Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy# 14


The American dream is to own your own home and the piece of property beneath it, to be free from paying rent.

William Jaird Levitt was building the American dream on the principles of mass production, erecting individual homes, each on their allotted piece of real estate.  His method was a reversed assembly line, where the product is stationary and the workers flowed by.  Levittown grew in place, like a coral reef.  Specialized crews following strict schedules flooded the rural landscape.  They moved across the fields and forests in waves.  The first wave established the infrastructure for the community; sewers, roads, power lines.  The next wave brought crews to lay the foundations for the houses. Wave after wave, carpenters to put up the frames, electricians to run the wires, more carpenters to hang the doors, plumbers, painters, and so on until each home was capped off by the roofers.  A constant line of trucks would deliver to each site the appropriate materials as they were needed. The labourers would arrive and find everything they required, counted out to the correct number, resting in neat stacks.  Ripple after ripple, each bringing the next required skill to assemble a home complete with bath, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, electric range and stove, even steel kitchen cabinets.  A Levitt home came complete.  In the end there was a sea of houses.  Out of the city spilled a tide of middle-class humanity to make them into homes.

In this ocean of homes, I am treading water just to stay afloat.  As my home approaches its first half century, it is dissolving around me.  My spouse and I have not had the money, the time, nor the inclination to maintain the house and lawn to the exacting standards of our neighbours.  This house needs new siding, new gutters, new driveway, new central air-conditioner, new wiring in the walls, and a new shower stall.  The interior needs to be repainted.  The sliding glass doors that look out onto our backyard have not opened for years.  Their concealed wheels have long ago worn away and the handles have snapped off from applying too much effort.

While my neighbours are preoccupied with the care of their homes, a matter of pride for them, my spouse and I come home and we prefer to devote our attention to second careers, she as a painter, me as a writer.  Believe me, it is only with shame that I admit this.  I hope my neighbours are generous enough to regard us as charming eccentrics.  Still, I can only imagine those living downwind are annoyed that it is late January and we still haven’t raked our leaves.  I suppose our only qualities are our friendliness and that we are quiet neighbours.

When my spouse and I tell our friends that we would prefer not to own the American dream, but would rather rent an apartment in a cultured community where all our needs are within walking distance, they think we’re crazy. They think that paying a mortgage is not paying rent.  They don’t understand that they have to buy their property back from the State every year in taxes; otherwise, their homes will be taken from them.  And they brag about the money they save by doing the maintenance themselves, not thinking about the time they lose, time that I would prefer to spend reading.  My response is to ask them what’s wrong with redistributing the wealth to honest repairmen with families to support.

It is a delusion for a suburbanite to believe their home is their castle, like a family’s old homestead.  The middle-class suburbanite is dreaming of the traditional manor houses of Britain that get handed down through generations of the same family.  In such regal homes, the possessions acquired are preserved for the use and pleasure of descendants, and history hangs on the walls.  Our middle-class homes will not be occupied by our descendants, nor will they become museums in tribute to our theories of aesthetics.  The occupants will eventually move out with all their belongings and new families will move in.  The walls of Levittown are thin panels of wood and plasterboard, a step up from a tent.  Sometimes, there is a fašade of bricks, or in the case of my house, stone, but only an inch thick.  This is not like the enduring estates of the wealthy that seem as if they have been carved out of rock.

We grow old in our homes while dreaming we are kings in our castles.  We are not kings in our castles.  For us there is no legion of servants to tend to our needs.  We middle-class suburbanites are not likely to die in our familiar beds at home and surrounded by walls that we have personally embellished.  Long before we’re dead, we shall move into retirement communities, and from there into nursing homes.  Furniture, stylish lamps, wood paneling, tiled floors, all these decorations that we gather and put into place during our lives to comfort our spirits, we will leave behind in our former domiciles.  Our belongings will be redistributed among the extended family or friends, or sold at auctions to strangers.  The spaces we once occupied will be refinished, so when we return to haunt them as ghosts, we will not recognize our homes.  When we arrive to our adjustable death beds in nursing homes, our remaining possessions will probably be a few photographs, one of our spouse, another of our children, and then the grandchildren.  Most of us who occupy the time and space of the middle-class will leave little behind by which we will be remembered.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I look on my old, sweet-tempered, oversized Newfoundland dog.  Boris is the reason we haven’t yet moved.  He would not be happy without a lawn.  He would not be able to climb stairs to an apartment.  Boris no longer goes for our traditional nightly constitutional.  Age and arthritis make it too difficult for him to carry that ponderous body.  Eventually, his heart will give out.  Sometimes, at night, when he is asleep in a dark room, I stare long at his furry silhouette, anxiously waiting for signs of his breathing.  If I can’t see it, I have to disrupt the poor dog’s sound sleep to reassure myself.  Then, I make it up to him by getting down on the floor and giving him some hard hugging and scratching.  This is his home, the only one he will ever know. Boris gets to live the American dream.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the fourteenth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.