Suburban Cowboy

My wife won’t admit it, but I’m pretty sure we decided to move to the suburbs the night our daughter didn’t get into preschool. It’s not that our 21⁄2-year-old didn’t get in anywhere, which is every Manhattan parent’s worst nightmare; she just didn’t get into the school we were fantasizing about. We were accepted by an earnest, church-basement sort of school with caring teachers and a director who was proud that her daughter had come home from Berkeley to protest Davos at the Waldorf. Still, I’m willing to admit that I would have preferred to send her to the school near Gramercy Park where all the fathers looked like buyout specialists with weekend places in Greenwich (and their wives former junior Vogue editors), and the director seemed more like an Ivy League dean than an Anti-Defamation League radical.

That night in early March, when the preschool acceptances went round to all the nervous parents, my wife and I had a serious chat. With our two kids asleep in their half of our jury-rigged one-bedroom, we sat in the living room mapping out alternative futures. Stick it out in our 850-square-foot patch of paradise? Or take the leap into the suburbs? Our Manhattan conceit was that the suburbs were for suckers: a refuge for the less competitive. Now that we’d failed at preschool, the first rung of social competition, were we marked for the minor leagues?

It’s a cliché, but kids changed just about everything: the rhythm of our days, our choice of restaurants, our friends. Nonetheless, we were proud of our urban life and fiercely defended all the reasons it was better for raising children. Our 500-unit building had become a support system: Our daughter had playmates on other floors, the lobby was its own wonderland of doting doormen and friendly dogs, and everything we needed could be delivered. Through the toddler network of music and dance classes, not to mention pre-preschool, my wife had a large circle of acquaintances for play dates, as did our nanny. There were the early mornings at City Bakery, where my daughter and I went to meet the world, and after-work expeditions to the Garden of Eden, where we bought dinner and made faces at the lobsters. The city really worked for us. Then we ran headlong into the school thing.

Nancy, a high-school friend of mine from Larchmont, was entertaining her kids in Union Square when I ran into her. With a brand-new infant (her third) in a Baby Björn, she started talking about how much more appealing the suburbs seemed now that we had kids. She remarked on the price of houses in lower Westchester, how $750,000 got you a two-bedroom on the East Side or a modest house in a good school district. “You know,” she said, “the public schools we went to were just as good as anything I’ve seen in the city. But the thing is, you get to pay for them …” I finished her thought, “With pre-tax dollars.”

There it was, the simplest rationale for moving. Not a preference for lawns or dreams of soccer leagues and book groups but a small hope that we could find a town with urban sophistication and good schools, for the same monthly nut we paid in Chelsea – or the same nut minus tuition.

Great. Now we got the suburbs as a concept: low-density housing as a means toward educating your children. But which suburb would we be happy living in?

It both did and didn’t help that friends and acquaintances suddenly took a suspicious interest in getting us settled in their town. A colleague in a neighboring office plumped for Dobbs Ferry, his own town, though when I called his broker, I was told there was “nothing, nothing” on the market under $800,000. Then over a business lunch, another friend, who lives in Ossining, eagerly invited me to bring my family up for a tour. A few weeks later, he called to say that he’d seen a beautiful Colonial on the market that seemed perfect for me. “It won’t last,” he warned. When I confessed that we wanted to be closer to Manhattan, I could hear his ebullience fade. I’d disappointed him in a way I could never mend.

At the beginning of our search, my wife made a list of the things that were important to us. We needed to be near the city. We imagined loading the kids into the car for Sunday mornings at the Guggenheim or quick visits to friends in Brooklyn (the same ones who were too inconvenient to reach now by subway). And, of course, I didn’t want to be on the train forever. The subway from Brooklyn would take me a good 40 minutes, I figured, so that should be the benchmark for a commute.

Housing stock was important, too. We wanted something with character and age. We also wanted a village with shops, a library, a train station within walking distance of the house, a few decent shops – a place with some sidewalk interaction to make it feel a bit like the life we were leaving behind. All that for $500,000 (comfortable) to $700,000 (major stretch).

At another friend’s suggestion, we kicked off in Pelham, the first town across the Bronx border and just 29 minutes from Grand Central. Our broker Claudia Lutzky produced what she called the “pick of the sixes, pick of the sevens, and pick of the eights,” gently letting us know that the real houses started at $800,000. When we saw Pelham’s property taxes (“Take the first digit of your house’s price, multiply it by 3,000, and you’ll have your taxes”), we changed direction for Montclair, New Jersey.

Another colleague gave me the name of Linda Grotenstein, his Realtor there, who gamely offered to pilot our station wagon, taking us first up Upper Mountain Avenue to see the view of Manhattan, possibly to underscore that we were only twelve miles from the West Side. Montclair’s key selling point is its magnet-school system, which favors parental choice. It also boasts a fragmented downtown so that no residential area is really out of walking distance from shops and services. Perhaps that’s why all the houses sell in a weekend. As in Westchester, the most desirable houses go on the market Thursday or Friday, priced to draw the maximum amount of interest and start a bidding war by Sunday night. Much to our surprise, my wife and I found a number of houses we were tempted to bid on, especially since the prices started at $500,000.

As we dropped Linda back at the real-estate office, my wife said, “I really came out here to cross Montclair off my list, but you made it very appealing.”

We drove back into the city to have dinner with friends at their rambling classic six on West End Avenue. Feeling sheepish about our day’s activity, we were shocked to find our hosts eager to hear every detail. We went home feeling, well, validated.

Our next stops in New Jersey were Millburn and Maplewood. There, Maggee Miggins was not afraid to give her unvarnished opinion on taxes and schools. The first house we saw seemed so perfect – a $659,000 half-timbered Tudor with an enclosed porch – that we had trouble concentrating through the rest of the ride. Maggee assured us it would go for well into the seven hundreds. But she got us into at least three more houses I would’ve been happy to live in. Riding back through the marshes of the Meadowlands, my wife seemed troubled. “I just can’t get it out of my head,” she said regretfully. “I loved those houses, but all I can think of is that my kids are going to grow up telling people they are from New Jersey!”

I asked a colleague who lives in Short Hills how to convert my wife. Instead, he simply shook his head, admitting that it took him “many, many years to get over the fact that I live in New Jersey.”

All during this odyssey, we were also looking in Larchmont (you can go home again!) with an agent named Leslie Gluck. Each weekend, we would stop in to look at two or three houses, most a stretch on our budget. Leslie pointed out that many couples moved to Larchmont as a stepping stone between Manhattan and more bucolic places like Bedford. Finally, she took us to a charming brown stucco Colonial built in the twenties or thirties. Barely 1,500 square feet, the house had a beautiful back deck and was at the end of a cul-de-sac. At $579,000, it was really something we could afford. The first day we looked at it, the sun was streaming into the house, and my older daughter came out of a bedroom and announced, “That’s my room.” When we returned to look at the house a second time, she shouted at another Realtor walking into the house, “No! Don’t go in there! That’s my house!”

Mindful of all the houses she’d lost for clients in bidding wars, Leslie warned that the property could go for as much as $50,000 to $100,000 over the asking price. Terrified, we waited until Sunday, not wanting to spark the powder keg with an offer.

Nonetheless, there were three bidders by Sunday night, and the owner’s agent announced she would only accept best bids. After struggling for the right number, we settled, somewhat arbitrarily, on 7 percent above the asking price. When we heard we got the house, an electric jolt of buyer’s remorse ran through us: We bid too much!

I wish I could say that was the end of it, but, in a seller’s market, we were pushed to go to contract within a few days. Under intense pressure to meet the seller’s deadline and cope with the unsettling details of the inspection, our agent turned to me and said in a fit of exasperated sympathy, “I spend more time picking out a dress.”

A lot’s changed for us since moving to town. I haven’t had the New York feeling that I was missing out on something fabulous happening somewhere else; but I do have a nagging feeling that I should adopt a serious exercise regime every time I see the squadron of early-morning runners and cyclists. My wife and I spent last weekend busily tending to our new garden. Together, we stood in the middle of our yard, poring over a book on shrub pruning that had all the maddening ambiguity of the instructions to assemble a child’s playhouse.

I’ve also come to realize that I now live across the New York City border, in America, where people feel part of a community and greet each other with a look in the eye, a smile, and a nod – even if you’re a stranger. The other morning, at 6 a.m., I stood at my front door staring at the drenching rain and kicking myself for not having put my trash out. A garbage man sauntered by. Seeing me at the door – and no cans at the curb – he called out, “Where’s your trash?” It took me a minute to realize that he wasn’t chastising me but offering to walk round the back of the house to retrieve it. I was too embarrassed to accept his offer. Deprived of that good deed, he settled for picking up my newspapers and bringing them to my door.

“Thanks,” I said, adjusting to the unexpected kindness, “you didn’t have to do that.”

“No problem,” he said nonchalantly, “I’m already wet.”

Suburban Cowboy