It had been almost two months since I had seen a Bentley. When we lived in Los Angeles, I saw them almost every day on the streets of my neighborhood. The Bentley thing made me crazy; people driving around in $200,000 cars while the local public school shoved 35 kids into a classroom because the schools had been forced to do another round of layoffs. I was never able to articulate just why I hated L.A. so much, but the Bentleys became a handy symbol. Everyone in L.A. has something to prove: if you aren’t the wealthiest then you are the crunchiest or the prettiest or the famousest or the best connected or the bosomyest.
Having little left to prove myself in the way of crunchy or bosomy and figuring I had lost the best connected race before it even started, I found L.A. didn’t have so much to offer me, other than fabulous produce year-round. So, we found an escape and this way or that ended up in New Jersey, my husband in a slightly less insane job and our family in a small town less than an hour from New York. In the winter, the town maintains the ice on the lake, plowing paths between all the coves and so that people can skate through a WinterWonderland. In the summer, there is canoeing and swimming at the lake and hiking on the trails.
It’s a fucking Norman Rockwell painting, except with more money. Because maintaining a town like that in this day and age, so close to New York, takes a wealthy clientele. People are rather comfortable here, except for the rather sizable group who has felt the recession. But, those poor souls can no longer afford to live here, so they are selling their houses for rock-bottom prices before slinking out of town.
Hence, the lovely house we found that we can actually afford. The housing market has tanked, and – despite losing money on our house in L.A. – we are able to get pretty much the house of our dreams. Down the street from a fantastic elementary school with only sixteen kids in the largest kindergarten class. The cars outside that school, mornings and afternoons, are Honda Odysseys and Volvos and – OK, I’ll admit it – the occasional Escalade. Nice cars, but not Bentleys. These are people who have chosen to live in a town with absurdly high taxes, 70% of which are earmarked for the schools. Of course, the town is so small that plenty of people walk to school, not so much for the environment as for the fact that they are living in a Norman Rockwell painting and feel obliged to play the part.
But, all those people driving their somewhat-less-pretentious cars and wearing their considerably-less-obnoxious clothing and walking their wonderfully-kind-children?
They are all white.
Really. All of them. Well, OK, I have seen one Asian mother. But everyone else is white. And straight. And financially comfortable. And most of the moms stay home. The town is 10% Jewish, but most of the Jews I have met are married to Christians, so even that slight smudge of religious diversity gets scrubbed away.
I am living in the Whitest Town in New Jersey. Shit, we are the diversity in town. That tells you something.
Now, these are very, very nice white, straight, well-to-do, Christian people, don’t get me wrong. They have shown no tendency towards exclusivity or prejudice in the short time we have been here. Our neighbor has offered us use of the swingset in her back yard. There are babysitters in every third house. The kids don’t tease Zachary, despite the fact that he looks like a Lilliputian next to them in the morning Kindergarten line. It is a throwback to a simpler time, when people were neighborly and you didn’t have to buy shit all the time just to prove your very existence.
That simpler time, however, was also deeply segregated.
We’re thinking of withdrawing our offer on that dream home. We’re thinking of buying ourselves a little more time to see if this is really the place for us.
There is another town – closer in to New York – that is renowned for its diversity. It is filled with My People – the crunchy, the intellectual, the neurotic. It is also filled with Other Kinds of People, which of course is just why My People want to live there. It has little shops and restaurants, and although we don’t buy much or eat out all that often, it is nice to know I can walk to an independent bookstore. Because My People support independent bookstores. Since there are Other Kinds of People in that town, we can afford a dream house there, too. Other Kinds of People tend to lower property values, after all. Well, not the Gay Other People, but all the Other Other Kinds of People.
And you know what’s coming next, don’t you?
The schools aren’t as good. They aren’t bad, per se, they just aren’t the phenomenal, almost-private, low class size, corridors are paved with gold schools here in Rockwelland . Their test scores are lower, which makes sense, because diversity not only means different races and sexual orientations and socio-economic brackets and religions, but also different languages and families and time to spend pushing the kids to do their homework. The class sizes are larger, too, although only by about four kids once you start looking at second and third grade classes. These are not bad schools. They are pretty good schools. They just aren’t outstanding schools.
And so, we have a choice. We can close our eyes and jump into a very white, very comfortable pond, buying a house right down the street from the dream school in Rockwelland. Or we can wait. At the end of the school year, when the end of our lease is in sight, we can think about buying in DiverseTown, where the population appears to be attempting to recreate Brooklyn in New Jersey.
We visited DiverseTown today. We had lunch and got the boys new sneakers and drove around. We had planned on going to a playground, but it was so cold that Benjamin thought he had wet his pants every time we stepped outside. It is charming, it is interesting, and it is everything we are used to. In a sense, it is the more comfortable choice for us, because we know it from our past lives. The cars were shiny SUVs and old station wagons and dented sedans and a not-insignificant number of Priuses. We felt instantly At Home.
We left, taking the boys to a nearby mall so they could stretch their legs someplace with heat. J and I wondering if we were getting cold feet because Rockwelland is unfamiliar, someplace we will have to learn to love. Or if part of a good education is exposing our kids to all kinds of people. Or whether we prefer to maintain the innocence fostered by growing up in a small town or to encourage the sophistication that comes with a larger, more diverse community. Or whether I prefer to live among nice people with whom I cannot identify or My People whose pretentions and anxieties sometimes exhaust me.
As we strolled through the mall, I saw it. Surrounded by ribbon, shining right in the middle of the corridor. A red Bentley.
And I have no fucking idea what it symbolizes.