When I was a teenager living in pre-recession South Florida, the big rite of passage was to move into a gated community.
My stepfather worked construction, sometimes two jobs at a time, in an attempt to pay off old debts and to support my mother’s growing bipolarity and attendant prescription drug habit. At one point he would work through the night, drive to his daytime worksite, and sleep in dirty clothes in the cab of his truck.
When I was 16, he made superintendent and we finally made our way through the pearly, aluminum gates.
Like most neighborhoods in our city, ours was painted in bright, pale colors and given a Spanish name. It was “Vizcaya,” Spanish for “Biscay,” which was only historically notable if you were Spanish, which we were not nearly.
Notable to our own history as psychologically fragile low-middle class Americans was the neighborhood’s proliferation of uniform split-levels, 3 bedrooms, 1 ½ bathrooms, all arranged neatly on their own quarter acre plot. There was also the remarkable quiet, such that if a Maltese barked softly at one side of the neighborhood, it would wake up the leathery middle-aged divorcee sunning at the community pool on the other.
People only came outside to water their lawns, walk their dogs, or any other tedious task that didn’t involve human interaction. This was in keeping with the aesthetic of the neighborhood, which like most suburban South Florida neighborhoods was an aesthetic of mass-production grafted onto an aesthetic of vacation.
And so it felt surprising when the son of our recently divorced neighbor Stacy cut his wrists in front of her with a kitchen knife. And later when Carol down the street took the kids out of town and left Bob with divorce papers, prompting Bob to hang himself in a La Quinta Inn. Beyond the broadcast news sensation of it all, it just felt off-brand.
As a teenager I had been listening to a bunch of bands headed by heroin addicts and complaining about everyone being so fake. Most Fridays we’d eat dinner at the Pollo Tropical, a fast-food place that served a kind of simulated Caribbean food. Then we’d wander off to our personal, simulated realities, watching sitcoms or playing video games on our personal TV sets.
When I complained about how profoundly bored and confused and sad I was, my mother simply directed my attention to sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia usually, where there were thousands of eerily bloated children with lethargic eyes who would be happy to be me, well-fed and warm, however curiously empty I thought I felt. Then she’d take down a handful of opiates and anti-depressants with a bottle of Diet Coke, just to prove to me how privileged we were. See!, she seemed to say, Even our emotions have cures.
The troubling thing to me, looking back on those days as a 34-year-old with a house and a family of my own, is that the only time the whole neighborhood came out at the same time was under the red lights of the ambulances. I can’t see any particular face, just red veneer over curious eyes, and I guess I always considered it “real” because I couldn’t understand it, and still can’t today.