Saint Elsewhere

This past Friday, while walking through Cobble Hill, I watched kids in twos and fours and ones and sixes fizzing over with weekend, with bodega soda, with croissants and single baca di dama from the new espresso place whose vapors their mothers like to inhale appreciatively, decisively, this is like Milan / I remember when…, with hockey games — we’re going to cream Jacob’s team / I’ve been waiting for this a long time, with boys — we’re so emotive! — and girls — shuttup — skinny in thin hoodies and Rangers’ jerseys and Patagonia puffballs, slanted against the wind. Same as kids anywhere, only they weren’t anywhere, they were here, here being Smith from President to Pacific. I wondered how much they felt that hereness, and what would stand out, years later, as theirs, when they were elsewhere. It occured to me that, nine years and 468 Fridays hence, my own kid might be flying down Smith Street, stopping to pet his favorite bodega cat and — maybe — browse the latest Harry GrandPotter at Books Are Magic, or pick up some sheet music at Musician’s General or toss … artful? artless? basketballs at the court in Carroll Park, the one where, thirteen years earlier, his father had talked his way out of an open container ticket. In other words, my kid might be a New Yorker, and indeed, is now a New Yorker, a possibility and a fact which both seem astonishing.
They seem astonishing, I think, because, despite my having lived in this city from 2006 to 2010, and then again from 2012 through today, it’s never felt like mine. I don’t mean this disparagingly. I love New York, love the tidy, sweet Brooklyn neighborhood that’s been home for the past five years, love the sprawling possibilities for food and walks and drinks and work and art and music, love the tolerance, love the glimpses into worlds apart. But. I’ve never felt like a New Yorker; I’ve always felt like a voyeur, or a long-term expat, someone familiar, even deeply so, with the city, but not of it.

I grew up in a small town thirty miles due west of Boston, an old town that, for a few decades in the nineteenth century, was something of a cider mecca, but is presently known as a bedroom community, or a horse town, if it is known at all. It was a one stoplight town, with less culture or commerce in its 16 square miles than Smith Street has in a single block, but it was in a slender way, beautiful: lots of deciduous forest and sweeping fields rimmed in notional stone walls, the housing stock all stoic colonials and cheery capes. From late September through mid-October, the trees roared red and orange against brilliantly blue skies and still-green lawns and the odd, emptied cornfield, but the rest of the year, the landscape’s palette was conservative, dun and oyster and pale green and ballet slipper pink. Our property was rimmed by the Charles River and a nature preserve, and in the winter, it was sometimes hard to tell where ice and snow ended and sky began. It was the kind of landscape that snuck up on you, a sort of subconscious grace note, and thinking of it now, the crust of field, the sheet of river, the bowl of sky, my heart pangs in a specific, pewtery way — a similar pang to the one the wooded perimeter of Prospect Park and my favorite boardwalk along the Hudson trigger. The pang of the spare, dear knowable I guess; the pang Mole felt when he returned, at the end of The Wind in the Willows, to his hole.

In college, I became very interested in the role place plays in identity, and I approached the research, at first, from a very nature-based standpoint. Eg prairie versus mountains; glades and dells and hollers versus wide open spaces, oceans versus palustrals versus no water at all. But of course, though nature was the defining feature of my place, place has many more facets — culture and history and economy, for starters — and it is these that define New York, these that have built up and over nearly all of the nature, until what remains is mostly retreat. I do not, cannot know, now, what impact these facets will have on who my son is, or how he sees, or where he feels most home. Perhaps they will hold little, or else oppositional sway — he’ll wind up a park ranger, or an arctic geologist. Or perhaps he, like Frank O’Hara, will not “enjoy a blade of grass unless [he] know[s] there’s a subway handy or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

I’ll have to wait until he’s old enough to answer to find out, but for clues, maybe I’ll take another dive into Fortress of Solitude, or The Goldfinch, or, heck, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Sure, my son’s Brooklyn is cleaner, more generous than Francie’s — but the serene-ness remains.

[All images by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, whose muted depictions of his hometown also gave me that spare, knowable pang.]

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