How the Other Half Lives

Mike and I spend time down in Phoenix, chatting with “city folk.”

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a housewarming party down in Phoenix. The party was yesterday evening. After some minor discussion, Mike and I hopped into my city car (the Honda S2000), put the top down, and sped southeast.

We hit Home Depot and A.J.’s Fine Food along the way. At Home Depot, we needed to gather pricing information for a summer cabin I’d like to build on our property at Howard Mesa. The plan is to have a building shell put on the property, then fill the shell with the comforts of home — things like toilets, sinks, lights, a bed, a stove. You know. That stuff you have where you live that makes your home feel more like a home than a campsite. We bought our hostess a nice orchid plant with a decorative pot and a Home Depot gift card. Then we hit A.J.’s for some deli salads and a cake.

Our hostess was one of my editors. I write articles for a technology Web site called InformIt, which is somehow related to Peachpit Press, one of my publishers. I write about the kinds of things that can be found in my Peachpit books and InformIt adds links so readers can buy my books. They also pay me a few hundred bucks per article. That’s a good deal for me, since I can knock off two articles in a day and they seem interested in publishing anything I want to write about. When I’m done with my Tiger book, I plan on writing eight or ten articles for them before I dive into my QuickBooks book.

I’d never met Esther in person and the photos she uses as her iChat icon looks nothing like she does in real life. (I think it might be a glamour photo.) So when we arrived at her house, it took some guessing to figure out which one she was. I got a big hug before she hurried off to do other things. Mike and I grabbed a coke and tried to mingle with the other guests. We were not very successful. The other guests were gathered in groups and obviously knew each other. They pretty much ignored us newcomers. I guess they didn’t need to meet anyone new. We didn’t need to meet anyone new either, but you don’t normally go to a party with that attitude, so we’d left it at home. Since several of the conversations seemed to revolve around OS/2 (an ancient IBM-created operating system, if you recall), we didn’t feel as if we were missing much.

After a while, Esther showed us around the house. They’d been living there three months and had finished most of their unpacking. Both Esther and her husband, Bill, work out of the house and their offices were in the two front bedrooms, side by side. Lots of computer stuff. Mike says the house was probably built in the 70s, but I think it might be early 80s. It had an interesting layout, with a master bedroom suite tucked into one corner and a long, narrow kitchen with two giant refrigerators and a chest freezer. (Seriously into refrigeration, as Mike said.) Esther brought us back out into the back yard, which was completely surrounded by a 6-1/2 foot wall, and had a curvy-shaped pool with a fence around it. There were big trees that shaded the half of the yard without the pool. The next door neighbor had really, really tall palm trees. A third of an acre, Esther told us proudly. “Pretty big for this area.”

The area was just south of Thunderbird around 56th Street. All the houses were like Esther’s: single-story homes with walled-in back yards, and security company signs on their front lawns. Suburbia. Later, Mike commented about how odd it was to not be able to see the horizon from the backyard. I hadn’t thought about it. The backyard hadn’t seemed like the outdoors to me and I wasn’t really expecting to see the horizon.

We found some folks in one of the two living rooms who were more friendly and we settled down with them. One group was a family: mom, dad, and two kids. The son, who was probably about 11, had his head buried in a Game Boy the entire time we were at the party — about 2 and a half hours, as it turns out. He even managed to continue playing while he was eating dinner. The girl, who was 8, spent much of the time browsing through Esther’s impressive collection of books, which includes some compilations of comics and an odd book called “Why Cats Paint.” The dad told us about his flight training experiences, which were impressive but did not result in a pilot certificate. The mom talked with two other moms about the school systems where they lived.

Another guy who heard we’d driven down from Wickenburg was very impressed. “That’s a long drive,” he said. “And I was debating whether it was worth the drive for me.” He’d come from Thunderbird and 24th Street. Just over thirty city blocks away. Well, to be fair, blocks in Phoenix aren’t like blocks in New York. You can walk 30 blocks in New York and not break a sweat. Thirty blocks in Phoenix has to be at least three miles. That was some drive.

The conversation turned to neighborhoods and this is where it got weird. They all started comparing their neighborhoods. Apparently, it was a good thing that in one neighborhood, people liked to put their barbecue grills out on the driveway and hang out there. So everyone had their barbecues out in front of their houses, within shouting distance to their neighbors. Almost every house in that same neighborhood, which was on Wagon Wheel Road, had wagon wheels in front of their houses and they’d put colored lights on the wagon wheels for all the holidays. People would drive through the neighborhood on those holidays just to look at the lights on the wagon wheels. Another neighborhood got hundreds of kids for Halloween because people from South Phoenix would drop off their kids there to go trick or treating.

Esther’s real estate agent showed up late with a woman and a plate of cookies. They were dressed as if they were ready to hit some posh wine bar in Scottsdale after the festivities at Esther’s. They joined in the conversation. And that’s when Esther started talking about the convenience of living two houses off Thunderbird. When they lived in Taranto, they’d get in the car and have to drive 10 minutes before they got to any shopping. That gave them plenty of time in the car to decide where they were going out to eat. Now they have no time for discussion in the car. They get to shopping within minutes and there are so many choices. And sometimes, they even pass their house while they’re still out shopping!

Wow. I never really thought of convenience as a reason to live in one of the thousands of “compartmentalized” homes in the Valley. Sure, I bitch that there are no dining options here in Wickenburg and shopping is somewhat limited. But never in a million years would I consider moving down into the Phoenix area just to increase my dining and shopping options. That’s a quality of life change. Those folks get their privacy from 6-1/2 foot walls that block the views. I get my privacy from having neighbors that live too far away to see into my windows. Those folks make their neighbors an integral part of their lives with community barbecues and home lighting rituals. I make outdoor activities and recreation an integral part of my life with hiking, horseback riding, and Jeeping — all from my backyard. Those people live with the sound of traffic on Thunderbird or other major arteries a backdrop to their daily existence. The soundtrack for my life is the sound of the wind and the birds and the occasional howl of a coyote or hoot of an owl.

We left the party at 9 PM, using our long drive as an excuse for early departure. We were tired — Mike had done some serious yard work early in the day and I’d spent 3 hours that morning at the office. We drove up to I-17 and Carefree Highway with the top down. The sky was clear and the moon was full. As the ambient light around us faded, the stars emerged, one by one. I realized that the folks we’d spent the evening with probably couldn’t see the stars from their homes.

Would I trade my lifestyle for theirs? What do you think?

What do you think?