The National Catholic Review

Next stop, Dobbs Ferry,” the amiable conductor says, so I’ll know when to get off the train. It is odd to be back in New York after 22 years (can it be?) in Chicago. The last time I lived in the area I was a young man of five and twenty and if not completely without a care, then with a remarkably light burden to shoulder. Now I am not so young; the wrinkles and gray hairs gang up on me in the bathroom mirror. There are mornings I don’t recognize the middle-aged grump looking back at me.

It is hardly original to note the shocking passage of time, particularly when it is wrenched into focus by a move as dramatic as the one I’ve made from the Great Plains to the gritty urbanity of New York. But my recent “Go East, old man” routine has been accompanied by the pop phenomenon of “Mad Men” and the retrieval of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road from an encroaching obscurity. These two minor cultural artifacts have made my resettlement in John Cheever’s suburban landscape feel even more dislocating. Am I one of those guys? Where did I sign up for this? Where have gone my youthful dreams of glory? Beats me. I gave up looking for my Ramones T-shirt a long time ago. I may not be the man in the grey flannel suit waiting for the next Croton-Harmon train, but I have to squint pretty hard to see the difference.

Though I don’t miss an episode of “Mad Men,” I have not had the heart to read Yates’s searing novel or even to see Sam Mendes’s recent cinematic interpretation. I can’t even get through the trailer on iTunes before Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s unquiet desperation feels too close-to-homey for my middle-class comfort.

It was only a few weeks ago that I did a double-take, driving down Saw Mill River Road past Ardsley, New York’s real-life Revolutionary Road. I have since discovered other scattered Revolutionary Roads winding their way among the villages of Westchester County.

I am become “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, destroyer of...what exactly? While Don and the Road’s Frank Wheeler attempt to resolve their angst and anxieties in boozy womanizing, like most other middle-aged guys of my generation I find myself on a slightly less self-indulgent and self-destructive path. That’s not to say I don’t wake up some mornings humming the Talking Heads and wondering how I got this beautiful house, with this beautiful wife. But really, who has time for that?

It is possible that I have let the days go by without much consciousness of the direction they are flowing. Maybe my wife and I are both too busy to devote much attention to examining this life of ours. It’s true four mouths and minds and spirits to feed at home do not leave a lot of philosophical downtime, but if I haven’t had the courage or the energy to flag off a path for myself in life, if my always inchoate ambition has only become more dissipated over the years, I can only acknowledge that it is my family, my wife and children, who provide all the direction and purpose in my life now as I wait on that train platform in Dobbs Ferry every working morn. And for this I am deeply grateful. I am reminded of the words I told my wife at our rehearsal dinner, “Thank you for saving me.”

Maybe despite my new zip code I can simply forego the Draperish desperation and Leonardian angst. Maybe it is good enough to remember the soft words my kindly conductor intones as I reach my station. Of the many times he’s encouraged me off the train and aimed me toward my home, it is always the “next stop” he’s urging me toward. I’ve never once heard him say, “Last stop, Dobbs Ferry.”

Kevin Clarke is an associate editor of America.

Comments

CHARLES KINNAIRD | 11/22/2009 - 3:04pm
Thanks for this article. As a baby boomer who just hit 55, facing the empty-next syndrome with a daughter in college,I can relate that sense of looking back and looking ahead. I don't know, Kevin may not be as far down the road as I am, but for me it is good to hear some midlife reflections.

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