Flying into Phoenix last week, I couldn’t help but marvel at just how ugly it is. It sprawls endlessly, a flat, vast expanse of highways, parking lots and strip malls. Staring at all of it, though, I felt a small pang of nostalgia for my youth. Having grown up essentially in the suburbs (although there was no city from which they sprouted; my hometown is basically just a suburb plopped down in the middle of nowhere), I won’t deny that there is some sort of intrinsic comfort in them, a familiarity that I like. Specifically, flying into Phoenix, I thought about summertime as a teenager. It seemed so awful and boring at the time, but in retrospect, I had a hell of a lot of fun in the summer with my friends.
We spent countless evenings desperately searching for something to do, someplace to go, some way to keep ourselves entertained. We shopped, we hung out at people’s houses, watching movies and swimming in backyard pools. We played miniature golf and ate ice cream. We went to see punk rock bands at the local skate park, then drove deep into the woods to find obscure raves and danced all night long. We camped, and broke into abandoned buildings and told ghost stories.
We made our own fun, and the heat of summer evenings always comforts me, makes me feel at home. Those summers were so ripe for discovery: discovery of ourselves and discovery of influences that would shape who we would become. Maybe sometimes I rail against the suburbs so much because they are where I feel most comfortable, just in a visceral, emotional way. I often miss those days of carefree revelry and how much we took for granted. And when I think of those fast and free days of my youth, it is all directly related to cars, and driving (cruising?), and wandering discontentedly through so much suburban waste. I often wonder how differently I would have turned out of I’d grown up in a bigger city, or somewhere more urban, where I had so much more at my disposal (including temptation). It’s impossible to gauge, of course, and despite how much I complained about it, I wouldn’t trade where I grew up for anything.
Ironically, the bigger and more “cosmopolitan” my hometown gets, the less I like it. The less character I think it has, and the less I feel any connection to it when I go back to visit. I suppose everyone feels that way a little bit if they’ve ever fled the place where they grew up.