Mortality in Suburbia

Every six weeks for the past 36 weeks I have taken a bus from downtown Seattle to Juanita, several miles North of Kirkland on the other side of the lake. Normally this would be a 30 minute bus trip, but on the weekends when the 520 bridge is closed it takes over an hour each way. I’ve learned to leave early and take a book. It hardly seems worth the wasted Saturdays to have a few hairs laser-zapped off of my chin courtesy of a Groupon. But I’m done now.

There’s a .8 mile walk from the bus stop in Juanita to the laser skin joint in a strip mall next to a drive-thru Starbucks. On occasion – when bus schedules haven’t worked out – I have extended the walk by a mile or so down to the boardwalk cutting through a wetland on the edge of the lake. The course of this walk follows a wide, busy thoroughfare, with cars zipping past at 50 mph.

Every time I have taken this walk I have found myself keenly aware of my mortality, to the extent that the words “I am going to die” would float through my thoughts unbidden. I am generally always aware of this inevitable fact. I am going to die. But usually I’m not thinking about it quite so literally. Yesterday as I walked back to the bus stop thinking “I am going to die,” I took a moment to wonder why walking in Juanita is such a potent reminder of that fact.

I could die at any moment. Anyone could. But there’s something about that lonely stretch of sidewalk that makes death feel close. The wide suburban sidewalk seldom sees pedestrians. I may come across one or two in the course of the walk. Occasionally a jogger chugs past with one of those high-tech baby strollers. Identical housing developments of brown 1980s town homes sit back from the road on both sides, protected by old trees. A creek runs under the road and appears in a woodsy ravine on the West side, rushing toward Lake Washington. Not so long ago, this place was a quiet forest.

Here’s what I think it is: I am walking alone in a place that feels not only foreign, but also somewhat hostile. There’s no parking lane or bike lane, so cars, busses, and trucks whizz by only inches from the kerb. One false move, and splat. What’s left of the forest feels not so much like being in nature, as much as being somewhere people hide bodies. I’m sure that’s not the case, but suburbs are creepy.

Yesterday a little girl was learning to ride her bicycle on that sidewalk. She propelled herself along by kicking the pavement with alternate feet, too nervous to use the pedals. Her dad followed on his bicycle, not offering any advice. With every other kick she swerved sickeningly toward that river of speeding cars. I could picture her swerving just a bit too much. As they approached I was ready to grab her handlebar and jerk her back to safety. But she wobbled past, concentrating on moving forward, not seeing death inches to her right.

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