Restless in the midst of abundance

March 02, 1997|By Elise Armacost

I DROVE A Nigerian journalist interning with The Sun's editorial department through the valleys of Baltimore County, across to Reisterstown and north toward the booming exurb of Hampstead. We ate lunch at Friendly Farm restaurant in Upperco, then meandered through the farmland straddling Mount Carmel Road and down Interstate 83.

My companion remarked upon the beauty of the landscape, brown and sere though it was, and upon the homes we passed. I expected wonderment at the gracious old mansions of the valleys, but he seemed just as impressed by suburban colonials and Cape Cods. Not even affluent Nigerians would have such ''compounds,'' he said.

But he made it clear that the American Dream had little appeal for him. ''People here must be very lonely,'' he said.

The comment gave me pause. Too lonely? That's a complaint I have heard rarely, if ever. Indeed, the prevailing sentiment is that there are too many people around. Even folks moving out to one-, two- and three-acre yards feel cramped, hemmed in. They want to be alone.

My friend said this is a trait of Americans in general, and one he dislikes. Africans, he said, are talkative and communal. They enjoy physical proximity. Homes are usually apartments, permeable rather than fortress-like. For fun, people in the crowded capital city of Lagos, where he lives, go visit. Even the poorest of the poor, who live whole families to a room and cook on the floor in the hallways, are content as long as they have something to eat.

In Lagos, strangers chat together in elevators. ''Americans,'' he said, ''look at the ceiling in an elevator.'' He found us wary, into ourselves.

I decided his character assessment was pretty accurate, and thought about how it relates to the ongoing debate over where and how Marylanders should live. No wonder the tide of suburban sprawl is so hard to turn back. We are by nature a people in search of our own space. The settlers sought to stake out their piece of the continent and were pulled toward the frontier when they started to feel uncomfortable. We have not changed much.

Something ludicrous

And yet there is something ludicrous about comparing the family moving from Columbia to Clarksville to the pioneers of days past. They showed bravery in heading out to God-knew-where. They accepted certain hardship and risk in hope of a better life.

We also want a better life. But unlike many of those settlers -- or, for that matter, unlike city dwellers moving across the county line to escape gunfire and economic hopelessness -- the families sprawling from suburb to cornfield already live pretty well.

To my Nigerian friend, Columbia and Westminster look like Shangri-la. By American standards they are still very nice places to live. The folks heading for the hinterlands leave behind lovely homes, decent schools, relative safety and -- compared to many places on this globe -- plenty of space.

The better life they seek is actually an easy life -- insulated not just from real problems, but from the mere inconvenience of dwelling among other people. Loneliness to them is luxury. They don't want to sit too long at the traffic light. They prefer to see trees instead of neighbors' houses. They feel insecure among those of different incomes and backgrounds. They have developed an almost petty intolerance for everyday noises and the flotsam of other people's lives.

A Howard County man who has moved westward three times told a Sun reporter that one of the things he likes best about living in Broadwater Estates instead of Columbia is that he doesn't have to wait to pull into his driveway until the neighborhood kids move their bikes. He said it, amazingly, without a shred of embarrassment. Now he's preparing to leave his $500,000 house to escape those who have come looking for the same thing he wanted.

He won't succeed, not unless he buys a tract of clear-cut in northern Maine. You can find the hassle-free life in some place like that, if you're willing to put up with unpaved roads and moose braying at dawn. You can't find it and still enjoy the benefits of metropolitan life. The minute you think you have, someone will be on your heels.

I tried to explain all this to my friend as we drove from city to suburb to winter-barren fields. He didn't understand. I gestured toward the meadows and talked of people wanting to escape there. He asked, ''From what?''

He saw what de Tocqueville saw: ''Men placed in the happiest circumstances which the world affords . . . [with] a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, . . . restless in the midst of abundance.''

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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