MY MEAN STREETS

I’ve been reading Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day and just loving it to pieces, but as I read it I can’t help but think about the author’s relationship to the setting: Boston, and how that’s shaped his writing. There are other authors like that, associated with a particular place, either a city (how many “New York authors” can you name?) or a region (the many and varied “Southern writers”).

It occurred to me that these authors, like Dennis Lehane, or Truman Capote, or Annie Proulx, and so many others, are linked to these places, this accent, those streets or prairies, because in some way or another it marked them. They had a tough time there—a difficult childhood on the mean streets of a mean city or in the cultural isolation of the country. I guess when you grow up in a place like South Boston or the South Bronx or the South Side of Chicago, your environment sort of takes over. And for many it becomes an indelible component to their identity.

But I don’t come from nor have I ever lived anywhere in particular.

I was born in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. We moved from there to the suburbs of Chicago before my fifth birthday. I have no feelings for Rochester, or Upstate New York, at all. It’s foreign territory to me. As for suburban Chicago, while the mean streets were chewing people up and spitting them out about thirty miles or so away, I lived in a completely uninteresting place full of generally uninteresting people going on about their uninteresting lives in completely uninteresting ways. My childhood was reasonably “normal.” There was no particular trauma. The others kids were dicks to me sometimes, but my life was never in danger. I have never been mugged, nor have I mugged anyone. I was never a member of anything resembling a gang. It was virtually impossible for me to see the invisible line dividing my suburb and the next, and no one cared. There were no turf wars between us and Schaumburg or Streamwood because the kids who lived in Schaumburg or Streamwood also didn’t give a shit one way or another.

Then I went to college and that was fun, but Carbondale, Illinois isn’t exactly Cambridge. I have no Dead Poets Society-esque story. It was more like Animal House except everyone was played by Tom Hulce.

Then I moved back in with my parents in the same house in the same suburb and started writing, mostly science fiction, but also a lot of high-minded literary stuff that ultimately rang hollow. I had as little to say about the human condition as any particular suburban twenty-year-old with raging depression but little in the way of life experience. There was no Crucible of the Streets for Phil.

Then I met a girl from the neighboring suburb of Hoffman Estates, a town so uninteresting it’s named after the builder. Hoffman Homes built a bunch of tract houses and voila—a “city” is born. We eventually moved in together in Schaumburg, in an apartment complex that was a few steps away from Rolling Meadows, but who would ever know? We lived in a couple other apartments in Schaumburg then trekked all the way across the country to . . .

. . . another suburb! This time tucked up against Seattle. We then moved to another Seattle suburb then to another, which has only been a town for ten years. It’s chief claim to fame is that it has the lowest incidence of crime in the state of Washington, which is to say that no one here can even muster the energy to steal each others’ shit.

For all intents and purposes I come from nowhere.

I also have no ethnicity.

Technically, I’m a Greek-American, and my father was always fond of reminding us that we were Spartans, especially when he wanted us to stop whining about having been injured in some way. His parents were Greek immigrants, but somehow he managed to have a basically ethnicity-free upbringing. My mother is not Greek, which severely pissed off my paternal grandfather. Her father was German but I never knew him (and for all intents and purposes neither did she) and her mother was some kind of white Yankee mutt of maybe French and English and Irish and whatever. My grandparents were back east so we only saw them for a couple weeks in the summer and it was kinda like, here’s that weird old Greek guy again.

I have nothing like the ethnic family experiences I’ve seen in movies (or that Lehane writes so eloquently about in The Given Day). Holidays were whitewashed versions of Christmas and Halloween. I had no religious upbringing at all (which I’m thankful for, actually). I have no idea really what it might be like to be part of some huge Italian or Jewish family with a million cousins all growing up together and everybody’s all in each others’ shit. I was a nation of one.

I also come from no particular time.

I was born in 1964 so was way too young to be a hippy or protest the war in Vietnam. I was also too young to experience cocaine and disco culture, so there’s a silver lining, anyway. I had punk, but experiencing punk in Downstate Illinois and suburban Chicago was even more pointless than punk in general, so, yeah. I was too old for hip hop. I have a friend who joined the army in 1983 and eventually fought in Operation Desert Storm but we were fairly old by then, so I never had that whole drafted into either the great cause like World War II or the horrible debacle of Vietnam.

Everything around me was just kinda fine and blah.

I guess I could write a Lehane equivalent set in the suburbs in the 70s, but why?

After all, here’s what I have instead of the great city or the great generation. I have the future.

I grew up in what might be the only time in American history where everyone was talking about the future. The hippies were talking about a future of peace and love and the conservatives were talking about a future of technology and super-weapons, and everyone assumed we were all going to be living in space by now.

So that’s my Boston, my New York, my Vietnam, my Studio 54, my Passover, my Haight-Ashbury.

I lived in a place and a time that did nothing to shape me. And I mean nothing. So I had to go out and shape myself. And I chose to shape myself in the future. In space, or in a world of myth and legend. In imagination. In possibility. In danger. In worlds uncounted and unexplored.

I’ve been to Boston and it’s a swell city—love the accent—but I’ll still take Waterdeep any old day.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to MY MEAN STREETS

  1. Athan Carter says:

    Some of the best, most memorable stories are set in “suburban nowhere” around so-called boring people. Look at the old Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2799413017). Boring people, everyday lives, suburbia. And then one little thing out of the ordinary happens, and BOOM!

    The thing about boring people living in suburbia is that they will react in interesting, unexpected, and even frightening ways when confronted with something that shakes them out of their daydream.

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