Something woke me up at 3:00 a.m. last Wednesday. It wasn’t the cries of my teething fourteen-month-old son. It wasn’t my four-year-old daughter asking for more light in her room. It was our twenty-something neighbors, screaming at each other on the sidewalk following their mid-week beer-fueled dance party. This came on the heels of their Sunday afternoon sidewalk beer pong game; someone else’s movie night on Monday, broadcast from speakers that seemed designed to send the screams and gunshot sounds directly into our living room; and another neighbor’s early evening band practice Tuesday night.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, four years ago, a number of people said to me and my husband, “You’re moving, right? You aren’t going to raise kids in that house, are you?” We recounted these conversations to each other over dinner – back in the days when we could actually have conversations at dinner – and laughed. “Ha!” we said. “Move to the suburbs? Never!”
We live in a small (less than 1,000-square-foot) house two-and-a-half blocks from the beach, in a neighborhood of San Diego. A neighborhood that, although it’s filled with a large amount of families and the elderly, is known as a party town. Drinking was recently banned at the beach, but that hasn’t stopped the hordes of college students that descend on the neighborhood bars every weekend.
My husband grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts, where he developed something of a suburb phobia. He shudders when he talks about the crushing boredom, and how nothing was within walking distance. During the long, humid summers, he felt like a prisoner. “That’s how kids get into trouble,” he says. “When they have nothing to do.” I grew up near the beach in Southern California – although in a much fancier neighborhood – so I was all for staying put. At our house we can not only walk to the beach, but also coffee shops, the library, stores, restaurants, even a children’s resale boutique. This was a lifesaver after my daughter was born. None of my friends had babies, so I spent a lot of time taking care of the baby by myself. When I was so tired just standing up made me dizzy, and when she was colicky and screaming and no amount of nursing, rocking, or singing could calm her, a walk to the beach relaxed us both. I loved to sit at the corner coffee shop and show her the world passing by, content knowing that my house was right around the corner if she started to wail.
This was before the couple in their mid-thirties moved out of the four-unit condo next door. And then the middle-aged couple in the other unit moved. And then the guy in the other condo, who seemed to spend his time out of the house working or in the house apparently comatose, moved to Los Angeles. And who filled up these vacant spaces? One by one, each of the units on either side of us filled up with twenty-something men.
At this point I had two kids. I’d be up in the middle of the night, nursing my infant son, and the sounds of a party next door would drift through the open windows. The guys with the band – who play a pleasant-sounding mix of jazz and rock – held their practice from four to eight. A reasonable time for most people, but the combination of the same song, over and over again, bouncing off the walls of the condo next to us, combined with my daughter’s whining for dinner and my son’s screaming, made me mutter under my breath in anger. One Sunday afternoon, as I carried my infant boy in a sling while my daughter rode her tricycle around the block, I came across our neighbors playing beanbag toss on the sidewalk. It was noon and they were blasting music and drinking. As I went by them, I clutched my baby closer to me and hustled my daughter along, ignoring her questions about the game. After I got inside the house and put the kids down for a nap I watched them from our picture window. That’s when I realized – I had gone from hip mid-thirties mom to scowling, finger-pointing old lady.
These boys – okay, young men – were nice people. What was my problem with them? As I thought about it, I realized I didn’t like them because they’re different. When the house across the street went up for sale, we watched it carefully, hoping a young family would move in. Instead, the new owners decided to rent to – who else? – young men in their twenties. Was our disappointment watching them move in any different from someone being disappointed watching someone of a different race move into their block? I hadn’t ever stopped to talk to any of these men. I looked at them and made assumptions about who they were, and even worse, decided I disliked them because of their age.
Maybe I only wanted an urban environment on my terms. Of course it’s normal to want to be around people who are similar to you. But hadn’t my husband and I said, over and over, that we liked the mix of ages in our neighborhood? That the uniformity of the suburbs was not for us? Maybe I only wanted an urban environment on my terms.
Then one day, as my son took his morning nap and I cleaned up the kitchen, I heard a noise from our backyard. I went to investigate, and saw my daughter banging a piece of wood on the concrete and yelling, at full four-year-old volume, her version of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” It went like this: “It’s a long way to the top if you want a poopy butt.” Over and over and over and over.
Maybe we’re better off here. I can put up with weeknight parties and band practice, if they can put up with – well, whatever that was.