Years ago, when our kiddiewinks were toddlers, Wonder Woman and I explored the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, looking for a home that was close to work and that promised decent public schooling for the sproutlings. Someone directed us to Ashburn, a new development that was going up between Sterling and Leesburg. Skeptically -- regular readers of these pages will know my feelings about suburban housing developments -- we drove out there one Sunday to take it in.
What greeted us was a sea of mud, every tree for miles ripped out by the roots and bulldozed into piles like genocide victims in some horror-documentary, newly dammed ponds of shit-colored water awaiting stocks of mud-loving bluegill and carp, a labyrinth of curved culs-de-sac knotted into each other so as, when seen from the air, to resemble a fractal vision of Hell.
And houses under construction. Thousands and thousands and thousands of boxes, single-family castles on an eighth of an acre with laughable, piss-elegant brick fronts and identical pus-yellow vinyl sides and back, the sides discreetly blank, windowless, so as not to expose private goings-on to neighbors four, five feet away. Seas of ChemLawn grass sprayed from a hose blanketed the mud.
We drove on, mute. Horrified.
I have many friends who live in Ashburn, and I can't in any way hold it against them. It is convenient for the thousands of people who work at the enormous local campuses of Verizon and AOL and the countless streamlined buildings that line the Dulles Technology Corridor. Unlike many other suburban hells, Ashburn does offer housing in a wide range of prices, and the faces in the grocery stores and strip malls come in a huge variety of colors and shapes. People from crumbling Annandale, Falls Church, Baileys Crossroads, aspire to Ashburn.
Still, it was undeniably surreal to open yesterday's WashPost to find a Metro-section feature that informed us -- unironically, without a hint of surprise -- that Wilson Pickett had lived out his final years in Ashburn.
Wilson Pickett lived in Ashburn.
Pickett lived on this street. We had to go look, right?
I'm not sure how to process this information. An erstwhile rowdy partyboy R&B soul-shouter with a checkered past and scores of classic recordings in his repertoire has to quietly live out his final years somewhere, I suppose. The Post says Ashburn's proximity to Dulles Airport factored into Pickett's decision.
But what a strange, strange choice. A soul singer, living in the most soulless place in the universe. The place is so utterly devoid of funk, so bereft of the pelvic-swinging sweaty abandon burned into every groove of his records.... Just thinking of Pickett living there boggles the mind.
The neighbors quoted in the Post piece attest that his last years were serene, that he was a friendly and personable neighbor who fished with the fellow next door and sweetly sent baby-shower gifts. But the idea of this rock-n-roll Bacchante -- who gave us "In the Midnight Hour," for all love -- living his twilight years in a plastic bedroom development in the big-box exurbs is profoundly depressing.
God, we've lost so much. We've lost wooden siding, slate roofs, plaster walls, mullioned double-hung windows and modesty of scale. Front porches that are actually used. We've lost walking to school. Children able to play outside for hours, parents cheerfully unconcerned about their whereabouts. Trees older than any living person. Wainscoting. Streetcars. Sleeping-porches with a roll-out divan. Wood-burning fireplaces, the smell of hickory smoke, skating on a frozen pond. The smell of butter on ice in a restaurant, lemon-water, fresh iced tea. White gloves and hats on women at garden-parties. Endless neighborhood games of kick-the-can, touch football, capture-the-flag, on wide and sun-dappled lawns. Real Volkswagen Beetles. Pipe-smoke -- when was the last time you smelled pipe-smoke?
A sense that entertainment, absence of boredom, was a reward and not a right.
Perhaps the thing we miss the most is people with firsthand knowledge, born of dire experience, of what life was like before everything became coated with a layer of melted polyethylene. People that actually give a shit that their lives are stuffed to the brim with useless shiny dazzling plastic crap. Goddammit, those things up there were taken from us.
I feel like a jibbering street-loon even mentioning their loss, though.
I think people accept a life shackled to a house, a car, an office, a car, and a house -- all climate-controlled, wirelessly accessed, and double-redundant so that if God forbid the endless stream of entertainment suddenly went down something would immediately jump in and fill the void -- because any alternative is simply inconceivable. Who's going to tell them any different? Tim Russert? Billy Bush? Joy Behar? Jeff Probst?
Hell, what other information is going in?
Universities train hopeful kids: Fuck the Humanities! That's for fags and losers, not Real Men like you! Learn Symbolic Analysis and you will be free! And the youths (Marks?), all trig and chipper in their little paper Trainee hats, their spouses and children at home gobbling down Zoloft and Ritalin by the bucketful and weeping their eyes out in front of Oprah or Spongebob, sit in choking traffic at 7:30 AM on the Dulles Toll Road on the way to a junior project-management gig at Oracle and contemplate the blessings of the infinite freedom they enjoy.
After all, hell, they live next door to Wilson Pickett. That's got to count for something.