It’s a curious thing, the language of suburban white folk. Today, one of them made some remark to me about the Office Depot on East Capitol Drive…at first, I thought she was only talking about the store itself: its selection or layout, its lighting, etc. But no: she made clear that “the neighborhood” made her uneasy – she was “definitely in a minority there.” I think she figured out from my response – a terse silence, if a silence can be any more terse than any other silence – that I probably wasn’t concurring, so later on she tried to clarify. (It’s weird to me, by the way, this sort of conversation: was she looking for me to concur with her assessment? Why, exactly?)
She used to go to the Outpost Co-op nearby, and then the neighborhood seemed “more conservative” but now, she offered, it was much “rougher” than it used to be.
I decided to try to play the literal-minded game in my head: let’s see, under what meanings of “conservative” and “rough” can they be regarded as balanced contrasts, one cancelling out the other by degrees? Did it used to be that denizens discreetly strolled about in Pat Nixon’s good Republican cloth coat, tsk-ing at any signs that tax dollars had been spent in the area, cheering anything that looked entrepreneur-y? Or is this a conservatism of taste: it used to be the stores sold white bread, cheddar cheese, and ketchup, Weber grills, perhaps a Ford Crown Victoria in a sensible dark primary color, but now…what? Nothing but hemp pita, some weird sheep cheese, organic Venezuelan salsa, and some bamboo contraption that burns so clean you capture the smoke to scrub it down afterwards? But no: she said she used to go to Outpost…so that made little sense.
And on the other hand: “rough”? Is the neighborhood now full of brawling truckers, drunken carousing sailors bellowing chanteys at 7:30 in the morning, ladies of dubious virtue brazenly exposing well-turned ankles to idle layabouts of no fixed profession who are certainly not gentlemen? Are there nothing but pool halls, tattoo parlors, boxing rings, “bookstores” illuminated solely in neon bent in cunningly anatomical postures, an Edward Hopper world with Tom Waits passed out in alleys between garbage cans as rats scuttle over broken glass?
In fact, I’ve been familiar with that neighborhood (and both Outpost and Office Depot) for at least a decade or so, and things are pretty much as they’ve always been: people going about their business, a few folks (as in any neighborhood: more than in some, less than in others) looking to make your business theirs, but – hmm, what’s the main difference between the people here and the people in Oconomowoc or Brookfield or Grafton?
Geez…just can’t put my finger on what it might possibly be…