In the Suburbs / Marking 30 years of “In the Suburbs”
Thirty years ago, when I was still working in Manhattan, I pulled a Nancy Reagan and saw an astrologer, who had been recommended by a close friend. Call it curiosity, but my friend said that this woman had worked with celebrities and Wall Street giants and would certainly tell me amazing things about my future. And one of the things the astrologer shared was that I would do something with my aspiration to write more than just press releases and business pieces.
So I set my sights on a popular column in The New York Times Magazine called “About Men” and created a piece about my relationship with my two daughters. Like any budding writer, I liked the piece, probably didn’t edit it enough and sent it off. The rejection letter arrived a few weeks later and I was crushed, but not defeated. I embarked on a submission crusade that included every logical newspaper in Fairfield County, along with the feature sections of The New Haven Register and The Hartford Courant. The stack of rejection letters grew.
At first, I heard nothing from The Fairfield Citizen, my home town paper, and moped around saying to myself, “I love Barry Wallace’s column and would certainly aspire to be half as good a writer as he is. So why can’t I cut a break? The astrologer never briefed me on the rejection game.”
Then one evening I opened a letter from The Citizen that I was certain sealed my fate as a doomed writer, only to discover that Editor Patricia Hines, to whom I remain eternally grateful, liked my piece and was proposing a weekly column I was both thrilled and stunned. When I spoke with Pat the next day, she told me she had really enjoyed the piece I had written about my daughters and me, but she needed six new columns of roughly 750 words each as soon as possible for consideration before she would begin.
Morning and evening on the train for the next few weeks, I wrote columns about Fairfield, my family and its quirks, balancing work and home with a job in Manhattan and the robotic army of commuters, who politely lined up every morning, staring straight ahead and saying nothing. I submitted all six columns toward the end of May and with Pat’s careful edits, they survived. On the first Friday in June 1988, “In the Suburbs” was born
Pat Hines remained my best critic and sounding board for more than 20 years until she moved on to other assignments and eventually her own consulting business. I have missed her feedback and suggestions. Four or five new editors took over during the years that followed and each added another dimension or direction to “In the Suburbs.” My current editor, Jerrod has been particularly open to new ideas and I’ve greatly appreciated that.
All the editors have reigned me in when I have focused on subjects too far from our town of Fairfield or talked about delicate family issues. And most editors have given me the opportunity to speak about issues that concern me.
Once the editors added my e-mail at the end of the columns, I began to get more reader feedback than I ever imagined. Some of it was negative and blunt, but most of the feedback was positive and very helpful.
A friend asked me a few years ago about my favorite columns and, without hesitation, I mentioned the pieces about the various Jewish holidays, where I could share wonderful family memories and reflect wistfully on Passover Gefilte fish, made lovingly by my mom, grandmother and aunt. I spoke about how Gefilte the fish had traveled by plane, then by bus and eventually by Fed Ex.
My other favorites, albeit painful, were pieces I shared about 9/11 and my own experience that day. At Pat’s suggestion, I kept sending e-mails to her about what I was seeing and feeling in the aftermath of that tragedy and she used every one on the front and second page of the paper. I received a journalism award the following year.
I’ve shared the challenges of parenting, the joy of weddings, the pain of losing parents and in-laws and the miracle of our daughter adopting her little Lucas from China last June. And the list goes on.
I don’t know the exact number of columns I’ve written over these 30 years, but it’s more than 1,500. What really has meant the most to me, however, are the number of people in town who have stopped me on the street or in the bookstore to chat or suggest column ideas.
I can’t say thank you enough for letting me share “In the Suburbs” with you along with the rotogravure of my chubby and less chubby images. What a wonderful ride this has been.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.