»  The Straggler, No. 10

August 11, 2003

  Post-hole Serenade


Now, don't get me wrong. I am a happy suburbanite. I like suburbia — have even rhapsodized about it in the pages of National Review ("The Vital Middle," 3/22/99). The following remarks, which are really in the nature of grumbles, should therefore be taken in the spirit of that Shakespeare sonnet where the Bard tells us that his girlfriend's breath stinks, but he adores her anyway. Every rose has a thorn (to continue this line of Bardic allusions), and there is a downside even to the suburban idyll.

There is, for instance, the noise. Suburbs have lawns and gardens, which need tending. Few Americans below retirement age seem to want to do this themselves any more, and the days when teenagers would perform such chores for money are long gone. In my street, mowing your own lawn is now considered eccentric. The majority preference is to have this kind of work done by hired teams of Aztecs — cheerful small brown people with gold teeth and not a word of English. They roll up in rattletrap trucks towing flatbed trailers, unload industrial-sized pieces of machinery, and swarm over the lawns mowing, blowing and trimming.

Not only is their equipment industrial in size, it is industrial in the amplitude of its noise, too. Worst are the leaf blowers, gasoline-powered backpack kits with a long wide nozzle attached. I suppose it would make them unacceptably heavy if any kind of muffler were added, so the things shriek and roar at a volume that makes crockery vibrate a block away. The operators themselves have ear-muffs, but so far none of them has ever offered me a pair. I sit at my study window — hopeless to attempt any kind of mental work while this racket is going on — and watch them blow my neighbors' leaves and dead grass into the road. The process, I must say, does not seem very efficient. I accomplish the same result myself in very little more time by silent raking. I suppose it is reactionary of me to think such thoughts.

It is certainly deplorable of me to reflect that these workers are mostly illegal immigrants. Even the term "illegal immigrant" is, in fact, according to my local newspapers and TV stations, a form of hate speech. The media refer to these persons with great delicacy as "day laborers," or, when the subject of their immigration status absolutely cannot be avoided, as "undocumented aliens." Not everyone is persuaded. There is a great deal of anger about this issue locally, though whether the people who are angry are the same as those who hire the "day laborers" to trim their lawns and blow their leaves, I cannot say.

Next to noise in the scale of suburban nuisances is bureaucracy. A political scientist once tried to explain to me that, contrary to what one might conclude from first reflections on the matter, government operations become more efficient and less corrupt as you go up the subsidiarity chart. County government (he claimed) is better than municipal, state better than county, federal better than state. Reading about the deliberations of our nation's lawmakers and judges, I find this hard to swallow as a universal principle, and faintly un-American, or at any rate un-Tocquevillean, in its implications. It is undoubtedly true, though, that municipal bureaucracies are home to some of the dimmest, meanest, most venal, most pettifogging, most self-important creatures on God's good earth. A Chinese customs official, or a German policeman, or the beadle in Oliver Twist, would be a perfect exemplar of flexibility and accommodation when compared to some of the functionaries you encounter in the office of an average suburban New York township.

My own quiet street goes nowhere in particular, but is accessible from both ends. Occasionally cars drive through it much too fast. This is a worry to those of us who are parents of young children. Our kids like to play in the street in good weather, and it is alarming for us to see some fool teenager (who, if anybody wants my opinion, ought to be mowing lawns) barreling through at forty miles an hour. Last year we submitted a request to the town hall, to have signs put up at both ends of the street warning drivers that children might be playing. Nothing happened for some weeks. Inquiring, we were told that such requests take "many months" to evaluate. A neighbor and myself took matters into our own hands. We bought two bright yellow "SLOW — CHILDREN" signs from the internet, two appropriate metal stanchions from The Home Depot, and installed them at suitable points.

Several months passed. Then, coming home from a cross-country trip this spring, I saw that our signs had gone. Inquiring, I learned that the town hall, finally responding to our original request, had sent a man round to determine the best location for a sign. Seeing the ones we had ourselves installed, he flew into a rage, summoned a work crew, and had the signs removed. In the case of my sign, this was no small undertaking: I had imbedded the stanchion in concrete, in a well-dug post-hole. They had to cut the thing off with a hacksaw.

I called the town hall, and eventually found myself speaking to a supervisor in the Highways Department. Some predictable exchanges followed. I wanted to know why it took over a year to bring out a crew to erect a sign, when a crew could be summoned to remove one in half an hour. He wanted to know on what basis I presumed to tell him when and how he should deploy his pitifully limited resources. I wanted to know why, since the town obviously had no interest whatsoever! in the safety and well-being of our children, we should be prohibited from attending to the matter ourselves. He wanted to know if I had considered the consequences should a driver be distracted by my illegally installed! sign, and have an accident. I wanted to know whether the town would reimburse me for the cost of my [blasphemy] sign. He wanted to know to which address he should send the bill for removing the [expletive] thing. We slammed down our handsets pretty much simultaneously, I think, both in the grim satisfaction that we had seen off the other in a proper manly style.

My street now boasts signs saying TOWN SPEED LIMIT 30 — completely inadequate to the situation, and a waste of public time and money, but in perfect accordance with the Highway Department's damn fool footling regulations. If we could get them to pass some noise ordinances, and enforce them with similar rigor, I'd feel better about it.