Hometown Voyeur

Living in New York City makes me nostalgic for the small hamlet of my childhood. And Facebook provides the perfect way to pretend I’m there.

Woman daydreaming about apple pie, green grass, and a gazebo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by OlenaMykhaylova/iStock/Getty Images Plus, mipan/iStock/Getty Images Plus, monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and serezniy/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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I grew up in an extremely normal suburb in central Connecticut. It was big enough that we had more than one Dunkin’, but small enough that we didn’t have a Starbucks. As a teen, my friends and I spent a lot of time in cars, idling outside our crushes houses until someone came to the front window and then we’d peel away, a blur of manicured lawns disappearing behind us. My town was fine, but as a dramatic teenager I found it lacking the cultural cache (re: Starbucks) that could elevate my tortured existence.

Immediately after graduation, I moved away to college in another part of the state. Later I moved to Chicago and, eventually, New York City. It’s been almost 15 years since I lived in my hometown and, though I’m happy with my life now, what I once thought was unimaginable has happened—I miss it.

A year ago, on the suggestion of a friend, I joined my town’s community Facebook group. At first, I just thought it would be good for a laugh. But as a 32-year-old living in New York, I am touched by its dedication to chronicling the minutia of suburbia. So now, whenever I need to distract myself from the work I should be doing or the worst parts of city living, I lurk in the group, vicariously living out my suburban fantasy.

I love the minor dramas: the debate over empty storefronts, the gas station allegedly selling Juulpods to minors. As well as the earnest shoutouts—appreciation for the best dry cleaner in town or the middle schooler who helped a kindergartner on to the bus. But the absolute best is when people post photos of suburban nature: a sun setting between two well-appointed homes in an immaculate new housing development; a trash-free walking trail lined with postcard-worthy foliage; plump hydrangeas spilling over in a backyard garden. No matter how low-res the photo, it calls to me. Clean, open spaces are not attainable in NYC.

A typical morning commute for me involves dodging dead rats on the sidewalk and getting stuck underground in an airless subway car. My entire apartment is two rooms inside of a multifamily house with thin walls. There’s nowhere in the city that doesn’t smell like piss. At times, it feels like there’s no escape from other bodies. That’s when I retreat to my town’s Facebook group and lose large chunks of time mindlessly scrolling.

When I’m in there, I’m part of an alternate universe where I can afford to own property and therefore rant about things like property tax increases. Or pretend that I have an in-ground pool that I love (but also hate because it’s a pain in the ass to keep clean. … Hey, does anyone have a pool cleaning service they’d recommend?) When a member posts about their early morning jog past the reservoir where they spied a mother deer and her fawn, I can feel the crispness of the fresh air. I covet that air. I resent the deer.

To be clear, I do not want to move back to the suburbs. Despite evident drawbacks, I love living in a city. The thing that once defined my youth is something I haven’t had to do in years: Drive a car. I don’t miss that or the fact that everything in the suburbs closes at 9 p.m. And as much as I think I want more space, I don’t know what I’d do with it. I can barely keep my two rooms clean. New York City is weird, wild, and alive in a way that inspires me to be the same, and I really do like it here.

What I’m wistful for is a version of my hometown that maybe never existed in the first place. Repeated viewings of Gilmore Girls, a show about a fictional small town in Connecticut, have mixed with my romanticized memories of being 16, and I’m left daydreaming about a town of my own invention.

My hometown is not as quirky as Stars Hollow because Stars Hollow is the creation of a Hollywood writers room. And yet, when a member posts about the Jackson Brown cover band at the annual fall festival, it’s easy to exaggerate the town’s quaintness. Living in a city with 8 million people and 1,502 things to do on any one night, the idea of having only one option seems like a literal breath of fresh air. On those cold, crowded, hard NYC days, I fantasize about a slower pace of life.

If I moved back to my fictional hometown I could, of course, easily open up and be successful at running a pie shop. Pie Pie Birdy would be the spot where friends and potential love interests would gather every Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 Central. I’d live in a lived-in Cape Cod–style house a block from the town’s center, and every morning I’d walk to the shop with my characteristic rolling pin under my arm. My character would always be seen wearing a red handkerchief around her neck. Life would be easy.

But then I snap back to reality. People in my hometown are like people everywhere in 2019—busy. Their relationships are not more profound than the ones I have in the city, and I’m sure they don’t spend all their time at one pie shop. In their spare time they are behind a computer screen, looking for connections in the same online forums that I am. And in a weird way, this thought soothes me as much as the imagined world I’ve built for them.