Friday, April 25, 2008

Ernie's Epitome

A beautiful essay by my old friend Ernie. We met in nursery school, grew up together, and to this day, play each other dead even in "cut-throat" scrabble.

I live and work about 65 miles due South of Washington, D.C. in Southern Maryland. The political mindset and terrain of this region reminds me much of my hometown area around Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The region of Southern Maryland consists of four counties of rapidly vanishing farmland which for the last 40 years has been undergoing a transition into a bedroom community for suburban D.C. This land is tucked away between the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River so it has traditionally been isolated despite its proximity to D.C., but that isolation is disappearing as a result of suburban D.C.'s swelling population.

About a dozen years ago the Federal government's Base Realignment Committee moved my job and about 20,000 other military and civil servant jobs to Southern Maryland, along with all the support contractors and thousands of other workers needed to work in the chain department stores and other required support services. What was once a sleepy community of farmers, fishermen, and workers at southern Maryland's Naval Air test station founded during WWII has now become a sterile community composed of a six lane, six mile shopping strip populated with a BestBuy, fast-food restaurants, a Super Walmart, an Old Navy store, a Target, an Outback, and other national and regional retail chains. What this area also has in common with other exurbs is its lack of sidewalks and lack of good public transportation for all. Common with Mr. Polk's description of the short-sightedness of commercial "strips", southern Maryland, despite its unprecedented growth in the last dozen years, was unable to engage in forward thinking, so southern Maryland, even that six miles of strip malls, still requires the absolute necessity of a personal automobile to conduct such basic living requirements as grocery shopping and transportation to work.

One of the things that lured me to the D.C. region over 20 years ago after I graduated from the school of Engineering at Mississippi State University was D.C.'s cosmopolitan environment: D.C. has the Smithsonian and other museums, the National Zoo, several ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Adams Morgan's multi-ethnic mix of Hispanic, Afghan, and Middle Eastern restaurants in addition to D.C.'s beautiful architecture in its historic communities. I learned to appreciate architectural sensitivity by hanging around my high school friend James Polk when we were both undergrads at MSU. There are also numerous festivals to be enjoyed in D.C. throughout the warm months of each year.

For the first five years I lived in basement apartments in D.C. until I bought a quaint Cape Cod home in the D.C. area town of Cheverly. Cheverly has been described as "a diamond in a coal mine"; its three boundaries are isolated by two limited access highways and access from the third state highway is limited by a clever implementation of one-way roads which all but one lead only out of the town of Cheverly. The houses of Cheverly are not cookie-cutter duplicates, each house is distinctive. Every street in Cheverly has public sidewalks allowing its residents to walk anywhere in town. If you know Mr. Polk you will not be surprised that it was he who made me aware of the advantages of Cheverly when I was in the market for my first home. Incidentally, Cheverly also has a Metrorail subway stop which allows the Cheverly residents to take the subway to almost any community in the D.C. area. The Metrorail allowed me to get to my office if I had car trouble or if there was snow or frozen roads - something which seems to occur less each successive year due, perhaps, to global warming.

After my job was transitioned to southern Maryland about a dozen years ago I commuted the long hour and a half to my new work location for about 9 years. The long commute made my once enjoyable job an ordeal. I still enjoyed the engineering work of my job, but now I'd have to wake at 5 AM, and I wouldn't get home until at least 7 PM or even later if the weather was inclement or if a highway accident caused congestion. I didn't dislike my job, I disliked my commute. After nine years of this craziness and after I turned 40 years old I started falling asleep behind the wheel. Sometimes I'd have to pull off the road and take a 15 minute nap so I wouldn't fall asleep behind the wheel and kill myself and other commuters. The quality of my life kept disintegrating. In desperation I finally bought a house on two little two acres of land only seven miles from my southern Maryland office and then sold my Cheverly home in the middle of this last crazy housing boom.

I exchanged one over-priced house for another over-priced house so that I could be closer to work. All my new neighbors are friendly and, like me, keep well-manicured lawns. One of my new neighbors is about ten years younger than me with two girls in elementary school. Ironically, he's a manager at a warehouse in the area of D.C. which I moved away from so that I could be closer to work. He is one of the many commuters in the exurbs of southern Maryland who forfeits three hours of each day commuting so that his two girls can go to a decent public school and he and his wife don't have to worry about the crime of a large metropolitan community. Also ironic is that the dozen years that I lived in Cheverly I was never a victim of crime. Go figure.

I like living in my new community. There are numerous white-tailed deer in my new semi-rural community which causes me consternation when they use my shrubbery for food. There are also bald Eagles, Ospreys, owls, and geese which make each weekend day and each warm night very entertaining to the nature lover in me. I can also take my canoe and shove off into the creek behind my house and paddle into a serene area of the Patuxent River which empties out into the Chesapeake Bay and enjoy aquatic nature.

Most importantly I'm now only 15 minutes away from my office so my job has become enjoyable again, and I no longer dread waking and making the long commute to work. But I miss the walkable community I once lived in; I miss the convenience of the Metrorail, and I miss the public radio station that I once so easily received on my FM radio - thank goodness for NPR's streaming audio via my broadband internet access!

So after my grass is mowed and my shrubbery is deer-proofed I make my way some weekends to D.C.'s Dupont Circle community. I stroll the streets of Dupont Circle, sit in the public parks in the area and watch the occasional artist engaged in a public performance, rub shoulders with people who many times look and think differently from myself and from my neighbors in southern Maryland, and I take in museum displays and thought-provoking theatre and movies which never come to southern Maryland.

I would never want to forfeit my memories and experiences of camping, fishing, and hunting with my blue-collar Father in the wilds of Mississippi. I would never want to forfeit the experience of hunting the woods with my fraternal grandmother for sassafras root which would then by cleaned and boiled into a slightly intoxicating tea. Every child is not lucky enough to have my Father and grandmother.

But back to the subject of this blog response: One certainty, along with death and taxes, is change, and the United States has now become a debtor nation, and its time for us to pay who we came to the dance with. Gasoline is now over $3.00 a gallon, and with the depreciating value of the U.S. dollar and the growing middle class of India, China, and other areas of the World, the price of gasoline will undoubtedly keep climbing.

Walkable communities, which were once valued only for their social advantages will soon become an economic necessity. Perhaps this necessity of economics will force humans to re-engage with their fellow humans.

Ernest C. Suggs, Jr.

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