"Ice Cold Six Packs to go." Now that's a poem.-Campbell McGrath
Growing up in a New Jersey suburb I’m highly attuned to what I call, “commuter culture,” the idiosyncrasies and mores of the men and women who flush themselves into the tunnels of New York City for each workday to conduct business in a metropolis that resembles nothing like the leafy town from which they left.
It’s the small details of this culture - like the preference of men to wear a Barbour Beaufort jacket over their suit instead of a trench coat, the hear-a-mouse-fart silence that’s observed on the morning train in to New York, or the purchase of one single brown-paper-bag-sheathed beer for the trip home that I find fascinating on a sociological level. These rituals are sacrosanct traditions that stir strong emotions in me, similar to incense at Catholic Mass. In other words, it’s what I’ve always known, and as such, becomes oddly comforting in its sameness and repeatability.
Philip Levine found the simple truth in the, “dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,” the type of thing that is, “...so simple and true,” that it must be, “said without elegance, meter and rhyme.” I feel the same way about the single-beer-on-the-way-home phenomenon, even though I am not a drinker. Taking the above photo is my way of documenting that ritual. While Levine’s example is grounded in the personal - the experience of a single individual purchasing, cooking and consuming - the beer cart’s beauty - and I do see its beauty - is the universality of the pleasure it provides through quick transaction, the way it appeals to thousands of scurrying commuters, who, before dinnertime, want nothing more than to wash the day’s dust away by tipping can on the way home.
I like how certain rules get codified without ever being written down - the way you’re supposed to stand on the right hand side of an escalator so the people who want to walk up the escalator can pass on the left hand side. On the train, one brown bagged beer (12 oz. to 24 oz.) is OK, however two cans invokes dipsomania. It’s funny how the line is drawn.
Residing in a city has much to recommend it as a living cauldron of culture and diversity. I don’t disagree with this, and that’s why I’ve always been attracted to New York. However, I never much understood the arbitrary binary opposition that gets created (city:creativity::suburb:banality) in the myriad of send-ups in film and literature that critique suburban culture. To me, these recreations of the suburbs use straw-man characters (work-obsessed men, bored pill-poping housewives) and tired tropes, implementing a kind of lazy shorthand that belies any sort of nuanced understanding: the very same lack of intellectual depth that they - the cultured city folk - are trying to critique.
In these sendups, the suburbs become a symbol of insulation, though these critiques never seem to explore the fact that for many, moving to the suburbs involves a capital-s Sacrifice to create a better life for one’s children, rather than some innate desire to avoid the examined life via retreat to routines of pizza takeout and Saturday night Netflix.
As someone who has lived in both locations, I know there are unique advantages of each setting and many joys (restaurants, theater, &tc) that can be found in either locale. Though, there are some pleasures that cannot be communicated across the suburb/city divide, and oftentimes it is something elemental and pedestrian, like the simple truth of a beer on the way home to your family in the suburbs.