Letter to Juan Miguel González

Dear Juan Miguel,

Welcome to the United States of America. More precisely, welcome to Kenwood Park, our little suburb of Washington, D.C., where I understand you’re staying at the house of a Cuban diplomat. My wife and I moved into the neighborhood just a couple of months ago, so we know exactly what you’re going through, except for the part about getting acquainted with democracy and civil liberties. I saw in the paper that you were met at the airport by protesters shouting about the freedom you’ll find here. I’m sure many people will try to explain to you what America is all about. For now, let me just explain about Kenwood Park.

First of all, we don’t have communism here. What we have instead is the Kenwood Park Citizens Association. My wife and I went to our first KPCA meeting, a welcome party for new residents, two weeks ago. Everyone was very nice. KPCA is all about doing things together. I suppose you could say it’s a little bit like Cuba. The president of KPCA told us about the book club and the gardening club and other activities we can do with our neighbors. But as you know, when community leaders talk about doing things together, it always has something to do with the police. KPCA’s principal mission, it turns out, is to fund the neighborhood security patrol. You probably won’t have much need for this, since you seem well protected by the security escort that has blocked off the street outside your house. But all the same, we’d appreciate it if you’d chip in to support the patrol. As Castro might say, it’s all part of being a good neighbor. Also, now that you are breathing the fresh air of freedom and have your own yard, please familiarize yourself with Montgomery County’s long list of rules about what you can do with it. Keep it properly mowed, and collect the grass clippings in paper bags only.

Perhaps I have overstated the case a bit. Kenwood Park is not exactly like Cuba. People here are communal about the security patrol and the book club and the gardening club, but they are not communal about what is really important: property. The point of living in a nice American suburb, after all, is to have your own stuff. We recently met a young couple who live up the street and were invited into their house to participate in our national pastime, which we call envy. I was impressed with their foyer and their living room and their many bedrooms, but what has occupied my fantasies ever since is the husband’s home gym. In Cuba, I gather, exercise is something people do together. (I have always regarded morning calisthenics as communism’s finest contribution to human progress.) In Kenwood Park, however, the definitive sign of achievement is to possess your own weightlifting equipment. Whether you use it when others aren’t looking is optional.

Like everyone else who has recently moved into the neighborhood, you will soon get a letter asking whether you might be willing to sell your house. This is because everyone is trying to buy a house in Washington right now, and nobody is selling them, so real estate agents are asking total strangers who had no intention of moving how much it will take to change their minds. The result is that housing prices have gone haywire. We like to call this perfect system capitalism. In Cuba, people talk about someday owning a nice house. In Kenwood Park, people who own nice houses talk about owning nicer houses, or at least about turning their houses into nicer houses by hiring contractors. Because our capitalist economy works so perfectly, good contractors have all the work they can handle, and the people in Kenwood Park are hitting each other up for advice on how to find somebody good to remodel their kitchens. My wife has excellent advice on this subject. Perhaps we will be able to trade it for symphony tickets.

One more thing. You will see a lot of parents with strollers and toddlers on the street in the evenings and on weekends. The neighborhood seems to be going through a transition. Old people are moving out, and young people with kids are moving in. Some of the young people like to talk on cell phones while their toddlers are walking in the middle of the street. I realize that this is nature’s way of weeding out the inattentive, but please try not to hit the toddlers while driving. It’s not neighborly, and people get very upset about losing their kids. What happens to your kids is another matter.

Will Saletan