The Burbs

by Kiko Matsing

“Here it is, where the common people live,” J. said as we entered a suburban neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses and close-cropped lawns. Where are the people? I wondered. They must be cooped up inside their climate-controlled spaces. It was the end of July after all. In my journal, I had scrawled only one line: Arrived in Houston. I would live for a couple of weeks at J. and T.’s until I got my own place. T. was a nurse, like most Filipinos I would later meet here, in one of those big hospitals that form the conglomerate called the Texas Medical Center. A Philippine presidential candidate had once come here for treatment. He had been a strong contender until abruptly dropping out of the campaign trail. He is now dead. Seeing these prodigious facilities for every imaginable disease makes one think, if for anything, Houston must be the place to get sick in and die. J. was an officer of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. He escorted inmates on medical treatment. I imagined her installing drips on shooting victims as he handcuffed them on the bed railings. She’d get flustered and miss the vein. He’d inadvertently tighten the cuffs. Kinky.

If one were to place J. in a B-movie, he would be one of those coppers played by uncredited extra that gets shot and killed in the first two minutes of the action sequence. Perhaps this sense of expendability could be why his nerves always seem to be on edge–his pale blue eyes alert with muted alarm–and poised to scream his head off. He is just one wrong turn away from pushing daisies. So, he lugs his gun in his fanny pack even when we go malling at the Galleria. I saw him ready his hands over it once, as we passed by Scott Street, all set to pump lead on any would be ghetto assailant. One can therefore imagine my distress when he was teaching me how to arm and disarm their house’s security system. At night, he and T. would block the kitchen door with a rolling cart of condiments to keep me from tripping the motion sensors and summon what he assured me as an ear-piercing, heart-pounding siren from the bowels of the earth. I would tread the hallway in trepidation to pee in the wee hours.

Why was J. so troubled about safety in this seemingly sedate neighborhood? Is it perhaps just benign on the surface, and there is really something base beneath the glossy-shop-window veneer? Something you can barely put your finger onto like the root of road rage or drive-by shootings, or the violence latent in the criminals he guards, that he handcuffs even while tranquilized? One of their neighbors around the corner was terrified into selling their house after being broken into. The robbers had come in while they were away at the strip mall, ransacked the place, and, to add insult to injury, gleefully soiled their bedroom with shit. I waited for J. to add a self-satisfied “I know a thing or two about a thing or two…” while making a point about there being no such thing as being too cautious in this city. There was a built-in sense of despair in J. about human nature. Perhaps that was how he had gotten by in his job, with every kind of lowlife always trying to pull a fast one on him. The sniffing-dog sense, however, never got switched off; there was a hanging fear that the Universe might just become aware of his redundancy and rub him out. The ear-twitching and tail-wagging instinctively kicked in.

“Houston is a car town,” J. said. He did not only mean people here preferred their gas guzzlers, but that there was practically no way of getting around without one. It was also a way of saying, I had better move closer to campus. Houston sprawled over what looked like a shooting target on the map. Interstates 10 and 45 formed the crosshairs, while the 610 Loop and Beltway 8 formed the small and large concentric circles. It would take one at least 2 hours at 65 mph to go around the 610 Loop. The “bad” (i.e. non-white) neighborhoods were on the southeast quarter of the pie, my American roommate said; his family lived on the northwest quarter. The university lay just southeast of the bull’s-eye off the I-45 exit at Scott Street.

It caught me off-guard that people here do not care for public transport. Everything is meant to be reached by car. Strip malls consisted of huge one-story buildings strewn over a wide area that one had to drive between buying door knobs and pet food. Inside, everything is insouciantly stacked, presented as is, without joy, to an inured consumer. There is nothing confrontational with the vinyl tiles and the fluorescent lighting, or the efficient politeness of store clerks wearing “How may I help you?” on their blue vests. Is it possible to experience real life here, where its more distressing elements are kept at arms length from the confines of the car or the bubble of decorum in the strip malls? It turned out that bus routes in fact service explicity the “bad” neighborhoods–or (I suppose) such neighborhoods flourished around them–with access reduced or stopped on the weekends, probably, to keep the riffraffs from the affluence of places such as the Rice Village. Public transport as technique for social stratification? I do not doubt J.’s profuse warnings, and I have been accosted more than once on the stops by shady characters with their troubles about drugs, alcohol, and women, but, having cocooned oneself thus, is there anything else left of life but to lie entombed in one’s suburban necropolis, like meticulously desiccated mummies, or body parts pickled in preserving fluids?

I would be back at J. and T.’s again for New Year, which came about without the usual raucous and fireworks I had grown accustomed to. J. was on the beat that night, and so it fell upon me to accompany T. to a Filipino nurses’ dinner party. To avoid the agony of small talk, I had volunteered to take her place on the mah-jong table and played all night. I was supposed to greet the change of year getting pissed drunk with new found friends, but they started backing out at the last minute, and the plan fizzled out faster than stale beer. In reality, I did not have the stamina to do any merrymaking, and had actually preferred to brood over Kafka’s parables (I had just gotten a Schocken edition of his complete stories) than suffer such joyful occasions. So, with typical Taoist wei wu wei, I simply submitted to the tide of events around me with the least resistance, and allowed myself to be humiliated at the mah-jong table by a quorum of old ladies. Meanwhile, the (un)reality of thousands drowned by tsunami half a world away had yet to sink in. The urgent images on CNN, the heart-tugging reporting of posterboy Anderson Cooper, the bewildered faces of the victims, could not disturb those brightly lit lawns, made more strangely beautiful under the fog that had suddenly descended upon suburban America.