"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Where Did You Say You Were From Again?

New Brighton is as good a place to come from as any.  Everybody has to be from somewhere, although you don’t realize it until you’ve left.  I never knew that I was from a small Rust Belt city with four factories, a park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and more Silesian Poles than anywhere outside of Poland until I went to New York for the first time when I was eight. When my father and I got off the train at Grand Central Station, I felt that half the people in world were getting off with us; and when I joined the thundering herd in the great, high-ceilinged, echoing marble vault of the Main Concourse, I knew it must have been the other half.

We took the ‘A’ train to Yankee Stadium, a steel rocket that careened uptown with the noise of a hundred New Brighton factories and jammed fuller than a Texas cattle car.  There were crazy people everywhere I looked.  A man whose face was painted like an Indian and who wore a fluorescent-colored beanie with a propeller on top lurched from side to side down the aisle of the car yelling about Jesus.  He stood in front of me and my father and asked, “Are you saved?”.  I was scared, wondered why my father had brought me to this awful place, and wanted to go home.  When we arrived back at the New Brighton station – an ancient, one-room wooden outpost smelling of kerosene and creosote, but whose uneven, creaky and worn floorboards were familiar, I knew I was home.  The next day when I woke up, I knew I was from New Brighton, Connecticut.

I have met many people who sighed when I asked them, “So, where are you from?”.

“Depends”, they said, and went on to identify where they were born, although that really was incidental and inconsequential in a life led in a hundred places, in army bases scattered from Frankfurt to Seoul. They were from an army base of a thousand doors, all opening onto the same parades, filled with the same drilling soldiers, salutes, bugles, and the never-changing, boring repetition of grey barracks, hospitals, and runways.  Where they were from now was where they were from – at least to satisfy the question; but they really were placeless, itinerant travellers.  They envied those of us who had clear childhood memories – the hammering of the factory machines in the basement workshops on Arch Street; the white frame colonial houses of Madison Street – historical plaques with the years1811, 1758, 1732 inscribed in old brass; baseball on the Green; agates on the playground behind the Vernon School.  Our memories had taste, color, fragrance while theirs were indistinct.  The base at Seoul was no different from that in Luzon except for the heat, the humidity, and the palm trees outside the perimeter.

I have met many people who were from somewhere but who couldn’t go back like the stateless Gujarati who ran an Indian restaurant in Moroni, the main island of the Comoros.  He had spent the last ten years petitioning the United Nations for some form of identification that would allow him to leave this desolate volcanic outcrop in the middle of the Arabian Sea - Casablanca-like Letters of Transit at least which would get him to Ahmedabad and to his family. He was a sad, big man, who missed his home. There was also an unofficially stateless Italian who certainly had at least one passport, and who was in the Comoros because he was fleeing something or someone.  I suspected that the Italian and the Gujarati were not the only two foreigners who had washed up on the basaltic rocks of Moroni and paid for their welcome.

There were people like me who said they were from somewhere they weren’t.  I was from New York for my first year in India.  Just the sound of the name had so much more excitement and allure than that of my own decaying home.  Everyone of course saw through the scrim of my fantasy.  Everything gave me away – the Polish-influenced broad -vowelled, high nasal accent.  Yale, Lefferts, and Marland Country Day School were stamped on my clothes like the scarlet letter. My  demeanor, my speech, and my wife reeked of Old New England.  Who was kidding whom?

I had one friend whose charade was far more transparent than mine.  I at least knew New York and had been there many times and had lived there for a year or so before leaving for India; but Herman Schwartz was not only a Brooklyn Jew; he was the Brooklyn Jew – deli inflections, rat-a-tat-tat delivery, offhanded sarcasm, chutzpah, and he was a ringer for Woody Allen.  “I’m from Hawaii”, Herman would always say, and no one believed him either.

I have lived in Washington, DC for nearly 35 years and now claim it as my home…except when I am in the South.  “I know you live in Washington now”, new acquaintances in Mississippi would drawl, “but I asked you where you were from”.  A lot rides on the answer to this question, and saying Washington was obvious temporizing.  Everyone knew that Washington was a transit stop from somewhere else to somewhere else.  “I was born and raised in Connecticut”, I soon learned to say.  

Now that my parents are no longer living, and the home in which I lived for 60 years has been sold to a developer, I doubt I will ever go back to New Brighton.  Perhaps in another ten years if I am still around, I will feel the need to go back home, to take one last walk through the park, drive through downtown to see how it is doing, or down Broad Street to see if the Polish neighborhood has once again reverted to Puerto Rican, been transformed entirely, or remained the same.

Washington may have been my home for years, and I may be from there now; but the day will soon come when I am asked where I am from, I will say quickly and without hesitation, “New Brighton, Connecticut”.

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