MEET THE DRONES
By Sam Garfield
For literally nothing down—other than a simple two per cent and a promise to pay, and pay, and pay until the end of your life—you too, like a man I’m going to call John Drone, can find a box of your own in one of the fresh-air slums we’re building around the edges of America’s cities. There’s room for all of you in any price range, for even while you read this, whole square miles of identical boxes are spreading like gangrene throughout New England, across the Denver prairie, around Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, New York, Miami—everywhere. In any one of these new neighborhoods, be it in Hartford or Philadelphia, you can be certain all other houses will be precisely like yours, inhabited by people whose age, income, number of children, problems, habits, conversation, dress, possessions and perhaps even blood type are also precisely like yours.
June 1, 1957
(Suburbia) –So begins The Crack in the Picture Window, John Keats’ not so subtle satire on homogenized suburban housing developments and lifestyles. The reader is treated to a close-up, “picture window” look at the fictitious misfortunes of John and Mary Drone as they chase their suburban Nirvana—on the installment plan. The book provides a myriad of sociological warning lights for young couples looking for their dream homes: debt…materialism…superficiality…conformity…and the perils of falling prey to dreamy ads for new tract housing, where shoddy construction includes nightmare financing.
There are plenty of young Drones across this country—young marrieds who are leaving “the old neighborhood” for the fresh air of suburbia. In Chicago, for example, the numbers are astonishing: Since 1950, the suburban population is increasing by nearly 80,000 each year. So why are these young people leaving our cities? I took a ride last weekend to a few suburbs to find out. “Look, when we lived in the city we heard the clatter of the rusty El every ten minutes, to say nothing of the stink from the busses,” one housewife told me. “I could never find fresh produce, but there’s a farm just a mile from us now. We don’t have to buy canned corn anymore,” said another. “I don’t have to battle traffic every day to get to work…I just hop on the 6:30 train and before I know it I’m in my office,” said a father of two who stopped his riding mower long enough to chat with me.
So, there you have it. No El noise…no canned corn…no traffic. Makes me wonder while I’m still living in my apartment…with a view of Lake Michigan; and movie theaters, museums, parks, live theater, department stores, grocery stores (with stacks of canned corn), delis, my barber Erik, my kids’ school, my newspaper office…all a short walk from my front door. I take part in these pleasures—or necessities—when I choose. On my time. But for John and Mary Drone…moving to the suburbs is all about stepping in line:
All the rest of the summer, barbeque block party followed barbeque block party, and each party was exactly like all others. The specialty was charred chicken and salad, prepared by some luckless male, and each party fell apart as quickly and completely as an ill-made hollandaise sauce. The women would gather into one tight little clot against one fence, and the men would congeal in another corner, sitting on sandboxes, leaning against jungle gyms. The ladies would resume their toilet-training researches and the men would discuss such safety neutral subjects as automobiles, wartime experiences, and the difference in beers. Everyone left each party wondering why he’d come.
…wondering why he’d come. How’s that for a sociological warning light? And there’s much more to the story than just bad barbeque chicken. The lives of John and Mary Drone in the development of Rolling Knolls drones on and on and on…a joyless sign of the times, perhaps. Keats is very blunt. He believes these suburban housing developments turn wives into “dull-witted, nagging slobs.” And husbands, writes Keats, are “woman-bossed, inadequate, money-terrified neuters.”
Is Keats on to something…a societal prophet? Read the book and judge for yourself. Or better yet…move to Nirvana.
Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.