Loosing your place

 The Sportswriter
There's no better way to find your inner suburbia

THE OTHER NIGHT my hall suddenly filled with smoke and an overworked electric smell, like a $30 blender makes when forced to liquefy crisp beets.

The motor in the furnace, which is locked in the basement suite of the hundred-year-old house we inhabit, had burst into flames and now, as three fire trucks roared up through Chinatown to the curb out front, I packed my laptop, some photos, some taped interviews, and tried to calculate just how to fit several years and approximately two hundred pounds of rough notes into my expedition backpack.

In a moment of panic, I settled on just two folders, leaving the rest in the hands of the Calgary Fire Department. (Capable hands, as it turned out.)

Next morning, after slipping a synopsis of the night's events under my absent downstairs neighbour's door (after living in the same house for six months, this was maybe a sheepish way to introduce myself), I turned curiously to the two folders, wondering how justified their spot in the evacuation had been. One held the opening chapters of the book I've been working on, hand-written and not yet entered into the laptop; the other about thirty pages of notes along with a half-dozen index cards, which I'd forgotten I had written out several years ago while reading a pair of Richard Ford novels set in the New Jersey suburb of Haddam.

In other words, as I thought my inner-city home was about to go up in flames, I saved a bunch of quotes about some distant suburb.

Frank Bascombe, the narrator and central character in both these Ford books, lives by the mantra “there is no such thing as a false sense of well-being.” He does not just wear his suburb like skin; in his soft-boiled unflappable wit he is himself a suburbâe"an answer for each of modern life's superficial barbs, an answer unfit for their larger amalgamation. “In Haddam,” Bascombe explains (he almost croons), “summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.”

He has escaped Manhattan and, despite his certainty about Haddam, spends most of book one (The Sportswriter) over-consciously selling himself on the experience, the delusion, the knowability of an existence analogous to what he once thought of as authentic. “I have read that with enough time American civilization will make the Midwest of any place, New York included,” he muses. “And from here that seems not at all bad.”

As he sinks further into himself, into Haddam, the sale seems to complete itself. “Beside the humming train cars,” he tells the reader near the end of the book, “I actually do feel my moorings slacken, and I will say it again, perhaps for the last time: there is mystery everywhere, even in a vulgar urine-scented, suburban depot such as this. You have only to let yourself in for it. You can never know whatâe(TM)s coming next. Always there is the chance it will beâe"miraculous to sayâe"something you want.”

By the time book two (Independence Day) begins, he has cashed in his gig writing sports in order to sell other people pieces of Haddam, as a real estate agent. He eases a pair of Vermont buyers' apprehensions, explaining “nobody knows his neighbours in the suburbs.” And it was just about as I passed this point in the notesâe"actually laughing out loud at how wonderful Bascombe can make such preposterous ideas seemâe"my doorbell rang. I led two guys from the furnace company down to the basement suite, which the landlord had unlocked. There on the floor, inches beyond where I carefully pushed it hours earlier, was my synopsis of events, which ended with an earnest invitation (a loving invitation) for our neighbour to come up one day for tea. “Just knock.”

As the furnace guys fiddled in the other room, I clandestinely picked up the note, crumpled it into potato-shape, shoved it in my pocket and went back upstairs. âe"Chris Koentges

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