It should not have come as a surprise that it gets dark earlier in New Jersey than it does in Los Angeles, yet somehow this phenomenon caught me off-guard. Even after experiencing the pitch-dark London winter afternoons, I somehow had forgotten that moving north moves up December evenings rather dramatically. It is dark here early.
In Los Angeles, I never noticed the nighttime like I do here. There were streetlights and store lights and so many homes close together with car doors slamming and teenagers laughing. Night was never really night because there were always sounds and sights to break into it.
Here, in this little town, they have night. Real night, disturbed by relatively few streetlights. The Christmas lights on most of the houses break up the visual silence right now, but the cars are few and far between after 7:00. People are home, and there is no place to go.
I am living in a small town.
Not since I was (as they say) knee high to a grasshopper have I lived in a place like this. I spent my teen years in a busy suburb that at the time seemed dead to me, so I set off for an urban campus and never looked back. For almost twenty years I have lived in or very close to cities, as long as the likes of Chapel Hill and Charlottesville can be called cities. They can be, I think, because they have that intense walkability, where ice cream shops and bars are all a quick stroll at the end of a busy day.
It bears repeating: this is a very small town. There are no bars or, come to think of it, ice cream shops. There aren’t any coffee shops, book stores, toy stores, Gymborees, Gaps, sporting goods shops, or gelaterias. Of course, those things are all a quick drive away, either one town over or just up the highway. We are not, after all, in the Himalayas. It is weird, setting out along the highway and entering the world of commerce, because here in town there are the following businesses: one sandwich shop, one restaurant, one car repair shop, one hair salon, one dentist, and one Lionel train enthusiast store. That’s it. People who live here have chosen a life without quick access to the flotsam and jetsam of American commercial life, and so they come home at night and stay at home.
Urban life affords a certain anonymity that I had come to take for granted. Not so here. Dropping Zach off at kindergarten the first day, the aide looked up and smiled. “Oh, you just moved in down the street from me!” Recalling the previous day’s bike ride, which featured me hollering repeatedly at Benjamin to stay to the side of the road, I tried my best to smile in return.
After that first kindergarten drop-off, I drove the 27 seconds down the road to Benjamin’s preschool. If we buy in this town, we hope to buy closer to the elementary school so that I can walk that short distance. Yes, I mean to use the definite article here, as there is only one elementary school. And two preschools. Dropping off Benjamin, I see many of the same mothers I have seen just moments before outside the elementary school. Because they are almost all mothers.
I took Benjamin into his classroom. His preschool teacher smiled at me. “You just moved in down the street from me,” she remarked. Fuck. Note to self: stop yelling at the kids in public.
We have chosen this town because it allows us to slow down. Despite being an hour from New York City, this town is a throwback to a quieter time. There is a town Christmas tree lighting, featuring Santa arriving on the fire truck. A week later, as a nod to the changing times, the town has a menorah lighting. Mid-morning, if I am out driving or walking, the dog-walkers and joggers wave, just in case I am someone they know. Across the street from our rental house is a boy from Zachary’s kindergarten class. It is charming, but I fear it will start to chafe.
No, I know it will start to chafe. There will be a long period of discomfort, after the novelty has worn off, when I realize I have intentionally denied myself the energy and vitality of the urban life. Yet, I believe, I truly do, that once we get past that period, we will find something less glittery than urban conveniences that is nonetheless worth putting up with everybody knowing our business.