It’s August. The heat weighs down on the South into the wee hours, and bored suburban teenagers sneak quietly out their bedroom windows to find each other, to find community in a world that isn’t their parents’. Today, one of the South’s finest memoirists, Jessica Handler, teams up with her friend, photographer Beth Lilly, to conjure the spirits of a special place: the teenage suburban night.
By Jessica Handler | Photographs by Beth Lilly
I can’t say for certain how many suburban Southern kids did what I did: lifted a bedroom window, or crept down a hallway, or simply walked out an unlatched back door into the night. No studies I know of have this data – believe me, I’ve looked. So I conducted a study with a dozen people between the ages of 20 and 60 — a casual survey of random colleagues and students. The only rule for consideration? Have you now or ever been a teenager in the suburbs in the South.
Of my dozen, all but one snuck out at night, and the one who didn’t knew someone – a sibling, the cooler kid, the wild kid, the sad kid – who did.
You did. If you didn’t, you wanted to.
Here’s how it went. I slid my fingers under the bottom of the window sash and hoisted it up just enough to feel the soft night. Then I listened. Nothing. No, not quite nothing: muffled laughter from a distant television, the coo of a mourning dove somewhere closer. Night soft as chamois, thick with the delicious reek of variegated privet: some kind of aching stink of Playtex rubber gloves and pure springtime. Past that? Asphalt still warm from the daytime, streetlights’ halo, velvet darkness, then halo again. And at the end of it all, a beginning at a silent recreation center, an empty park, an open field, an abandoned house. Any place a hidden tribe makes their home.
The call of the wild, for a suburban teenager in the Deep South, is as unshakeable as high school homecoming court or Wednesday Hebrew School or Sunday church. When night came, after the dinner dishes were washed and put away, after the homework or the television shows or the sulking in the bedroom for any and every reason, after the parents went to bed, risk and ritual called every bit as loudly as puberty.
It’s a liminal time, adolescence, a between-time. You’re neither adult nor child, and your skin crawls with all kinds of needs. The only people you can bear for more than 30 seconds are the ones like you, the members of your tribe, or the tribe you wish you belonged to. Like any catalyzing tribe, the members move at first separately, then together, toward a gathering place that no one ever identified as “the” place.
It just is.
Sprawl studies and census reports tell me hard data about what I sense empirically: that in the past half-century or so, the Southeastern United States has grown in population almost half again as much as the rest of the country. In the 1950s, before I was born, the city of Atlanta annexed enough surrounding territory that it tripled in size. The U.S. Census for 1990 shows that more people live in the suburbs than in urban and rural areas combined. The 2010 census shows that the population of American South grew by more than 14 million people since 2000.
What did we gain? That depends on who you ask.
What did we lose? According to the Georgia Conservancy, 27 acres of tree cover each day, among other things. Where did the trees go? Ask the roads that lead to the suburbs, and past them to the exurbs. A suburb doesn’t exist without roads. That’s the point of a suburb: an isolated island of safety and quiet away from the perceived peril and noise of the ever-encroaching city. And to a kid in the suburbs, the roads that lead to that boring house with the boring lawn and the boring parents, hemmed in by suburban isolation, couldn’t run out the absolute need for ritual. And that’s where the inexorable call of the wild comes in. Absent trees, rivers, glens, glades, suburban teenagers had no hidden spaces where intrinsic behaviors flourished.
And so we made our own.
For me and mine, an empty park, sunken like a grassy amphitheater, its rock-rimmed steps and cool glades a safe haven from the shelter of our parents’ homes, our suburban streets, the pretense of sameness in the daylight. My friend Beth grew up in a subdivision built upon the remains of a Charlotte farm where the barn oddly outlived its first use and survived to house the horses of the new suburb’s residents. The barn stood beyond the H-shaped street grids and cul-de-sacs. For Beth, escape meant walking the moonlit rocky trail past the now weirdly misplaced barn, trying to stay nonchalant as she and her older brother’s gang of friends veered too close to the surely haunted barn. For my husband, the land of escape was an overgrown cemetery at the edge of a Chattanooga strip mall. Below the pot-smoking and making out, Christian missionaries and their Cherokee quarry lay in surely uneasy eternal rest at the brink of a parking lot.
To a suburban teenager in the liminal space between night and day, between past and future, there is faultless wonder in a place where the ancients rest at the lip of a strip mall with a Zayre’s and Shoney’s Big Boy.
Allure lives in those shadows, in the hint of sex, in the telling of stories. And in that allure lies risk, and risk tightens the bond. Risk runs the gamut from getting grounded or getting your heart broken to the very real. Consider the classmate killed in a drunken car wreck, or found dead in a park. Consider the classmate sexually assaulted, or the one turned away at dawn by an unstable parent, their volatility a betrayal in the suburbs, a place of benign surety.
Only the children get to break the rules.
But it’s parents who traditionally make the rules, and suburban life is nothing if not outwardly traditional. Daytime means supervision: someone knows where you’re supposed to be at all hours, and what you’re supposed to be doing (that sibling-watching, Hebrew school, church, sports practice world). But the family’s rules don’t always fit when you’re 15 or 16, and the world looks different in daytime than in darkness. Suddenly there are other rules to adhere to, other families – the families we make of our friends or the people we think might let us be their friends – to try on for size.
In other words, we as teenagers wanted community – we needed community – but not the one our parents intended.
In Morningside, the Atlanta neighborhood where I grew up, plans for a highway called Interstate 485 disrupted residents with homes in the planned right of way. Those homes, many of them built in the 1930s, were bought by government agencies for less than market value, and left abandoned for the day when the road came through. Those homes sat empty as shells, waiting for the bulldozers that never came, thanks to the efforts of a determined and politically savvy neighborhood group.
We teenagers waited for the bulldozers, too, making our own shadow homes in these shells, like hermit crabs inside a borrowed carapace. Consider this an adaptation to a disturbed ecosystem. In our own nighttime-weekend-after-school-skip-school-hide from your parents-boyfriend-girlfriend temporary shell homes, we imagined ourselves safe from troubles real and projected. This is what it is like to be a grown woman where I make the rules in my house, we would think. This is what it is like to be a grown man.
At work, my informal study gives me stories. A woman in her 50s remembers ringing doorbells at night in her New Orleans neighborhood. A colleague tells me that in the early ’90s outside of Auburn, Alabama, he and his friends ignited tennis balls with gasoline at the high school tennis court for nighttime games of “flaming tennis.” I think of my own friends, lying arm in arm on the community golf course, shouting into Candler Park’s endless dark sky.
One of my at-work survey dozen, barely out of her own teens, remembers being afraid of the haunted mental institution, which may or may not have been a rumor. (In that suspended place between solid suburban life and the mystery of the teenager’s night, isn’t there always a haunted mental institution, a haunted house, a headless handyman, a haunted barn?)
Can you be haunted by what’s ahead of you? As a teenager, I was haunted by the need to walk down the center line of an empty street on my way to a friend’s house, where she would wait for me beside the shadow thrown by her porch light. One of us became two, and the two walked on to another’s house, eddying like fish, clanging sticks against metal light poles, passing a joint, gossiping. Free.
The suburbs are a monument to sameness, but nighttime obscures that sameness, throwing open a door to which teenagers believe they hold the key. But sameness, too, is what we craved — our own kind of sameness. Alex Chilton, of the late great Memphis band Big Star, sang about it in “In the Street,” a song that so perfectly captures teenage tribalism that “That ’70s Show” used a cover by Cheap Trick for their opening theme (maybe the first television theme song about the comfortable boredom in busting out a streetlight and wishing “so bad” for a joint).
Suburban boredom walks barefooted down an empty nighttime street. Boredom meets up with more boredom right on schedule, at the old cemetery, on the quiet tennis court, in the house with the disregarded “No Trespassing” sign.
Nighttime is a place. The same streets we crossed in the day, the same front yards and backyards and schoolyards, the half-finished streets that went nowhere? They were different at night.
In hiding, were we seeking magic, myth, a world in which we made the rules for those few hours? Teenagers are susceptible to myth and legend. The teenage brain shifts and changes like a landscape that’s not yet run down by sameness. A fertile ground for imagination and belief, in haunted houses, in perfect arcs, in secret worlds, in truest love.
James Dickey knew this (James Dickey knew everything about being Southern) when he wrote, in “In the Tree House at Night,” of leaves and fields “disencumbered.” He was writing of his desire for communion with his dead brother, but he was writing, too, about that secret space where mystery lives.
“I didn’t realize how alone I’d felt,” my husband remembers, decades after he and his friends assembled at that Chattanooga cemetery. Growing up within a tribe helped form him into the man I love, a good and responsible and creative adult. And Beth? Her photographs are here, an adult’s eye capturing the thrumming vibrations of a teenager’s tribal space. As for me, I’m improbably proud to have learned that a childhood friend was warned away from me in adolescence. Her parents had decided that I was wild. Wild is my prideful place, the tribal ritual that made me.
Padding along the asphalt on those barefoot nights comes back to me with every gust of privet in the dark, or anytime I allow myself to sit in dewy grass, knowing that the seat of my pants will come up wet. I lie back in the grass on my own suburban lawn and never, ever, want to go back in the house.
Jessica Handler is the author of “Invisible Sisters: A Memoir,” named by the Georgia Center for the Book as one of the “Twenty-Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her second book, “Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss,” was praised by Vanity Fair magazine as “a wise and encouraging guide.” Featured as one of nine contemporary Southern women writers in Vanity Fair magazine, she learned never again to wear couture.
Beth Lilly is an artist whose conceptually driven projects use narrative to speculate on the interplay of choice, chance and circumstance in the formation of personal and cultural identity. Her critically acclaimed performance/interactive project “The Oracle @ WiFi” was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2012. Recent exhibitions include The High Museum of Art, the Zuckerman Museum, Whitespace Gallery, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the Center for Fine Art Photography, MOCA GA and the New Mexico Museum of Art.