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Class Matters

ALPHARETTA, Ga. - Kathy Link is 41 with blond-streaked pigtails and, at 5-foot-9, straight as a spear. She is still in the red sun visor and tennis whites she wore leading her fitness class at the Forum Gym and winning at doubles afterward. Tucked by her seat is her color-coded itinerary.


    Kaleigh, 8, is red. With school over this afternoon in late August, she has already been dropped off at her soccer practice blocks from home. Kristina, 11, is dark green, and Kelsey, 13, is yellow. Kristina must get to her soccer practice four miles to the north, and Kelsey to her practice 14 miles to the south.


    Ms. Link (blue for work, light green for family and volunteering) surveys the clotted intersection at the mouth of her 636-house Medlock Bridge subdivision. After moving here four years ago and choking on traffic, she made a rule: "Wherever I'm going has to be within one mile of the house," she said. But she breaks the rule two or three times a day, driving 10 and 15 times the one-mile distance.


    She squeezes the wheel of her white, eight-seat, leather-upholstered 2003 GMC Denali S.U.V. "Go, people," she pleads. Her knuckles go white. Twice she taps the horn. A timid driver in a gray van three cars ahead tiptoes into the Atlanta-bound avalanche along Highway 141. Ms. Link impatiently pulls abreast, saying, "I have to see who she is."


     A rookie "relo," she decides, someone newly relocated to Alpharetta and to its traffic. She herself is a veteran relo, having moved three times in the past 10 years to help keep her husband's career on track. She admits she is beginning to feel the strain of her vagabond life. "It's like I'm on a hamster wheel," she says.


    Ms. Link and her husband, Jim, 42, a financial services sales manager for the Wachovia Corporation of Charlotte, N.C., belong to a growing segment of the upper middle class, executive gypsies. The shock troops of companies that continually expand across the country and abroad, they move every few years, from St. Louis to Seattle to Singapore, one satellite suburb to another, hopscotching across islands far from the working class and the urban poor.


    As a subgroup, relos are economically homogenous, with midcareer incomes starting at $100,000 a year. Most are white. Some find the salaries and perks compensating; the developments that cater to them come with big houses, schools with top SAT scores, parks for youth sports and upscale shopping strips.


    Others complain of stress and anomie. They have traded a home in one place for a job that could be anyplace. Relo children do not know a hometown; their parents do not know where their funerals will be. There is little in the way of small-town ties or big-city amenities - grandparents and cousins, longtime neighbors, vibrant boulevards, homegrown shops - that let roots sink in deep.


    "It's as if they're being molded by their companies," said Tina Davis, a top Alpharetta relo agent for the Coldwell Banker real estate firm. "Most of the people will tell you how long they'll be here. It's usually two to four years."
    The Links bought their first home 15 years ago in what was then the master planned community of Clear Lake City, Tex., now a part of Houston. In 1994, they moved to the old Baltimore suburb of Severna Park and three years later to Pittsford, N.Y., near Rochester. In another three years they bought a five-bedroom, four-bath home here, 25 miles north of Atlanta, where Mr. Link started work at an office of the First Union Corporation, which became part of Wachovia.