Where’s Walden

I had no idea what I was going to find when I first got to Walden, but I was not prepared for what I found. All I knew was that the Westchase-area Houston apartment complex claimed to have the fastest residential Internet connection in the world, and I had fears that beyond this fact, there wouldn’t be a lot to discuss. When I pulled in, though, police cars were parked haphazardly in the lot, and as I got out of my car, an officer started to approach me. He walked past when he saw the look of confusion on my face.

At the front office, Walden’s management team greeted me and told me that fifteen minutes earlier one of the apartment complex’s residents had been found dead, after having committed suicide. I asked if I should come back another time, but they said that they were ready for me right then. We went up a set of stairs into an area called the Nexus Café to chat. It was awkward, to say the least, when the owner waxed poetic about his apartment complex as one of the victim’s mourners walked by us crying uncontrollably.

That night, I met with about ten of the residents, many of whom repeated the mantra, “I came for the bandwidth, but I stayed for the community.” One said that he had moved into a house, but moved back to “hang out with the guys.” So even after I learned that the suicide victim had many problems that ultimately led to his taking his own life, my interest had been piqued. What was going on here?

I asked to come back and live at the complex for a week. When I arrived a few months later, the management team and the residents welcomed me. I stayed in the model apartment, a furnished one-bedroom with one-bath, that was used for tours. During the day, I hid my suitcase under the bed and roamed the grounds to observe behavior and talk to any Waldenites willing to be interviewed.

I asked the manager to set me up with a computer as well as an ID and password to get into the residents’ infamous mailing list, which I had heard so much about. It was an invaluable tool that allowed me to arrange meetings with all the neighbors. The speakers on the computer would make a noise—a high pitched “ UH-oh!”—every time a message arrived. I soon found that the residents sent each other group messages all day and all night. Each evening, as if I were living in the land of Teletubbies, I’d be awakened by the computer’s cutesy, “ UH-oh!” “ UH-oh!” “ UH-oh!”

During interviews, two of the Waldenites’ observations arose repeatedly. First, in response to the question, “What could happen here that would happen nowhere else?” several people recounted the story of the relationship between Brandon and Denise. Second, most of them said they had made a group of friends at Walden for the first time in their lives and that the community was beginning to fall apart. In fact, the week that I stayed at Walden, many of the most active members in the community had moved or were in the process of moving out.

It made sense, then, to weave these two stories together—similar to the way Aaron Latham’s 1978 Esquire story “Urban Cowboy” used a romance as a way to reveal a culture. This was my first magazine feature article, and perhaps for that reason, it was also the most difficult and most gratifying story I have done thus far.

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