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

Monday, September 2, 2013

Where Are You From, And Does It Matter?

I grew up in a small New England city which called itself The Hardware Capital of the World thanks to all the tools, bearings, and bits it manufactured.  In was one of the largest cities in America by the mid-19th Century, and became an increasingly influential part of the Industrial Revolution.  When I lived there the factories were still the heart and soul of the city.  The owners and managers were descendants of the original founders, and their old-line Anglo-Saxon families kept position, status, and privilege.  These families lived in the West End, a neighborhood of 18th Century colonial houses, stone walls, 200 year-old oak trees; and led a life of semi-leisure at the Country Club or on the Vineyard.

Those who worked the lathes, presses, and drills in their factories were either Polish immigrants who lived in a neighborhood where all the shops, delicatessens, markets, and barbers were Polish; or first generation Poles who lived in neat, well-kept three- and four-story walkups by the ball fields.

The practices of the town’s doctors, lawyers, and dentists were all ethnically based. Most were Polish; but a few were Italian and even fewer Jewish. These professionals lived on the outskirts of the West End, for although they were accepted as professionals, they still reeked too much of garlic and cabbage for the old families of Adams Street.

The tradesmen, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians formed the fourth layer of New Brighton society; and they too had their own sector of the town – not in walkups but in small saltboxes not far from Franklin Square.

The public elementary school was the only place where a mixing of economic and ethnic classes occurred.  I went to school with the sons and daughters of New Brighton’s wealthiest families, those of the car mechanic who fixed my father’s Buick, the ‘Home’ kids from the Orphanage on the hill, and a few children of the few Polish factory workers who lived within school boundaries.

Other than that, we all had separate lives. By the end of elementary school we went our own ways.  I and the children of the captains of industry went to the exclusive Country Day school.  Those of the professionals went to Catholic school; and the working class kids made their way through public Junior High and High School.

We never socialized together, went to church together, or vacationed together. The town had more social boundaries than one would imagine for one of its size; but occupation, education, accent, dress, and behavior distinguished us as much as a scarlet letter would have in the past.

I grew up in the old-line part of town, but in a family of first generation Italians.  My father was a doctor whose patients were almost exclusively Italian.  When I was little I went with him on house calls and on rounds at the hospital. I might have gone to school and played with the children of families who were the last redoubts of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant tradition and privilege; but the New Brighton I saw with my father was one of little privilege, no inherited wealth, and very little future.  Having grown up in an Italian ghetto, my father wanted all the benefits, leisure, and opportunity of the wealthy for us; but he never lost his respect for the workers on the factory floor.

So, when asked, “Where are you from”, I always answer “New Brighton, Connecticut” and then go on to situate it – a small, industrial city in the Connecticut River Valley, heavily Polish, mid-way between Hartford and New Haven.  However, because I was never part of the industrial core of the city, never went to public school after the sixth grade, and left home at 15 for boarding school and college, I quickly add Lefferts and Yale to my resume. I am not so much trying to put a distance between me and the unwashed as I am trying to provide context for the questioner.  However much we would like to bury or curtain a sketchy, somewhat disreputable past, we are all defined by place. 

My place was New Brighton, and no matter how much I skirted the edges of the real city, I was inevitably a part of it.  I went to the March Elementary School.  I read girly magazines at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop.  I cruised for girls at the Bowl-a-Rama on Arch Street.  I knew kids from the Catholic school and played pickup baseball on the Green with Billy Dumbrowski and his fat brothers.

After graduate school I lived in New York City for a year.  I drove a cab, lived in Little Italy, ate blintzes at Yonah Schimmel’s, overstuffed pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen, and mushroom barley soup at Ratner’s.  As far as I was concerned, I had become a New Yorker, and shortly afterwards when asked where I was from by my new American colleagues in India, I proudly said “New York”.  I was no more from the Big Apple than from Biloxi, but I maintained the fiction.  Why not? I reasoned.  I had become more New York than New Brighton.  My Ivy League education,  travel, and friends all qualified me as cosmopolitan and worldly, leagues away from my narrow regional upbringing.

After a while I dropped the charade.  I couldn’t fool anyone.  My Connecticut Valley accent and my middle-class stories of hot summers, stock-and-errand boy jobs, and two-week vacations on the cheap end of the Connecticut Shore betrayed any pretense of being a big city boy.

For over 40 years after graduate school and New York, I lived, travelled and worked in over 50 countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. I got to know Paris better than New York, and lived longer in Delhi than in Manhattan. I smoothed the edges off my Americanism while I perfected my French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  I had become an accomplished world traveller, a culturally stateless person, able to glide between nations and cultures with ease.  Yet, I was always from New Brighton, Connecticut, and I had long ceased to deny it.

Heather Long writing in The Guardian (9.2.13) resents the perennial and unavoidable question about origins:

We seem to want to put people in boxes, to size them up quickly. In the US, we are especially prone to wanting to know which state or part of the country someone is from. I've even had people ask me where my parents are from, as if knowing that (are they Southern, West Coasters, East Coasters, Midwestern) will somehow give great insight into our family character.

However, it isn’t so much that we want to pigeonhole people, but to find an anchor, a point de repère, a recognizable edge or corner which facilitates the next step of social interaction. East Coast-West Coast is an important distinction.  My friends here in Mississippi grew up in an environment very different from mine, and regional origins are definitely important social markers.  The fact that I grew up in a small industrial city of Connecticut in the Fifties tells a lot about me, despite the variations of country day school, hospital rounds, and cotillions.

For some people giving a correct answer is not easy. Military children probably live in at least 10 places before they go off to college; and whether in Germany, Japan, or Korea  they live on army bases, the most generic American life anywhere. In fact, when people with a military background are asked the ‘Where are you from?’ question, they invariably answer, “I’m an Army brat”.  They are from no place, but are fully American.  The military and the United States defines them, not New Brighton, New York, or Biloxi.

Most of the rest of us figure out how to answer, as I have.  Some may use longevity – Providence, because they lived there longer than any other place; or Cleveland, because all their family has lived there since they went to college.  For me the only important variable is where you spent your formative years.  Fifteen years in New Brighton was enough to imbue me with the best and worst of Central Connecticut.

The reality is a lot of us move around frequently. The notion of a "hometown" or "place we're from" can be complex. This is modern life in our "world is flat" globe, and frankly, it's refreshing not to be so easily pinned down.

True enough, Ms. Long, but pinned down you always will be. Place and origins have always been crucial social markers.  We want to identify the Other, the outlier, the ugly duckling; and at the same time we want friendships, acquaintance, and familiarity; and the answer to “Where are you from?” helps us along our way.

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