I am obsessed with my hometown, Montclair, New Jersey, bedroom community for the outrageous wealth newly generated in New York City in the past decade, land of tiny fifties ranches torn down or expanded to more than double their original size, Mercedes and Volvos and Jags (oh my!), no scrap of land undeveloped as the opportunistic (and well-financed) seek to insert interstitial McMansions among the ranches and tudor revivals, no curb uncobbled, no boutique too moderately priced, no sidewalk un-tabled, no BoBo unbeautiful.
When I'm back -- and not infrequently -- whether by bike or by car, I find myself turning spirals around the perimeter of the town, slowly spiraling inward to any of its pretentious shopping centers, eyeing the impeccably dressed scouting the antique stores and design houses on every major corner who in turn eye their quarry -- a magnificent shaker end table, perhaps, or a sleek nickel and glass coffee table like a relic of a Kubrickian future.
The pavement is unfriendly to bikes; notwithstanding nearly universal five-digit property tax burdens, the Powers That Be extend the life of the road surface by sealing it as it ages in tar and gravel, which only smooths over time, and never completely. Moreover it stains shoes and rocker panels, spotting sumptuous floormats in the heat of summer. Nothing one would notice from the supple-suspended air-conditioned splendor of a leased luxury car, windows closed and air conditioning whispering almost inaudibly, radio turned to an investment show on talk radio, blue tooth surgically fused to one's ear beeping from time to time its message of validation.
Does anyone own anything here? Is it all ARMs and leases, a cover story to deflect attention from impending financial ruin staved off by creative borrowing and endless jumps from one overcompensated job to the next, paper wealth or its mere prospect. Financial management and millions of the allegedly wealthy in orbit around the black whole of their own insolvency, falling eternally in perfect equilibrium until finally their orbits deteriorate, one by one, and they disappear into the darkness.
Or maybe they really have this much money, all of them, and I describe my own equally perilous but so much more modest solar system of tiered debt. Perhaps in projecting my own situation onto them, a couple of orders of magnitude greater, I reveal my own desire to believe I am not irresponsible; perhaps I need the wealthy to be overextended and desperate to compensate for my own overextension and occasional desperation.
I am an attorney with impeccable credentials; consequently, my earning potential is effectively limited only by my prerogatives. This is not a pity party. Not even close.
But there is a decadence to all of this, my native surround. And I have trouble determining whether my wonderment at this never-entirely-familiar fact is a product of envy or disgust. I cannot discern -- though I try mightily -- whether I am second-guessing my decision not to return here to make my way in the metroplex of my youth or gloating over my own perspicacity and leaving this place before entering an unsustainable orbit. In Pittsburgh, my finances will right themselves as soon as I make that a priority; in New York, however, I'd be forced to accept, as have my friends and family, a far more precarious existence. At some point it's not about the money, a lot or a little, that passes through one's checking account each month; it's where it goes that matters. So many of the expenses, necessary and merely recommended, that happen here are black holes -- paying rent into one's forties or for a lifetime, leasing what one cannot afford to buy in other areas, the psychic expense of working under the threat of a dozen qualified people looking for your job and just waiting for you, or someone like you, to slip up this much.
And all of this, too, may be a fiction contrived to assuage my ambivalence. Who's to say?
Today I went to my favorite used bookstore south of the Hudson River Valley, a small place in Montclair Center (there really are three centers to this town, as though it were too overlapping ellipses, but only one goes by that name), and negotiated the discounted purchase of a first-edition of Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations
. I may not read it for a while -- such painfully elegant writing acts as an obstacle to my own -- but at the discounted price it was a bargain, a fine hardcover first from 1991 in near-fair condition. Then I headed to Watchung Plaza, another town center (and this one more accurately in the middle of things), and ordered a late breakfast from a tin-ceilinged bistro run by Spaniards in an old Montclair store front, their patois behind the display case unnerving as their unlikely trade in hypertrophic bagels. I ate inside, and then took my book, Coupland's Hey Nostradamus
, across the street to a small park, where I found a bench in the shade to finish my iced coffee.
On the way home, heading down Bellevue Avenue (just downhill from the third and most northerly of the shopping areas), I spotted two girls, perhaps 14, one tall and one short, both pretty and innocent, walking a beagle like a credulous little brother between them. As I drew even with them, slowing for the red light at Grove Street, they turned to the man driving the car in front of mine and smiled and waved familiarly, with the entirely undirected ebullience of young women in pairs, and I detected in the slow roll of the driver's head no more familiarity with them than I had.
The light turned, the car in front of me passed through the intersection, and I eased forward unhurried to make my left turn, waiting for the girls to negotiate the crosswalk. The other driver gone, they turned as they walked to the car waiting to make the left that mirrored my own and waved and smiled with the same mock familiarity, the same unrequited jubilation, and after a moment they turned their attention my way and continued the ritual as I waited for their passage to open a car-width corridor. I was oddly affected by their unlikely bonhomie -- good neighbors in the land of tall fences.
Labels: cycling, fuzzy math, lies i tell myself, lies people tell me, love songs, ruminations