The city may be likened to a great vessel with many watertight compartments, each one separated from all the rest by bulkheads through whose carefully sealed doors a man need never pass except by an act of his own volition. This is a good thing. If a city man has friends, for example, who are crazy about squash, he need never see them indulge their lunacy because they have to do it in a carefully circumscribed place, a building with walls from which the city-dwelling nonsportsman can stay away as easily, and with the same freedom from the risk of being tempted to participate, as a man can stay away from plays about degenerate southern sharecroppers. All he has to do is not go.
In the suburbs, however, there are no bulkheads with carefully sealed doors. Life in the country is an unbuttoned business. Everything is done out in the open, in full view of a man's neighbors as well as his God, from skeet shooting to lawn mowing, from ice skating to berry picking, from swimming to, on occasion, making love. It is not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. It is a matter of seeing Jones at play and being struck by the inevitable thought that perhaps you, too, could have the fun he seems to be having.
This simple illusion is probably responsible for the making of more country dwellers than the ride-it-drive-it garden tractor, the open-air Martini and the backyard swimming pool combined. And what happens?
The other day, on the station platform where we were both waiting for the 8:10 to New York, I ran into a man named Smith. Smith and I have very little in common, but this very little adds up to a bond that makes the relationship between Héloïse and Abélard look like that of a couple who once passed each other in a revolving door: Smith's son is shortstop on the Little League team for which my son plays second base.
Sticking to the unwritten rules of the commuter's game, which are as firm about not starting conversations at that hour of the morning as Hoyle is about the inadvisability of trying to fill an inside straight, I nodded, mumbled an inaudible greeting and moved on. Smith broke the rules. He stopped me.
"I'm sorry to intrude upon your thoughts," he said. "But in case you hear of anybody who wants to buy a place in the country, would you mind giving me a ring? We've got the house listed with the real estate brokers, but I'm trying to spread the word around among friends as well, because we're anxious to get back to New York as quickly as possible."
I stared at Smith uneasily. I knew, of course, that the Bearcats were not doing well this season. I knew also that Smith believed strongly the team's slump was due to the fact that the manager had moved young Smith from first base to shortstop. But even if he was right, it still seemed to me an inadequate reason for driving a man to the drastic measure Smith was adopting.
Eight in the morning is no hour to hear a repetition of any parent's complaints about the mismanagement of the fragment of Little League in which his family's honor is being trampled in the dust, but the rules of the commuter's game are inflexible. I had been addressed on the station platform. Only two courses were open to me. I could instruct the man who had addressed me to have his seconds meet mine for the conference about choice of weapons, or I could reply. Since I am a trifle awkward with an epee, I said dutifully: "Why are you selling your house and returning to the city?"
"I want to get back to playing tennis," said Smith.
The uneasiness with which I had been staring at Smith changed to astonishment. I remembered distinctly that several years ago, when we had met at our first Little League parents' get-together, Smith had volunteered the information that he had moved into our midst from New York because his wife had developed an allergy to soot and, besides, they both wanted their kids to grow up in a place where they could put down roots. A little later, after the drinks had been served, Smith had added with a guilty grin that, leaving aside his wife's allergy and his kids' roots, he was enchanted with the move because, while he made his living as an air-conditioning engineer, what he really lived for was tennis, and it stood to reason that out here in the country he'd be able to spend a lot more time on the courts than he managed to in New York.