16 August, 2007

Today is the penultimate day of our vacation with Anna’s family. Tomorrow evening, we will pile our two boys and our belongings into the trusty Corolla and head back home to West Hartford, Connecticut. Except of course, that we are not really heading back, or home. We are heading out, going forward, doing something new and quite unlike what we’ve done before. We are leaving our crowded little apartment in the crowded little city of Somerville, Mass. (preceded by like abodes in Cambridge and Brooklyn), for a proper house, three bedrooms and a living room and a dining room (fully separate from the kitchen, mind you) AND a finished basement, all sitting upon a quarter acre of gracious, green, unapologetically boring, suburban land.

The funny thing is that the move to me seems worthy of excitement. We have purchased a perfectly sensible, utterly unexceptional Dutch colonial (that is a kind of house, I have learned) in a bland, agreeable suburb in central Connecticut (very fine schools, of course). Anna has a tenure-track position at a highly respected university and I have what promises to be an engaging non-profit lawyering job. In short order, we will buy a second car – a minivan perhaps, or a station wagon – to park in the second spot in our two-car garage and tote around our two children, presumably to soccer practice, PTA meetings, Klan rallies, and the like. We are standing on the precipice of no precipice at all, just the long slide toward middle-class, average, American comfort.

And yet, I feel I’m entering uncharted territory. I’ve never lived outside a city, never lived in anything but an apartment. As a teenager and even in my early twenties, I assumed without much thought that I’d never own a car, let alone a house. I described West Hartford to my best friend, who grew up with me in Brooklyn: the endless, quiet, tree-lined streets, the sidewalks empty of people after dark, the well-kept houses uniformly filled with the flickering blue glow of television. He said, “You’re kind of like a spaceman there.” He’s right, but instead of feeling like I’m taking an appalling cultural step backward, selling out, failing it to keep it street, etc., I’m excited. It’s like I’m embarking on a sociological adventure, an exchange program far more exotic than the year I spent in Argentina when I was fifteen. Also, it will be nice to have enough space, which we have not had since Max was born, and less still since Reuben came on the scene. Did I mention that we might buy a new car?

Maybe I am selling out and loving it. Anyway, the great unknown begins now . . .

17 March, 2010

The first half mile of an early morning bicycle ride in the cold is never good. The air is always sharper than I expected, finding its way between layers to chill my back and toes and make me think I should have bundled up more. No matter how hard I pedal, I can’t seem to move as fast as I’d like to, a point made manifest by the little speed meters the town police have installed here and there, one of of them a block from home, informing me that I am topping out at 17 miles an hour. Actually, that’s not bad for an old three-speed loaded with lunch, computer, and a 200-pound man in khakis and loafers, but the first half mile is about perception, and it feels slow. And cold.

It’s mostly dark at a quarter of six, and my end of town is shielded from the east by a pair of hills, so the dawn looks like someone shining a dim flashlight up from behind Hartford. As always in my godforsaken suburb, the only people on the street are dog-walkers and joggers, who are marginally more scarce at this hour. Cars, though, are mostly absent, so it is quiet. Just behind me, I hear the soft, regular clicking of the antique bicycle hub, parts forged and assembled forty-odd years ago in a northern English factory town, where hundreds of people likely plodded to work on three-speeds in pre-dawn hours; just ahead of me, I hear the zizzing whisper of an equally aged tire negotiating the asphalt. This is the part of the ride where I think about life.

And so? I suppose if I could have chosen an existence for myself in a central Connecticut suburb, had I even been able to name a central Connecticut suburb three years ago, I might have liked this: the misfit doing a 60-mile commute by bicycle and train in a place where people won’t even walk three blocks to the grocery store. That is an encouraging thought for a chilly March morning: I have not sold out. I still ride my bike whenever I can. I still work in the ghetto, still meet my clients at night in project hallways, still fight the good fight for a lot less money than most of my law school classmates are earning these days.


Oh, the “but” is a serious thing in this internal conversation: I spend a lot of hours in the car every week. I have gained fifteen pounds. I live in West Hartford, an uppity, mostly white suburb that seems to pride itself, above all, on being different than the desperately poor city it adjoins – the kind of suburb I hate, not just because it is boring, but because it represents the abandonment by those with means of those without, the unapologetic self-interest underneath our vaunted American individualism. Oh, and in order to engage in this pleasurable bicycle commute, I have left my house before dawn and foregone the pleasure of breakfast with my wife and children, and Jesus H. Christ, commuting 60 miles by any method short of a helicopter is fucking absurd, and on top of that my job is too crazy, and I can never get enough done, and we can never make a dent in our credit card debt, and I really need to go to the dentist, and . . .

Luckily there’s not too much time for quiet reflection. I am past the hills now and moving through Hartford at a good clip. It’s warmer, and the air feels less like raw late winter and more like the muddy, optimistic ferment of early spring. Every now and then, the lovely, gold-domed Capitol peaks up ahead of me with glorious dawn behind it, and I get to thinking that phrase that has become my mantra since moving here: Maybe life isn’t so bad.

Where Farmington and Asylum Avenues converge, an empty lot slants downhill to a tangle of highway ramps. Above sits a huge patch of sky-blue openness, fringed with Hartford’s chrome skyline and punctuated on the southwestern edge by the Capitol, tall and unapologetically overwrought. I hesitate, caught between wanting to take a picture and worrying I will miss my train, but then I am buoyed by the pleasing thought that I will get to see this breathtaking panorama many many times again. I keep moving down Farmington, under the highway overpass and to the train station. Of course, I should have checked the time: I arrive at with fifteen minutes to spare.

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A native of Brooklyn, Josh was transplanted first to Boston and later to Central Connecticut, both times by dear love and cruel circumstance. For money, he works as a public defender in the Hartford Juvenile Court. For fun, he rides and tinkers with bicycles, wrestles and tickles his two small sons, and takes photographs of things. In addition to various and sundry legal writings of narrow appeal, he was for some time an editor and contributor at Bostonist.com, a news and culture website, and was briefly catapulted to moderate local fame and significant media coverage as a result of his attempt to photograph all of the front yard religious shrines in the city of Somerville, Mass. He moved away before he could complete the project.

13 responses to “Maybe Life Isn’t So Bad”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    “Klan rallies”—HOOT!! Josh, you warm my heart with your description of “selling out” to suburbia, sort of, and I thank you for the wit-edged, searched-soul story. Your writing’s thorough silk, even poetic: “. . . my end of town is shielded from the east by a pair of hills, so the dawn looks like someone shining a dim flashlight up from behind Hartford.”

    More Josh Michtom stories!

    Judy the sell-out

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Killer! Man, I forgot about Hartford (sorry Hartford,), but your story immediately brought me back to the critical aspect of navigating Hartford growing up. The liquor stores used to close at 8 p.m. there, so if you were driving to or from Massachusetts around that time, you ALWAYS had to discuss whether or not to stop at that time for roadies, or whether to simply hold out until reaching Boston or NYC.

    Love your cycling routine. Really got a nice feel for those crisp, quiet mornings when the noise you make is the only noise you hear.

    Looking forward to reading more, amigo. Especially more about your practice- sounds like an immensely satisfying and interesting gig.

    • Josh Michtom says:

      The funny thing is, I recently gave notice at the satisfying job, because no amount of good work and satisfaction could quite match the misery of commuting sixty miles each way. Not that I’m abandoning the good fight – for two and a half years, I’ve been at a non-profit law firm that represents poor kids in education and child protection matters; now I’ll be a good old-fashioned public defender in juvenile court – in Hartford! So instead of multi-modal, pre-dawn commutes or soul-sucking hours in the car, I can drop off my older son at kindergarten at 8:20 and have a leisurely bike ride to the office. Two more weeks…

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Yeah, Joshua?
    You get the kid-size klan outfits at the same place that sells the girl and boy scout uniforms. Just FYI.

    One year I commuted 55 miles round trip into Memphis so I could teach where I got a job. The thing that made it difficult was that I had to wake up my two kids, ages 4 and 3, really early, get them fed and clothed and tooth-brushed, then get them in their car seats, to drive them both to Montessori in Memphis.
    My three year old was not with the plan. He was an award-winning tantrum thrower. I drove the whole way there and the whole way back, all year, with him screaming behind me and kicking my seat non-stop. We were in the Navy and we couldn’t afford a big car where his nasty feet didn’t reach. My 4 year old was as good as gold. Same parents, who knew they could be so different?

    To this day, I can’t understand why I didn’t switch their car seats so the good as gold one was behind me. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me. At least then, I’d’ve only had the screaming….

  4. Mary says:

    Yes, indeed. Ok, so I always lived in a small town, but it wasn’t really a suburb, because there has to be some “urb” to which the town can be “sub.” I was more like from the middle of nowhere, and it was still one of those places where you really can’t get by without a car. One of my dreams is to have a job and living situation where I can use public transportation, walk, ride a bike, or even just drive a relatively short distance to get to work.

    This was a really enjoyable read.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Quiet reflection will do you in, every time.

    The commute, man. That’s time of your life you ain’t gonna get back, and that’s a damn shame.

    “commuting 60 miles by any method short of a helicopter is fucking absurd”

    Damn skippy.

  6. Amanda says:

    My childhood is safely stowed in a variety of identical suburbs, newly sprouted bedroom communities just-outside this city or that city or some city over there. And, like most of the kids from most of the homes alongside my own, my teenage brain chanted the single-minded mantra, “get out get out get out get out”, and did so, the instant I graduated from grade 13.

    I remember being enchanted by storybooks where the characters lived in apartments (Ezra Jack Keats books, in particular), and the alleys and brownstones mocked up on Sesame Street. A taxi was an amazing thing I hoped to ride in one day, and the term “latch-key kid” was highly envied.

    I did get out of suburbia, and I did move “downtown”, and I haven’t moved back to anything resembling a suburb (yet), since I bolted in 1991. But, there is a freaky and undeniable comfort, like snuggling into a familiar nest, when I pass through southern Ontario suburbs…all identical…all constructed from the same short list of building materials and based on the same finite collection of designs. Suburbs are awfully strange, and definitely fraught.

    I like your account of adopting that territory as “home”, as you settle into pre-midlife.

    • Josh Michtom says:

      It’s funny, all those things that held such romance for you were just normal for me: I grew up in Brooklyn, firmly believing that everybody in the whole world lived in a rented apartment and that car ownership was the exclusive province of the wealthy and the foolish. I also believed, without any reflection, that the United States was roughly 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 hispanic, and about 45% catholic and 45% jewish. Funny that moving to central Connecticut should be the thing that finally broadens my horizons.

      • Amanda says:

        The suburbs, for me, came loaded with their own handful of assumptions: my mother (and most of the other moms I knew) owned a fur coat, but since I am allergic to cats, dogs, bunnies etc, I imagined that meant I would also be allergic to fur coats, and since that’s just a thing grown-ups owned, how was I ever going to wear the fur coat my husband one day purchased for me to look pretty in on nights out? Likewise, how would I pick out a car, a house, and names for my kids? What if I never figured out how to prepare holiday dinners and Sunday roasts?

        All these anxieties that stemmed from growing up amidst class- and race-based homogeneity. Or, at least, perceived homogeneity…

  7. Erika Rae says:

    It’s funny – my family and I live at 9000 ft in the mountains. It’s a beautiful place, bordering on national forest with lots of space between houses. And what do I long for sometimes? Yep. The suburbs. And purely for the convenience. Stores, etc. Well, and the lack of mud. My car is in stealth mode this time of year with the amount of mud it collects. Yes. Living in the suburbs would prevent the need for such frequent car washes.

    Ridiculous. I know.

    Nice writin’, Josh. I could feel the cool air of the morning with you.

  8. Joseph says:

    “Zizzing.” Love it.

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