The Joneses’ Coke Zero-Stuffed Abyss

I call it the Death Star Trench.

I drive it around once a week, visiting a good friend who lives in one of Colorado suburbia’s typical planned-community enclaves, and every single time, it confounds and confuses me. The Death Star Trench, you see, is a normal suburban residential street lined with nicely-landscaped homes, most of which have three-car garages – and every single car is parked in a driveway or on the street. Filling both sides of this street with cars – nice cars, at that – makes for something of a rural-road tractor dynamic; two cars can’t really occupy the choked-down center of the street, so there’s a system of nods and waves that has grown up around driving through the subdivision.

Every single time I make this particular run, the anthropologist in me picks up a mental sliver – an itchy little wedge of substance that refuses to be quieted or dismissed. And it’s a very simple question: what the fuck is in your garages?

I grew up in Venusian Central Illinois, where summer temperatures climbed to hellish, humid heights and winter temperatures plunged us into Stygian nights of frost-rimed gloom. Leave your car outside during the summer, and you’d cultivate third-degree burns on the backs of your thighs upon seating yourself within; leave your car outside during the winter, and odds are good it wouldn’t be starting for you in the morning. The random detritus every household accumulated got stored in the attic, or the unfinished section of the basement, or it got tossed – but it did not get stored in the garage, the sanctum sanctorum of motorized vehicles.

That’s what makes this particular sliver so intriguing. It’s clear that whatever occupies the garages of the Death Star Trench is immensely valuable – so valuable, in fact, that it has forced late-model automobiles and SUVs out onto the street. As I lay awake during one recent Colorado hailstorm (they’re pretty common here), my thoughts drifted to the DST. Were all those Infinitis and BMWs and Cadillacs really being pounded into cellulitic cottage cheese? Surely not. But my next trip up, there they were; claims adjusters by the dozens, nodding and smiling in pressed khakis and agency buttondowns as they took pictures of ruined cars and assured homeowners that help was on the way.

Just park your car in the goddamn garage, I thought. But apparently, this mystery bothered only me, as I found no urban-anthropology studies on the subject. This was, apparently, simply the lifestyle of the Jones, a measured ennui of affluence that I was supposed to be chasing – one in which my fabulous trove of Faberge eggs deserved a warm, enclosed home, while my luxury sedan shivered out in the cold. The Joneses, it seemed, were doing fine; so fine, in fact, that administrivia like the fate of a BMW in the elements were, at best, tertiary concerns.

Then I ran across this.

The Joneses, it seems, aren’t doing fine after all. They’re overworked, overwhelmed, and oversupplied; months of accumulative Costco runs have created the illusion of wealth, with flats of Sprite and tubs of Tide and crates of Cracklin’ Oat Bran piled to the garage rafters. The Joneses have it all – without the time to enjoy any of it. The money, it seems, should go somewhere tangible, somewhere visible, to feed back the value of too many hours spent at work; what better means to do so than to fill the garage with restaurant-sized sacks of coffee and boxes of Splenda? Yet there’s no time in this equation; the Joneses own a back yard they don’t visit, according to the study, and bring in cleaning teams weekly to dust and polish a dining table never occupied for a full family meal. The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ of household features unused for a lack of human presence, and I felt sad reading Life in the Twenty-First Century; this is the ultimate outcome of a society driven to consumerist madness over the course of four decades, beginning with the advent of modern advertising.

It’s also everything the Center for a New American Dream opposes. CNAD would have us eat what’s left in the garage, then park the damned car inside. Come home from work at a sane time, cook a meal with fresh ingredients, and sit down to enjoy it together. Go for a bike ride after dinner – or enjoy the deck you built. Boss not thrilled with seeing you exit the building at 5? Find a new job with some work-life balance – and earn less. Then spend less. Costco will still be there when you need cereal and Tide and Coke Zero; it’s not necessary to build a private Costco in one’s own garage. Stockpile time instead of laundry detergent; fill your home with memories, instead of stuff. In the end, those memories will be all you have, the Cheerios long since eaten, the very clothes the Tide cleaned packed off to Goodwill as the kids grew up.

In our house, we have to be doubly cautious about accumulation; there are intensities living in here that get easily overwhelmed with too much stimulation and clutter. Which is not to say that we don’t have our share of things that need to be cleaned out. But intense kids are like pack rats: everything they come across has a deep meaning to them. So teaching them to let it go, or not acquire it in the first place, is a great life skill. This way, they’ll have the time they need to spend with their families, and probably be happier as a result.

I suppose the mystery is solved, and I don’t think I’ll wonder anymore what could possibly have squeezed so much costly automotive technology out onto the streets of the DST. It’s nothing nearly so imposing as I might have thought; it’s simply the lonely efforts of overclocked consumers driven to reassure themselves with great heaps of grocery stores. They’re modern-day Mayans, displaying their wealth in the form of resources. And like the Mayans, they are whistling past the graveyard – for surely the first act of any civilization facing impending shortages of resources is to convince themselves that the Coke Zero shall never, ever run out.

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