A Glimpse of an Alternate Reality

"A plan of the town of Boston with the in...

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When my husband got a job in the “Metro West Boston area”, we envisioned a move to an urban setting. We envisioned downsizing significantly to fit into a two-bedroom apartment with rent higher than our mortgage in Utah. We envisioned car-light (or maybe even car-free?) living, using Boston’s wonderful public transit to visit museums and restaurants and all manner of historic sites. We envisioned living side by side with people from all over the world.

What we found when we arrived was that my husband’s work is about as far from Boston as you can get and still be in “Metro West.” We considered living in the city and having my husband do the reverse commute to work, but we found that the commuter rail station is miles and miles from where he works and the schedules aren’t really set up for a reverse commute. The commute by car would be about an hour and that would leave me without the car during the day (which would be an extended day because of the 2+ hours of commuting time, without traffic. And from what I can tell, you’re never entirely without traffic here).

We settled for a nice, suburban home in a friendly neighborhood about 2 1/2 miles from the downtown of our little suburb, which is nonetheless nearly inaccessible without a car because the drivers are unaccustomed to sharing the road with bikes and pedestrians and there are sidewalks only part of the way. The benefit is that we’re only an 11-minute bike ride from my husband’s work, so if he can winterize his bike sufficiently to commute during the New England winter, we can remain a one-car family.

But still, our situation is such that the kids and I can do hardly anything without driving. This was a rude awakening for me. I’ve been systematically decreasing our driving time and distance since we lived in California. When we were in Utah, I challenged myself to use the car just one day a week for bigger errands and to walk or take public transit the rest of the time. I back-burnered this idea during my heavily pregnant months (for me, about five months in) and throughout the newborn months when I was ultra-germphobic. I was just working my way back to using the car less again when we moved.

And now here I am. Totally and utterly dependent on my little car. This week (Sunday to Saturday) we will spend a total of about 11.5 hours in the car. If you’re guessing that this means we’re spending very little time outside walking, playing, or otherwise exercising, you would be right. Not only are we spending more on gas and auto maintenance, we’re becoming less fit. I recognize that this is the norm for middle-class America, but it’s not the norm for us, nor is it consistent with my family’s values. And that pretty much sucks.

During our long drive today, we went to Boston. Well, to Brookline, which is just west of Boston. There the kids and I got a glimpse of what I thought life would be like for us here. There were friendly people of innumerable races, religions, and ethnicities walking the streets together, greeting one another on their way into or out of any number of independently owned shops and restaurants or picking their kids up—on foot—from neighborhood schools. We stopped in at a tiny little place and had an awesome lunch, much better than we’ve had out our way in the five months since we rolled into town.

I loved it.

Yes, there was a lot of traffic, and I did see some apartment rental signs that indicated we would be paying the equivalent of our mortgage or more for a two-bedroom apartment were we to live there. But there! Right there! It was a T stop! Oh, the places we could go with a T stop near our home!

Instead we walked back to our car with nearly an hour still on the meter and hopped on the turnpike back out to the suburbs while listening to the story of the Ingalls family braving Minnesota blizzards in their nineteenth-century prairie farmhouse.

I like our house. I like all of the trees in our neighborhood. I like the hikes that are nearby. I like our neighbors. I like having a garage. I like that downsizing is voluntary rather than necessary. But tonight I’m feeling wistful for that alternate reality in which we are an urban family bee-bopping around Boston, creatively arranging and decorating our tiny apartment, and walking to the grocery store rather than comparing gym membership fees.

4 comments

  1. Melanie Meadors · November 17, 2011

    I remember when we were ready to buy our house, we had ideas of what we wanted. None of them came true! Even the things we liked about our house, we had to rip them all out because they were done wrong or the previous owners had some how royally messed them up. I REALLY hate the fact that we can’t go anywhere without the car here. I can’t even express how much that bugs me, to be “in” Worcester and yet be so isolated from everything! When I go to cities like Boston or Washington DC and I can walk EVERYWHERE, I feel envious. At the same time though, I know that’s not really exactly what I want. My dream home would be a farm like property near a village-like town, where I could ride my bike to the center, or even walk, and get to the library, the grocery store, and the book store. Maybe a craft store. A small place. I’m not enough of a people person to be in a big city.

    Of course, when I was growing up, I seriously wanted to live in Cicely, Alaska. The closest I’ve come is Flagstaff, AZ, which is my most favorite place to live. And I literally walked EVERYWHERE. I am so homesick for that place right now…LOL a couple weeks ago I was looking at some properties out there. Now this real estate agent keeps emailing me. Someday…

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    • CJ · November 17, 2011

      Yes, I wonder too how long I would actually enjoy urban living before my inner misanthrope drove me to hermit-hood.

      I keep craving either something more rural (log cabin off the grid, lots of land around to explore and grow food, no reason to leave the property unless it’s to go a few miles up the country road to pick up the mail) or something more urban. This in-between isn’t really what I had in mind. But I guess I can complain about it or I can make the most of it. Or I can do the first for a while as I’m gearing up for the second.

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      • Melanie Meadors · November 18, 2011

        I’m trying to make the most of what I have until I am able to get what I really want. But when I see that I have company in complaining, it’s hard to resist ;). Right now, though, I have to say that my neighborhood is pretty amusing, so at least we get some entertainment out of it. Every now and then we watch that movie The ‘Burbs and make some comparisons. 🙂

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      • CJ · November 18, 2011

        Oh, if you ever want to hear some good neighbor stories, visit my friend Jenny’s blog (Something Made Different…it’s in my blogroll in the sidebar). Her writing is absolutely hilarious, too. She won second place in the writing competition we were both in in 7th grade. I only won fifth place, so she’s that much better a writer than I am.

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