I was talking to a coworker the other day and the town of Woodstock, NY, came up and I said, “You know that’s where I’m from, right?” But that’s a funny thing for me to say. Because, really, Woodstock is just the last place I lived with my family before I went off to college and my real life started. I went to high school there, but it’s not my hometown in the way other people have hometowns. My family has since moved away. There’s nothing there to go back to. So when E and I talk about what we’d do if my company had layoffs and if I lost my job—the only thing making it possible for us to stay in New York City, and also the only thing making it necessary for us to stay in New York City—we discuss where we’d go. Because we couldn’t stay here, though it breaks my heart to realize that. I love this city, but I have no family here either, no one to help us out. It would never occur to me to move “back” to Woodstock. I never felt truly at home there, though it was better than any of the other places where I lived. So the question is: Where would we go? Where is “back home”? And what do you do when you don’t have one?
I’ve never felt more at home than I do now, living in downtown Manhattan, a place where I know I don’t belong—I’m well aware—and yet I’ve been an impostor just enough to pull it off all these years. But I don’t think a place becomes “home” just because you walk the same streets every day, take the same shortcuts, stop at the same cafés, ride the same train. You have to belong there. And in my neighborhood, I walk around and think only rich people really belong here. Maybe the town where I went to college is more of a home—it would be maybe, if the college was open. Then again it’s in Ohio. How can Ohio be my home?
I guess I’ve never had an actual hometown—not the town where I was born, not the town where I lived as a toddler, as a young kid, not the one where we lived when I was in elementary school, not the one where I went to junior high, not the dark spot of a town where I spent the ninth grade, and not the last of the towns, not even that one. We moved enough as a kid that I never felt connected to any one place or house or town or group of people.
I guess the state of New York is my home, since it’s had me longer than any other. But will I cross the bridge to Queens and find my home there? Is it uptown, where I went to grad school? Is it upstate, the place I write about more than any other? Is it Woodstock after all?
I wish I knew. The economy is so bad right now that this is the time you want to fling yourself back there, to “home,” your fail-safe, the one place you can go when everything else crumbles. I heard two girls talking on the subway. They said if it gets really bad, if it’s impossible to keep up with the rent and the bills, they’ll just move back home to Chicago. And I sat there listening, because they were talking inches from me, and I thought, Chicago, will you take me? I wonder…