IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Enter the twilight zone called the suburbs

In “The Suburban You,” author Mark Falanga details his post-urban landscape through the eyes of a bewildered but gung-ho everyman.
/ Source: TODAY

When baby makes three for Chicago author Mark Falanga and his wife, two slick urban dwellers, it's time for the family to pick up stakes and move to the ’burbs. Nothing is the same ever again. Falanga was invited on the "Today" show to talk about his book, “The Suburban You,” where he details his new life in the suburban landscape. Here's an excerpt:

Move to the Suburbs
You have spent three or four nights a week, or so it seems, over the past year and a half looking for a house in the suburbs. In the last month or so you have really ramped up your search for a suburban home because you had sex again and you just found out that your wife is pregnant with your second child. Alone, you leave your city house, while your wife stays at home with your child. You leave when your son goes to bed, usually between 8 and 10:30 p.m., a time that you are never able to predict, because with your first child you did not want to interfere with his natural sleep patterns (a philosophy that, by the way, your wife turned 180 degrees on with your daughter, your second child). From where you live in the city, you drive the half hour up to the North Shore suburbs, where you think you will live, because there you are close to the lake and your kids can go to the best schools around. They are public schools, and kids there know what a football is and can ride two-wheeled bikes.You make this trek many evenings, armed with listings of properties that are for sale and a suburban map, which you have marked in advance, noting the exact location of each property. You arrange the listing sheets in the order in which you will drive by the homes that are for sale, so that you can perform this thankless task in as short a time frame as possible, so that you can get home and go to sleep, so that you can wake up refreshed and ready to be a corporate executive tomorrow.Your task is to drive by each house and see if you can find one that you can imagine you and your family living in. You think that this task should not take that long, given the amount of money you are willing to pay for a house, but you are wrong. You are wrong because everything you look at looks so old and run-down. At the time, you are living in a four-story, contemporary city house. It is large and clean, and was new when you moved in. While you are stepping up in your purchase price-wise, it doesn't seem that way house-wise. You think that in the price range you are looking at you should be able to find a house on a hill, overlooking the lake, with a nice spread of land. And the house should ramble. You think that such a house should exist, but you are dead wrong. Rather, the houses are old-looking, they are on small lots, and they all need hundreds of thousands of dollars of work. This, you come to accept, is the price you pay for brick streets, big trees, living close to the lake, having smart neighbors who are interesting, and access to really good schools.The brokers who assist you in this process are generally really old ladies. They are not like you and your wife at all; in fact, being old and being out of touch seem to be the two main characteristics of the brokers with whom you align yourself. These are brokers who were last in the city you are moving from twenty-five years ago, and whose main qualification is their tenure in living in the suburbs where you are looking.You tell them, in great detail, the characteristics of a house and street that will appeal to you, but they keep on sending you listing sheet after listing sheet of properties that don't even come close. You invite them to your city house and try your best to articulate what you want, but they send you to see the opposite. You up your upper limit by a few hundred thousand dollars, but it makes no difference in what you see. The houses all need so much work and they were all designed for the way families lived eighty years ago, however that was.This routine becomes redundant, until one day your friend-boss says to you, "Why don't you give Megan O'Connor a call?" You do and you find out that she lived where you live in the city and she knows your scene. She is young, like you, and she gets it. You ask Megan to please call your wife so that your wife can articulate to her what you want in a house and a neighborhood. They talk and Megan says, "There is a house that just came on the market that I think you will like." Your wife says OK and you meet Megan at the house that evening after work.You drive up to the house and you and your wife look at each other and know that this is the one that you will buy. You walk through it and it is funky; it has personality and character, and a large yard with big trees. It is close to the lake and the schools and is on a brick street that many call gracious, because the houses are set so far back from the road.You tour the house, you accept that you will want to do extensive work on it, and you walk out. You and your pregnant wife talk on the lawn and you tell Megan that you will buy that house. Your wife says that there is no better house for your family and that she would like this house. "This is the one," she says. Later that evening, after your broker's office has closed, you submit a signed contract and drop it in the mail slot on the front door of your broker's office. It falls to the floor. You and your wife are happy. This issue is behind you.Until that night, that is. Your wife, at two o'clock in the morning, wakes up crying. "I don't want to move!" she cries. "I don't like that old house." You know that your wife does not like change, even in small doses. For God's sake, she is still using a 1984 Macintosh SE. She is so upset that you say, "The only thing that we can do is retrieve the contract that I dropped off at Megan's office earlier this evening. Because nobody was there, I slipped it in the mail slot, and we can fish it out," you say, trying to comfort her.You go to the basement of your home and craft a stick with a nail on the end of it to poke your contract and direct it out of the mail slot. You and your new tool will go to the real-estate office at 5 a.m., before any of the brokers get in on Saturday morning. Your plan is to retrieve the contract, which nobody will even know you have submitted. You take a drive up to the office and your contract is not on the floor, under the mail slot, where you last saw it. You see it on the receptionist's desk and it is clearly out of reach of you and your new tool. You return to your car and like an FBI surveillance agent you stake out this office until someone arrives. You prepare yourself for what may be a four-hour surveillance but hope that it is less. You cannot believe that this is happening.At 7:10 on that Saturday morning, someone enters the office and you step out of your car and follow him in. You reach for the envelope with your contract in it and slip it into your pocket. You then pretend that you want some information on a particular listing, so you ask the person whom you followed into the office if he has any information on 1103 Sycamore Street. You take a listing sheet that you have no interest in and leave without engaging in any further conversation. The contract that you came to intercept is now safely concealed in the inner breast pocket of your jean jacket.Over the weekend, you have several discussions with your wife. The first one centers on the fact that you and she have been looking at houses for a year and a half. "Why," you ask, "did you think that we were going through with this exercise? Did it ever occur to you that all this would conclude one day with us actually finding a house that we wanted to live in?" Surprisingly, your wife admits to you that she was not prepared for actually finding a house that she would like. You agree that the neighborhood is everything you want. It is quaint, peaceful, and quiet, and has character. The house is the most suitable that you have seen. She is ready to go through with it. You tell her that you are submitting the contract and that you will not retrieve it. Two months later, you close on the purchase of your new house.Five months after buying the house, you are well under way with the renovation and you are ready to put your city house on the market. You engage another broker, who one day puts a “For Sale” sign outside of your city house. For the past five months your wife has understood that you were committed to the new house; you bought it, and are doing work on it, and you assumed as part of that process she understood that you would eventually sell your city house. However, understanding all of that does not prevent your wife from crying hysterically the day that she comes home to a “For Sale” sign posted in front of your city house. "What were you thinking?" you ask, as gently as you can. You let this one slide.You are eager to get the work done in your new home, because there are things that are more fun in life than paying for two homes when the second one is not in Telluride, Jackson Hole, or Crested Butte. The work is completed just two months late, and you move in January, two and a half months after your daughter is born and after selling your city home.That first weekend in your new home, before you are even unpacked, you invite friends from the city over one evening. You tell them about the brick streets, the big trees, and the proximity to the beach. You tell them how quiet and how peaceful it is in your new neighborhood. "It is so quaint," you say. "A real safe neighborhood." "Everyone here is so nice," you say. "We have brick streets." They have no interest in any of this. They are thinking that you sold out. You have abandoned them and there is nothing that you can say about it that will change their already made-up minds.Then John asks, "Hey, what is that orange glow outside? Is someone barbecuing or something?" It is a cold, snowy January night, and it would surprise you if someone were barbecuing, but maybe this is what they do in the suburbs, you think, to justify the expense of those built-in barbecue grills. You walk over to the dining-room window, and standing outside your next-door neighbor's side door is a kid who looks like he is twelve years old. He is holding a homemade contraption that consists of an in-line bicycle pump and a reservoir of some sort. He is furiously pumping this in-line bike pump and napalm is shooting out of it. You look in disbelief as you realize that your next-door neighbor's twelve-year-old kid has built a flamethrower, which works spectacularly well. The kid is shooting fifteen-foot flames from this sophisticated homemade device, and he is enjoying it more than he should be. He is mesmerized, and so are you and your jaded city friends, who thought until tonight that they had seen everything.You, your wife, your friend, and his wife are all looking out the window, not knowing what to say. You imagine that the value of your house has dropped by 40 percent tonight and that you selected the one house in the entire suburb that is next door to a twelve-year-old pyromaniac. On top of that, you have lost all credibility with your city friends, who will no longer believe you when you tell them how idyllic your suburban life is. You know they can't wait to pass this story on to all of your other city friends who also think that you sold out.After you witness this, you tell them that despite the fact that you live next to a twelve-year-old pyromaniac, you still live on a brick street. After five minutes or so of vigorous flamethrowing, your new twelve-year-old neighbor makes eye contact with the four of you staring at him and runs inside. Now you are concerned that he will get the big-momma flamethrower and that he will start testing it out on your recently acquired shingle-style house. "Welcome to the suburbs," your friends say. "We love the brick streets, they are so quaint. You made a great choice. It will be so much safer here than in the city for the kids."From "The Suburban You" by Mark Falanga Copyright © 2004 by Mark Falanga. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.