hard, I noticed that as Americans we always seem to remain positive and defiant to our current financial plight. Though Americans are not traveling to Boca or Maui as much, they sure as hell are finding other ways to get their minds off hard times. Some people may call this financial frivolity but I think of it as headstrong perseverance and the pursuit of happiness. I once had had a professor tell the class to look outside the window and count U-Haul trucks for one minute. “That is America on the move. They are all moving to find a better place in life.” It made sense! Even if you lost your job, house, family, car, dog, and the kitchen sink, most of us would rent a U-Haul place our remaining items inside and head for better pastures. Eventually with enough perseverance and hard work we could gain back everything we lost and have a chance to lose it all again if we wanted.

So as I sit and watch my son running up and down the field I cannot help and wonder about the stories of all the people that live in our little boxes that look all the same. I decide that I will start to observe my fellow football parents and take note. Perhaps I can get a glimpse of the stories that they hide in the walls of this average American community.

There are many characters at a middle-class suburban football practice. There is the professional guy that shows up only once in a while in his fancy car and tie. He clicks away at his Blackberry and talks loudly into his Bluetooth headset. He doesn’t usually watch the practice and when the practice is done he motions for his son to quiet down and get in the car.

The dozen or so guys that work in the trades talk about their Locals and how work is hard to come by these days. “I am on my third lay off, I guess it’s back on unemployment.” An electrician says to his carpenter friend. “I hear that the Port of Seattle is hiring, maybe you can get some work there.” Times are tough for these guys, but overall they seem optimistic and are happy to have the time to be involved in the peewee football season.

There are the middle-aged women that take their kids to practice in their skintight clothing. The years of bearing children and late evening ice cream binges have no place to hid in their matching Lycra top and bottom. They gather in groups to walk around the track talking about their kid’s teachers, what their therapist told them about a new study, and yesterday’s Oprah program about kids having kids.

There is the angry dad that irregularly walks out onto the field and tells the coach how to do his job only to be told to calm down and get off the field. This guy usually throws down his hands and stomps off the field in a tizzy. He then finds his wife so he can yell at her about how screwed up the coach is. Though he works himself up into an angry fuss, he is always back the next day to continue to embarrass himself in front of the kids and their parents.

My favorite is the glossy eyed dad with paint on his fingers who makes funny comments about how all the kids look confused and how much fun the boys are having running around in circles not knowing exactly what they are doing. He takes numerous sips from his Big Gulp cup and gets funnier with every drink. He tells you about his kitchen remodel that he is doing on a very strict budget because they cut his hours at the city. By the end of practice his wife is carrying the camping chairs to the car and taking away his keys.

There is the average family that is very friendly but annoyingly compares everything about their kids with yours. “He plays baseball and track and basketball and chess and hockey and is on the honor roll and is the best kids in the world. He is so polite and has great manners and is such a well behaved boy.” As they are telling you this, their kids is throwing his helmet on the ground and calling the other kids words that they learned when their dad watches his team lose. They are usually the most out of control kids and are in dire need of positive reinforcement and discipline. They shake their heads back and forth when they hear this and say things like, “oh my, he is such a passionate kid.”

Everyone has a nice car that they probably struggle to pay for. They talk about canceled vacations, home improvement projects on hold, campers and boats they are selling, the horrible weather, their children’s schools, local sports teams, new diets, their unions, how Obama is doing a horrible job (at what they are not really sure) and what delicious meal is gently resting in their crock pots filling their home with the smell of stewed pork loin and onions. Many parents show up in their work boots, scrubs, ties, uniforms, and Peewee football hats.

They are hard working, when there is work, and they love their country. They are the center of the American middle class and the foundation of our society. They work hard, play hard and pray for success. They appear optimistic about the world; yet seem political and socially uninformed. They are on the front lines of our recession and are feeling the pain of a struggling economy first hand. They don’t know exactly why we are in such horrible times economically, but know that Obama, Bush, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and the US Congress are to blame. The BP oil spill, Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorists, global warming, immigration, amber alerts and the economy worry them but they try not to think about it. They resemble a moderately minded simple America that will strive to reach their goals and find happiness at any cost. They went to the state universities, trade schools or technical colleges. They go to church. They are married and divorced they have problems and flaws but they are practical and rational. They are materialistic yet diligent. They feel that financial success in happiness. They all have a interesting story and are reluctant to look weak or talk about hard times. They come from every background and have a confident demeanor. They are proud and patriotic. They are America.

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