suburban tract home in Palo Alto

A Suburban Caretaker’s Diary Entry

by | January 13, 2022

I never imagined that middle age would be day after day of waking to the beam ceiling I’ve known since childhood. During the last few months, each  morning I wonder what will be in store. Will it be a comedy of errors? Will my haphazard running of errands sans a physical list be stifled? The current reality of supply chain disaster is always followed by customer care limbo. I ponder questions like, Do I really need this can of Ajax? What’s that recipe…the one for making household cleaner out of vinegar? Our fridge still holds Miracle Whip and Best Foods Mayonnaise. A conflict could result if I show reluctance to dress a tuna sandwich in the sugar snot of the former.

We won’t comment that I love glazing Ahi Tuna in orange marmalade.

Will today be filled with more horrors? There was that day I found my father lying on the linoleum kitchen floor, nearly unconscious from sepsis. Rushed life saving surgeries are performed faster than the questionable “beef” in Big Macs is reheated these days. I’ve watched hospital administrators circle the seventh floor right before lunch. It’s hard for me to tell whether they’re ghouls or grim reapers. Decked in Banana Republic and Ann Taylor Loft, they glide across the floor.

They applaud how efficient ICUs run with fewer nurses.

My childhood bedroom faces west. The dearth of morning light allows me to play vampire a little longer than usual. I rest in a bed with an ocean’s wave of paisley carved into its wooden headboard. It came from an uncle who passed away fifteen years ago. My eyes focus on the baroque dresser wearing a bikini made of doilies. My body is overheated from blankets and sheets made of orlon and rayon. I look up, taking in the exposed beam ceiling while feeling the cold sting of morning. Jalousie windows never seal the barrier between outdoors and indoors well. They remind us that the veil between curated stillness and life’s violent under currents is thin.

This is homecoming. And middle age. One plays shepherd to a body, and soul, in decline.

I finally shed the shroud of sheets. I put on a nylon robe purchased from Montgomery Ward that was never worn while the store was open. I flick the thermostat’s ribbon speedometer. It peaks at 85 degrees. My bare feet no longer drag across the plastic runners that have “protected” gray-used-to-be-white shag carpet since 1975.  After three months, the ankle injury finally is clearing up.

The trashman actually removed the trash today. Besides lawn mowers, the garbage truck is the only vehicle one hears during early mornings. There’s no sneeze of an A/C Delco starter in a Pontiac Bonneville. I can’t remember the last time I saw a school bus. I peek through the curtains to see if one of the newer white neighbors is walking a dog. Mr. Duncan, 92 and still devoted to rising for a 7am shower and a 7:30 breakfast might be peeking through the windows too, checking to see if his lawn is still there. Teslas whisper by.

Is all suburban existence so strange?  It’s enough to make one question their sanity. Suburban Northern California ups the ante. We’re supposed to be grateful to live here. We should appreciate that we can afford tranquility. We shouldn’t feel dead inside despite few signs of life. San Mateo, Santa Clara and Marin Counties might as well be the world’s most exclusive country clubs. Do millennials do country clubs anymore?

The neighborhood I’ve known longest is called Flood Park Estates, Flooda if you’re Black. It is not “Newbridge-Kavanaugh” as NextDoor would have one believe. The hundred and fifty or so tract homes, on mostly identical 5,500 square foot lots, were built as 1955 turned to 1956. Three basic 1,100 square foot floor plans hide behind eight different facades. Priced under $10,000, they must have seemed like a bargain once one stepped inside.

They offered three bedrooms, two bathrooms, living and dining rooms, and a kitchen with a Whirlpool electric oven. No galley kitchens here. Instead of stuffing a TV dinner in the Kenmore, one could truly breathe and bake a ham here.  Our kitchen has exposed beam ceilings that mimic the more expensive Eichlers in Duvenick-St. Francis in Palo Alto. There are east facing floor to ceiling windows in the living room. Floor to ceiling glass in the dining room and kitchen faces north. Hardwood floors are buried beneath the shag carpeting added twenty years after the house was built.

The three bedrooms are small and tightly clustered. It seems the architects were discouraging an active sex life. Who would want to explain to their children the noises following a broadcast of I Love Lucy? The shame likely inspired some to buy larger houses where the master bedroom was apart from the children’s rooms. It’s easier to muffle an orgasm when there’s more square footage.

In the 1950s, Flood Park Estates was filled with Sicilian, Jewish, Greek, Irish and Japanese families. They drove from candy-colored houses to the campuses of the early tech/defense/surveillance industry. Being watched on the clock from 9 to 5, they likely wanted a break from prying minds come nightfall. 

Given the wealth flowing into Stanford University, there was a small but persistent pool of Black domestic workers. The trickle became a high tide as urban renewal/Negro removal forced Black folks out the Fillmore in San Francisco. Blockbusting real estate agents convinced the newly minted proxy whites to sell their nearly brand new homes at a loss.

My Uncle Claude found himself in the middle of this change, passing as Italian, Jewish, whatever wasn’t Negro, when he bought in the neighborhood in 1960. As the locale became too Black, he fled to covenant restricted, Italians-are-now-white Menlo Park. The Fair Housing Act was two years away and a few weeks ago, Mom reminded me that Jewish folks had to choose between Redwood City or Palo Alto: “Remember, there are no Synagogues in Menlo Park for a reason.”

My father purchased real estate in nearly 66% African American pre-incorporated East Palo Alto in 1975. His wildest home dreams were inspired by Claude’s house, which had been two blocks away.  He waxed nostalgic about visiting Claude’s in the summer of 1964, when he was still in high school.

My bare feet rub across the linoleum kitchen floor he collapsed on months ago. Overlaid between rectangular squares are dots that represent seafoam. The indentations tickle the same way that salt water does 30 miles west of here. Near the kitchen sink, there’s a missing patch of tile. Oddly, it is shaped like Arkansas.

“I don’t think they make this style of sheet linoleum anymore,”  Dad said in June.

The original salmon pink tile in the bathroom with the shower had to be removed to accommodate his needs. No one would bother laying 4×4 tile in a tract home no matter how overvalued at this point. The rotary phone rings louder than Jennifer Hudson singing “Ain’t No Way” in Respect. The answering machine still tape records messages. The tapes are filled with robocall messages for extended car warranties, Amazon credit card scams and vultures offering cash for houses. 

rotary wall phone

Deciphering what is real, what is fake, what is fucked, and what can be fixed rules my waking hours. I listen to the buzz of the oven clock, wondering whether I should be charmed, or worried that its 65 year old gears might start an electrical fire. 

To get out of my head, I make the mistake of trolling mortified white women. Someone on Nextdoor called them a Karen, and they are wounded by the ‘slur’. I smugly feel more sane. I take a swing of Cognac. Pop a sour pear edible. The relief is predictably fleeting. Land use in most of the United States has the vast majority of us locked in mouse mazes with no easy exits.

I try not to fret about health or house emergencies. I apply for work. I ignore the offers for interviews. Who wants to be micromanaged by some white dude with a business degree?

I had hoped that a pandemic might lessen the soul draining reality of American life. Children are dying as people return to their routine of dining at Applebee’s. I still get invited to participate in a life that doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no room for nightclubs, car shows or wine tasting. I shouldn’t feel ashamed that I’m not creating wealth for someone with more capital than me. 

It’s said that moving doesn’t solve problems, and yet I ask myself, “Should I stay or should I go?” In suburbia, I dream beyond the binary imposed by that question.

Time Capsule or actual human being, who knows. Laurence Jones has been sifting through ephemera of the past seemingly forever, spinning vinyl for you, taking film photography and entertaining you with instagram posts of the decrepit old cars they own. You can find previous writing by them at and