Summer in the Suburbs

Earlier this summer, a slide full of high school seniors collapsed at "Waterworld," an amusement park in Concord, California, killing one student and injuring many others.The question on everybody's mind was who to blame -- the slide operator or the 30 students who piled on at once, supposedly to set a record. Nobody asked what moved these students to try something so dangerous.I grew up in Lafayette -- a suburban town not far from Concord -- and it seems to me the answer can be found in the nature of suburban life. While teens in the cities may have to deal with crime, traffic jams, the homeless, gangs, etc., suburbs are "blessed" with safety and boredom. That safety can lure teens into feeling invincible, and the boredom can drive them to take extreme actions. The combination occasionally results in a particularly suburban tragedy like the one at Waterworld.In Lafayette even the police seem bored. Locals make fun of them as Starbucks coffee-drinkers who give more speeding tickets at the end of the month to fill their quotas. But most people understand their predicament -- who should they protect and from what in a town that goes to sleep at 11 o'clock.Teenagers are grateful for the peace and quiet, of course, but they often feel the urge to make life a bit less safe. And living in a danger-free zone makes some believe shielded wherever they go. "Once we were really bored and we went to the Broadway Plaza Parking Garage in the middle of the night and drove down backward from the top floor," says a 17-year-old -- laughing but embarrassed. Antics like these could easily turn to tragedy.Toward the end of summer, when school begins to sound not so bad, and Waterworld reopens, you can be sure some bored and restless teens will be drawn to the water slide. Like tourists visiting the scene of a crime, they'll whisk down the repaired slide, just so they can say "I did it."SAN JOSE -- AN OCEAN OF NOTHINGNESSBY CAILLE MILLNERWhen summer vacation began we had a big celebration -- yelling, carousing, eating, drinking, the delirious excitement of teenagers who realize they have nothing to do and three months to do it in.Then, as the party died down, my friend Vanessa said, with a kind of desperation. "What are we going to do now?"Suburban teenagers may hate to admit it, but school is our lifeboat in an ocean of nothingness. School provides people, gossip, entertainment -- a reason to get up. When it ends, we can be left floating in utter boredom.The suburbs become downright stifling in summer. The suburbs I live in are built for adults, not young people. Security cops in the malls look with suspicion at groups of more than two teenagers, and the so-called downtown is for those who drive a Lexus and can buy a bottle of wine."The only fun thing I can think to do of this summer is drive up to The City," says Rachel, 17. "I'm just going to try to keep myself busy with work and a class at the community college. My job (she is a hostess at a popular restaurant) is a lot of fun, and it's become the basis of my social life."Emilio, 18, lasted one week before filling out five applications for jobs. "I'll take anything. That week was so long.... "Of course, some suburban families are so well off that their children don't have to work, even for distraction. Kate got three weeks in Europe as a graduation present. "I have to take my parents with me, but at least it's somewhere exciting and I get to take a friend along, so if it gets bad we can just run off."Another group of friends plans two months in Europe with nothing but rail passes and backpacks and that keen suburban survival instinct that (in my humble opinion) might get them mugged or killed.For young people, summer in the suburbs is a time of acute desperation -- three months to face the sad reality of our culture-starved lives. If it seems like I'm moaning about my privileged fate, I am. Young people in the suburbs may not have as many financial problems as young people in the city, but there is something missing from our lives nonetheless. It's called a life.FAIRFIELD -- WHERE WANNABES TRY TO TURN SUBURBS INTO CITIESBY EDWARD WALLACELast year, I moved from San Francisco to Fairfield, California, some 40 miles away. The constant stress of city life had my temples pulsating and I found myself completely surrounded by adversity -- so I ran.In my memory, Fairfield was more heavily populated with animals than people. From an earlier visit I remembered catching dozens of little frogs by the curb, white cranes stalking crawfish in the marshes not too far away, hundreds of ducks and geese flying overhead, and hawks flying even higher. To me, Fairfield was a place to find tranquillity.When I arrived, I was blasted by the heat. Not only could you cook your lunch on a car hood, you would burn it. It was miserable. But then the heat gave way to a beautiful night, with a calm, warm breeze and the illumination of many stars in a smogless sky. Everyone came out to enjoy the dark -- in fact, the streets were so packed with people that I wondered, "Don't these people have anything better to do than roam and ride around?"The truth is, they don't."There's nothing to do here," one resident told me. "You have to leave to have fun, or even to get a job. Plus it's hell without a car because the buses stop at 6:30 p.m. and don't run on Sundays."Some things in Fairfield are all too familiar -- gangs, high-speed chases, police harassment, drugs, turf, and racial tension. It didn't take me long to realize I had fallen for the stereotypes. Instead of a quiet town set amidst green acres, I found a flat piece of the city with hundred degree days, the Mississippi police force, and urban wannabes.Many people in Fairfield come from a city or have some link with it, even if that link is only television or urban fashions at the mall -- and that's how they want to be."It's not all that rough out here as it is in the city," says Michael Tate, who has lived most of his life in San Francisco and Oakland, "but people like to act as if it is -- even the police."Another urban transplant agreed -- the police in Fairfield want to live out a "Cops" episode because they are bored, and local crack dealers are mostly interested in acting the part.Many Fairfield residents go to San Francisco for entertainment. At first I found this strange, because the city is as tedious as ever. But after seeing how extremely tedious Fairfield is, I began to realize the city did have a lot to offer.After a few months in Fairfield, I came back to the city. I still have good memories, but I've lost my illusions about suburban life.COPYRIGHT PNS

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