Tuesday, February 14, 2012
They Think You're Eccentric
These words were uttered by "Little Edie" Beale, the reclusive cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy, as an explanation for why she finally decided to sell the dilapidated Long Island estate Grey Gardens where she'd been holed up for decades with several dozen cats.The irony of this statement coming from her aside, there is undoubtedly a truth to it.
As a teenager in a New England suburb in the 1990s, I was among the very few students in my high school who did not drive. My boyfriend was another such anomaly. We walked home from school together almost every day and it was just under 3 miles, taking us down the main street that stretched through the center of town and then along a woodsy park road that wound around a lake. I remember these walks vividly, because together with the scenery and the endless deep conversations there was always a degree of dread mixed into it. Everything would be wonderful until someone would drive by and shout something nasty at us. It could be students from the school or it could be adults from town, and the harassment usually varied from random hooting to things like "Whatsamatta kid, too poor to drive your girl to the woods?" On occasion, even a police car would slow down to make sure we weren't up to no good - just because we were walking.
While mostly we were okay with all of this and even found it funny, it would be a lie to pretend it did not get to us on some level. One Valentine's Day we got into an argument, because we wanted to go for ice cream, but both secretly dreaded the idea of walking or riding our bikes there - kind of difficult to maintain a romantic mood while getting harassed. When I think back on this, the absurdity of it overwhelms me. But that's really how it was in our town, at least in the 90s.
In the American suburbs getting around other than in a car is not normal, and I think we underestimate the extent to which this social element is an obstacle to walking and cycling. The majority of people do not wish to be perceived as poor, eccentric, or even "different" as they go out for ice cream on Valentine's Day.