Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 5 - Limited Guilt

Much of our time in suburbia is spent dealing with solicitations for money, either by post, telephone, or a personal knock on the door. It’s part of the tradition that the last two only call when you’re either dropping off for an afternoon nap (the interesting thing to do post-lunch in the 'burbs), or about to sit down to dinner, which may be irritating, but at least gives you an excuse to hang up or slam the door in their tired, hope-drained faces. I’ve never done it, but I bet that going door to door to raise cash or sell something is the quickest way to lose faith in the human race, aside from watching wrestling fans watch wrestling.

It’s logical that, in a country that mostly shuns the idea of the welfare state, the suburbs are targeted as a perceived area of surplus cash. And the great thing is, there are enough good causes to go around and make everyone feel that little bit less guilty about living in a privileged, if lifeless, neighbourhood.

The snag is, however, that once you’ve written a cheque to three worthy environmental causes, your name gets put on the Worthy Environmental Cause Suckers’ List. So rather than making you feel that you’ve done your bit, you just get more and more letters from organizations that desperately need your money NOW to stop a melting polar ice cap from flooding your front yard (at least it would wash away the dog crap – see Great Suburban Traditions No. 3). You give to a good cause, but end up feeling even guiltier because of all the other good causes you haven’t given to.

Even worse, once you’ve joined the Sierra Club, to quote a very worthy but particularly annoying cause, they sniff your cheque, sense there has to be more where that’s come from, and then bombard you with more money requests. Wait a minute, you planet-saving scum, I just sent you my annual membership, and now you want more already? Get off my case until next year and leave me alone. Don’t send me e-mails, and don’t send me the magazine - you’re wasting trees and I never read it anyway. It just makes me feel guilty about stuff like not turning off my computer at the wall every night and failing to cycle 3000 miles to my holiday destination.

Ultimately, though, your suburban sense of innate self-entitlement gets the better of you. There’s only so much room for guilt out here when there are lawns to be mowed and flat screen TVs to be installed. You decide that the best way of getting green is to grow your own vegetables, theoretically saving you a future trip to the supermarket. You also decide, “Screw them, I’m not going to give them anything if they keep asking me for more cash every second week anyway.” The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s fifth successive urgent appeal goes straight into the recycling bin, and I don’t even bother to open the envelope and take the free address labels out any more, though that’s mainly because I already have 600 Chesapeake Bay Foundation address labels, and I only ever post about three letters a year.

Paradoxically, the less you give, the fewer solicitations you receive. And as you hear no more appeals for help, you convince yourself that all must be right with the world, provided you don’t read the paper, turn on the news, pick up the phone, or answer the door. Not that anyone comes to the door since I dug that bear-pit in the front garden to catch the Girl Scout cookie sellers.

Friday, April 06, 2007


I’ve been back in England this week, trying to remember what it is that I always seem to miss about it when I’m not here. It’s been two years since my last visit, and every time I return people seem to be paler, drunker, and fatter and, especially in London, speaking a lazy, guttural dialect called ‘yob-gob’. You think that there are more paving stones jutting out to trip you up than ever before, but really it’s just because I’m clumsier. And all that litter was there before as well. And people saying ‘fuck’ every second word too? The word’s just not as effective as it was in my day.

Speaking of litter, I was standing at a bus stop in Wandsworth at about five o’clock last Sunday when two men in yellow jackets staggered over with trolley and brushes to clean up the rubbish that was swirling around the pavement in the afternoon breeze. One of them gave up immediately, sat down against a wall, and fell asleep. His colleague was more industrious, though not much more productive, and spent the next 15 minutes chasing the dancing crisp packets in a circle. They were, to our cruel amusement, much faster than him.

As we sat on the top deck of the bus looking down at them (in more way than one), his colleague stirred. My wife, who understands little about British drinking culture, thought they were both on drugs. My guess was that they’d been in the pub since midday. “Now that he’s awake, he’ll be wanting a fag,” I said of the first sweeper as he yawned and reached into his jacket pocket. One long fumble later, he managed to extract a cigarette while watching his team mate continue his Sisyphean ordeal. They might still be there.

“It would be so pretentious living in London with you,” she observed the next day on the Tube from Tooting Bec to King’s Cross. I’d been complaining because I forgot to buy a paper, and I go spare with boredom on public transport if I’ve nothing to read. Then I pointed out that I couldn’t understand how so many other people sit there staring into space with nothing to do for half an hour. And then I probably complained about a few thousand other things too.

Books seem set to become historical artefacts in Britain. There’s the odd, fat Danielle Steel or John Grisham being read, some fraud-enriching self-help books, and the odd rare work that might require more than two minutes of hard concentration, but the majority of other readers are flicking through those crap free papers people thrust at you near the Tube entrances. I can’t honestly remember if it was any different when I last lived here 13 years ago. My head was too immersed in a pretentious book to notice. Or I was slumped unconscious from too much drink.