Like many kids who came of age in the suburbs during the era of sprawling strip malls, big box stores and chain restaurants, I did not have an idyllic setting to explore during my childhood.
The Stilwell, Kansas, neighborhood where I grew up was built in the mid-70s, and it wasn't as cookie-cutter as some of the newer neighborhoods, the ones with names like Cedar Crest, Parkwood Hills, or Deer Creek; in fact, the house where my parents still live sits on a two-acre yard in which my dad plants a vegetable garden, my mom plants flowers, and my brother and I used to spend hot summer days running through the sprinklers, playing volleyball and basketball, and splashing on the slip 'n' slide. And, in the backyard, my dad still keeps homing pigeons, which he races competitively against other pigeon breeders in the KC area. These aren't your mangy, garbage-pecking street pigeons; they are big, muscular and graceful. They're kind of like if Kid Rock were a pigeon vs. if James Bond were a pigeon, or a Courtney Love pigeon vs. an Angelina Jolie pigeon. Anyway, you get the idea.
When I was a kid, Stilwell was still relatively rural, but by the time I was 16 and able to drive, big corporations had gobbled up much of the open space and filled it with strip malls, Wal-Marts, Super Targets, Taco Bells, Starbucks, etc. - you name it, and if it's a corporate franchise, you can probably find it within a 15-minute drive of my parents' home. Having such a homogeneous setting in which to do my first large-scale independent exploration (because you can't get around Kansas City, especially the suburbs, without a car) might have stifled my personal development (and led to my repeated decisions, once I turned 18 and moved out on my own, to throw myself, head first and unprepared, into unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous situations), but at the time it was all I knew. When you're 16, you're still just a kid with a drivers' license, and you'll find mystery and excitement in even the most sterile, oppressively-mauve shopping center, or the neon-lit aisles of a 24-hour Wal-Mart. You'll find it even if it's not there.
My friend E. and I would occasionally hang out in a small, wooden gazebo located in the middle of an office park called Corporate Woods. We called it "gazebo time," which meant little more than sitting on the bench smoking cigarettes and talking about boys, whining about our parents, and growing nervous about the future, maybe having a quick dash through the lawn sprinklers if they were on. There was something almost romantic about gazebo time, even if, twelve hours later, corporate drones who decided to brown-bag it would be chowing their wonderbread sandwiches in our very seats.