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Growing Up Suburban

By Steve Coll
Sunday, June 10, 1990

"WHAT VILLAGE DO YOU BELONG TO?" THEY ASK ME AGAIN AND again in India, over tea and mutton, or meat substances I prefer to think of as mutton.

It's an unsettling question. On the subcontinent, you aren't just "from" somewhere, a word that might suggest having left a place without plans to return; instead, you "belong" to the place of your origins. When an Indian tells another Indian what village he belongs to, he defines himself -- he reveals his caste, wealth, ethnicity, language and probable political leanings. He's exposed.

For months after I arrived last summer to take up the strange business of foreign correspondence, I tried to dodge. "I was raised near Washington, D.C., but I've lived in Los Angeles and New York as well," I said.

But this only provoked glassy, uncomprehending stares, followed by, "What village do you belong to?"

In time, I gave in. I tell them now, "I belong to Montgomery Village."

MONTGOMERY COUNTY IS A TERRIBLE place to be from, never mind belonging to it. Although I lived there for 17 years, I have trouble thinking about the place as anything besides lines on a map, an uneven parallelogram affixed to the broken diamond of Washington, D.C. I imagine that for many people the very mention of their old home ground conjures sensual memories -- the smell of smoking sausages, for instance, or the sounds of city or countryside awakening, the angle of summer light through shade trees beside a house, the wet bite of a winter fog. The Montgomery County that I grew up in evokes other recollections. Cement comes to mind. Telephone poles. The smell of tar where they're widening the road again. The angle of light through the steel girder skeleton of that new office building on Rockville Pike.

Memory usually arises from something fixed, something tangible, but Montgomery County is possessed by an ethereal transience. We didn't live in neighborhoods, we lived in developments. Everybody used that word in high school, as in, "I hear there's a kegger Saturday in your development." The word implied a kind of progress -- here was a notable development where before there was only mud and trees -- but also impermanence. In real estate as in life, one development usually led to another, overtaking what came before.

We changed developments on the day I finished fifth grade, moving from Kemp Mill in Silver Spring to Copenhaver in Rockville, one of those Orwellian Kettler Brothers villages where the homeowner bylaws read like an upper-middle-class prescription for the New Order. We traded up the way much of America was doing in 1969 -- three bedrooms for four, shingles for brick, a carport for a garage, a cramped recreation room for a full-basement-walkout-quarter-acre-dream-view.

Then we watched the developments. When we first arrived in Copenhaver, the view from our back porch stretched a mile to a wooded horizon, across grassy fields and past a rustic barn. First Kettler Brothers knocked down the barn, according to some 20-year master plan, until the cul-de-sacs and colonials multiplied like mutant Lego blocks and burst through the forest in the distance, connecting streets and sewer pipes and telephone wires to a development on the other side. By the time I entered high school, it was possible to ride a skateboard straight into the classroom two miles away. Even then it was clear that growth came at the expense of a sense of place. We would return from summer camp and have to learn the street map all over again. The scale of industrial accomplishment was dazzling in its way, but it also produced anxiety -- a fear that if you overslept you might wake up at a different address.

So the trouble with remembering a youth in Montgomery County, even one as recent as the mid-1970s, when I graduated from high school, is that many of the landmarks of my experience have already been plowed under and rebuilt in a way that denies the past. It's difficult to recall what existed when, or how it changed, or why, because Montgomery is in a state of continuous, rapid flux.

My first job was as a busboy and roast beef carver at the Washingtonian Golf and Country Club off Shady Grove Road in Gaithersburg, right next to Interstate 270, the main commuter artery from Montgomery County into the District. A bent old real estate speculator named Sam Eig owned the place and lived atop the apartment tower next to the restaurant. Every so often he would waddle through the banquet halls where we worked, talking about land deals with obsequious aides. I remember Eig standing by the big picture window as the trucks and cars on the interstate whizzed past, rattling the glass. While shirking our duties to smoke cigarettes or eat pilfered blueberry muffins in the club's labyrinthine basement corridors, we busboys discussed Eig's predicament. He seemed to be under pressure to sell or rebuild his property -- to redevelop. We imagined him nobly resisting the forces of progress to defend the integrity of his original vision of an integrated country club-apartment house-hotel-and-restaurant complex. The vision might be unappealing, but at least it was a vision. Whether to defend it or because he was too old to be bothered anymore, Eig did resist; it wasn't until after his death that his heirs finally agreed to demolish the Washingtonian in favor of some 20-year master plan for town houses and single-family homes. It was one of the biggest deals in Montgomery County's history, running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Not long after the transaction was announced, I drove along the old golf courses and by the restaurant where I had first learned about time clocks and Social Security taxes. Eig's apartment house was closed, the big picture window in the restaurant had been boarded up, and the green, sloping fairways of the golf courses were leveled into dirt. I didn't feel loss or nostalgia so much as an eerie sense that my being was condemned to an endless cycle of suburban renewal.

After the busboy job, I worked as a frozen-food stock clerk at a Murry's Steaks store on Rockville Pike. I had to wear gloves and a coat and carried a lot of five-gallon drums of frozen pig intestines to and from the freezer in the back. Working on Rockville Pike had a certain cachet, or so it seemed to me. I used to tell people that "the Pike" was the second most commercially developed strip in the United States. This was an unexamined and probably inaccurate factoid I'd picked up somewhere, but I repeated it while I worked at Murry's, as if the distinction rubbed off on those of us employed amid the Pike's unbounded sprawl.

On the Pike, stores and owners changed each season as new mini-malls were built, discount chains went bankrupt, and fast-food franchisees swapped their brightly colored signs, competing for prime turf. When did the Hot Shoppes Junior across the street from Murry's become an A&W Root Beer stand, and was it before or after I tried and failed to date the girl behind the cash register? I have no idea, but it bothers me that I can't remember whether she wore an orange Hot Shoppes uniform or root-beer-brown and yellow stripes. Later, when my motivation to lug drums of pig intestines lapsed, and I moved on, Murry's -- with its distinctive blue franchise sign depicting a portly butcher -- turned into a yellow Fotomat. I would drive down the Pike, glance at where the store had once been, and wonder if Murry had ever really existed.

I sold hiking boots and blue jeans to fashion-conscious backpackers at Britches Great Outdoors in Montgomery Mall. Here was the epicenter of Montgomery County's developmental volcano during the 1970s. The place was one of the country's first big indoor malls, a harbinger of the national blight. In those days there was a Sears at one end and a Hecht's at the other, although lately a Woodies has come along and attached itself to one side, transforming the commercial architecture of the mall into a tripod. I remember the simpler, bipolar days, when you could walk up and down between the big department stores without getting lost, first on the upper level, then on the lower, smoking and looking for someone familiar. This was before teenage mall mating rituals became well-developed and well-known, before Hollywood took an interest in the subject, and we sensed that we were on the cutting edge, flirting from the railings, discussing and then backing out of elaborate shoplifting schemes, acting surly. Britches is still there, down on the lower level. That figures. Giant indoor shopping malls are the only structures in Montgomery County that appear to be immortal.

The transmigration of Montgomery County's landscape during the 1970s was matched by dislocation in its public institutions, or at least that was the case at T.S. Wootton High School in Rockville, from which I graduated in the bicentennial class of 1976. The school, spanking new and surrounded by freshly sodded fields, had a number of wonderful teachers. It also had big problems then with what is referred to nowadays as "values."

One problem was drugs. During my junior year, an undercover narcotics officer who was balding and wore a beard walked into the smoking area behind the gym and gaped in amazement as 11 students approached and offered to sell him more than $2,000 worth of marijuana, LSD, speed and barbiturates. They made a big show out of the subsequent bust, sending police officers into the classrooms to arrest the dealers in front of their peers. The rest of us were thrilled by the commotion.

Susan King, now a local TV news anchor and then a reporter at Channel 9, ventured to Rockville to work up a multi-part series that touched on the apparent collapse of upper-middle-class civilization in our fast-growing suburban county. In the school driveway where the buses waited to take us home, I remember watching her interview an acquaintance from chemistry class who was accused of selling LSD. He gave long, incoherent answers to her questions, so she finally said, "Billy, you seem a little spaced out right now."

He looked into the camera and replied, "Yeah, I'm tripping." And he laughed. Those of us watching laughed too -- I'm sorry to say that we were proud of our notoriety.

It was possible to be blind to the destructive power of drugs, but murder was harder for us to blithely ignore. One evening during the fall of my junior year, several of Wootton's college-bound students parked a family station wagon across from the school, climbed out and attempted to dislodge a fire hydrant from its moorings. An athlete named Buddy McCracken, who was popular among his crowd, happened by and told them to cut it out. One of the students stuck a shotgun out the car window and blew him to bits. The funeral provoked public hand-wringing about what was going wrong in booming Montgomery County. Nobody seemed to know.

I wanted to flee. In August 1976, two months after graduation, I boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington with a friend who worked in a shoe store at Montgomery Mall. We carried six-week "See America" passes for unlimited bus travel. I had never been west of Chicago, but I had chosen a college in Los Angeles from a catalogue because the map showed it was as far away as possible from Montgomery County. Looking back on it, I think I also homed in on L.A. because from movies and television I could see the place was replete with new and potentially exotic fast-food restaurants with names like Tacoland and Blue Chip Burger.

On that trip west, sleeping in parks and seedy motels, I encountered for the first time the question, "Where are you from?"

I hesitated. "Maryland" seemed inaccurate. Prince George's County -- Greenbelt, Riverdale, Bowie Race Course -- that was Maryland. The harbor in Baltimore, the piedmont around Frederick, the smoky, wooded hills of Hagerstown or Hancock or Cumberland -- those places were Maryland too. There were even parts of Montgomery County that I thought of as Maryland -- the ivied streets of Chevy Chase, Potomac's horse country, the old frame houses in Takoma Park, the pockets of Appalachia near Boyds. But not Rockville, not Gaithersburg.

"The suburbs," I answered.

EIGHT YEARS LATER, NEWLY MARRIED, WITH THE beginnings of a career, I came home again. We moved into a town house in Montgomery Village, Kettler Brothers' largest development in the county, a disorienting sea of boxed housing where, more than two decades after it began, the master plan is still in force. On the day we moved into our five-digit address on Brassie Place, mainline of the Windermere subdevelopment, bulldozers churned the trees and grassy fields into mud around us, pushing inexorably toward the horizon. Near the Village Mall across the way, the smell of hot tar wafted from the site of another road-widening.

It would be easy to say that we chose Montgomery Village because the rent was cheap, which it was, and because I lacked a steady job, which I did. The more uncomfortable truth is that I thought I needed to come back, to find some solid ground after years in California.

It was a mistake. For days I drove aimlessly up and down the Pike, stopping at the malls, examining store signs, searching for even the slightest epiphany, the vaguest sense that I was home. But I felt only dread. In eight years the entire Pike seemed to have been obliterated and rebuilt. Not only had virtually all of the stores and restaurants changed, but the basic architecture of the road had been altered, and it appeared to be undergoing yet another round of noisy, smoky surgery. The sides of the strip were indented by new, neon-lit mini-malls. Two enormous enclosed malls that hadn't been there earlier now anchored the road. To the south was White Flint, a multi-story behemoth with an uncounted number of movie theaters and a parking garage designed like a rat maze.

To the north was Lake Forest, another of the new generation of tripod malls with no corners and no clocks, where shoppers stand in the central air-conditioned square and spin round and round, clutching their bags, looking futilely for an exit.

I had no will to relearn the map, to discover the new department stores and video game parlors and Pizza Huts. Montgomery County seemed for the first time beyond my comprehension. Interstate 270, the backbone of Rockville and Gaithersburg, had grown so wide that at the Montgomery Village off-ramp they were knocking down the pillars of a railroad bridge so all the new lanes could fit underneath. Caterpillar land-movers plowed through hills to make way for new ramps that looped and double-looped in the psychedelic manner of L.A. freeways. The business culture had changed too -- there was little room anymore for the likes of Murry's Steaks. High technology had arrived. The interstate was lined with mirrored-glass office buildings bearing words like "Biotech" and "Genetech." I wondered whose biology, whose genes were being altered there.

One cold December day a year after we returned, our first child was born at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. Joyous and dazed, I stumbled into the snow-smattered parking lot. I wanted to shout to the hills. Here was something eternal -- a mortal child, yes, but immutable, not subject to Montgomery's master plan. She had come headfirst into the world just a few hundred yards from the theater-in-the-round where I had graduated from high school nine years earlier. Here was the sinking of generational roots, I thought, the seeding of common ground, the rejuvenation of the village.

But the theater-in-the-round no longer existed. It had been replaced by an office park. Just up Shady Grove Road there was a hotel I'd never seen before. Several new office buildings. A solitary steel crane hanging above the gray horizon. Dread.

It would be fair to say that we ran away, first to Manhattan, more recently across the oceans to India. From this safe distance we sip our sweet lime sodas and talk about the past, and about the future. Amid the cholera and malaria and riots and threatened wars that surround us, we talk about what truly frightens us -- that it seems inevitable we will return some day, and that, with three children now, Montgomery County will seem a sensible and comfortable place to live. We talk about Virginia, foreign territory that sounds suspiciously like Maryland, and about distant outposts such as Brunswick and Harpers Ferry, and about whether we want to try to raise our family in the city.

The unstated premise of these conversations is that we will never go back to Montgomery Village. But I wonder. The longing for belonging runs deep, and may not be so easily expunged. I imagine myself back on the Pike, subdued by middle age, with unruly children in the back seat arguing with me about whether it should be Hardee's or Arby's and whether there is time for Putt-Putt. I imagine being directed by them to toy stores and sporting goods stores and clothing stores hidden in previously uncharted mini-malls, where they have begun to make their own maps and discover their own pleasures, however transient. As I conjure such scenes, there is both satisfaction and a kind of vertigo -- residue of an unfulfillable wish to call an alien landscape home.

Steve Coll is The Post's South Asia correspondent

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