February 20, 2009

Going Back to Rockville

Yesterday (or maybe it was the day before yesterday) I embarked on a mission that took me to Rockville, Maryland--the sweet, innocent (& historic!) suburb of suburbs of the capital of the United States of America in which I live. I also live on the red line, and Rockville is also on the red line, so public transportation was an option. This year is only six weeks old and I have already been to three continents BUT I have never been to Rockville. I smell adventure.

The metro and my book put me to sleep in Van Ness and I woke up just in time for Rockville. Everything was concrete and painted lanes. I waited and waited at the station for the bus, but it never came. Nobody said hello, and I tried asking directions but nobody wanted to talk to me. So I walked. Two miles through the brown grass suburbs and naked tree parks with DO NOT... signs nailed to wooden posts. Past the Korean Presbyterian Church, the Latvian Lutheran Church, the Episcopalian Church and the First Baptist. I crossed over a sixteen-lane highway on a pedestrian bridge paid for by some Ruhr valley sister city in Germany--a cycle lane lined with overhead chain link guards to keep me from jumping to my death or throwing projectiles at people's windshields.

I wandered; I walked and walked. I accomplished my mission and then covered the miles of lawn and sidewalk and brick shopfronts back to the station, where I climbed on at Rockville and disappeared myself back to DC.

Only then did I have that kind of self-wake up call (Hey!) for the song and lyrics of R.E.M's most appropriate song: Don't Go Back to Rockville. Guitarist Mike Mills wrote it for his girlfriend who actually wanted to move back to Rockville, Maryland and his lyrical depiction of the place is kind of dead on. Also, it's a perfect song for the great American malaise known as the American suburbs because Rockville is the real-life Springfield of the United States. There's at least one Rockville in Maryland, Connecticut, California, Indiana, South Carolina, Utah, AND New Jersey (case closed).

Don't get me wrong, here. It's SO easy to trash the American suburbs--we all love to make fun of them but we all grew up in them. America's suburbs are why we lived to be this age and how we got to have straight teeth and know how to play tennis and swim butterfly and do algebra. What's more, it's America. We can't pretend that America is just purple mountains and the St. Louis arch and the Mojave desert and Pennsylvania Dutch mandalas painted on red barns surrounded by wheat fields. Most of America is cookie-cutter, communal mailbox, "from the lower 200's" subdivisions separated by school district and the asphalt expanses of shopping malls. Mock it not, because it just is. And the rest of the world from Johannesburg to Shanghai is trying their darndest to recreate the ideal we're trying our darndest to disdain.

U2's "The Joshua Tree" was the first cassette tape I ever owned. The second was R.E.M's "Eponymous" which changed my life. Here's the song that's been stuck in my head since Wednesday, filmed way back in 1985 when it was still fresh and edgy and not yet a cult classic, sung by a blonde and boyish Michael Stipe. I probably won't go back to Rockville, but if I do, I'd have this song on repeat.

3 comments:

Debra said...

The opportunity for R.E.M to spontaneously pop into my head is the real reason I moved to DC. Last summer, while you were on a plane to some fabulous destination (I believe it was Botswana), I was watching R.E.M. play "Don't go back to Rockville" live. That may be the one time I didn't wish to trade you places!

AE said...

I remember! You called and left a message on my phone with Michael Stipe singing in the background. Mutual jealousy.

Zach said...

I lived in Rockville for a few months after getting back to the U.S. while plotting my next move (which was out of Rockville). I had "Don't Go Back to Rockville" stuck in my head the entire time, even wrote a TV treatment for friends about the experience with that title.

I do want to get back there at some point though to see F. Scott and Zelda's graves.