On top of that, Heather and Jeff had decided not to have children. As more and more of their friends disappeared into parenthood, they found themselves the odd couple out. Hudson, with its walking-distance bars and gay population, glittered like a backwoods disco. So they sold their co-op and bought a 5,600-square-foot pink mansion on Hudson’s main drag, Warren Street, for $370,000 in the fall of 2005 (“The peak of the market,” Heather says ruefully). And they love it. “I think we have more of a social life here than we did in the East Village,” Jeff says.
Upstate lures parents, too. It’s a magnet for high-achieving women who’ve decided that their best expression of feminism is to stay home with their kids. “I think it would have been hard to be an at-home mom in New York,” says Ticky Kennedy. “That would have been really stressful. So many fewer people are doing it there. Here, a lot of people are doing it. So it feels easier.”
As an at-home mom myself, I spent my first year here in a constant state of disorientation: too New York for the country, too country for New York. I’d revel in the less competitive atmosphere for my daughter, then gape in disapproving disbelief at the unsupervised kids pedaling bikes without helmets and the McDonald’s bags on the floors of classmates’ cars. I wanted to fit in, yet I refused to set foot inside Wal-Mart. What I’d taken for granted in the city was my innate ability to sort through the vast pool of humanity in my own neighborhood and zoom in on the strangers who seemed compatible and appealing: I’d strike up a chat with a mother, and within moments find out that, like me, she was an arts-related professional taking time off to raise her kid(s). I missed that easy camaraderie.
Meeting other transplants doesn’t always solve this dilemma. Yes, we share a city background—but it’s not necessarily the same city background. If there’s another Maxwell’s-graduate indie-rock chick north of the county line, I’ve yet to meet her. “I never had trouble making friends in the city, and I do have trouble here,” admits Elizabeth Powell, a leather-goods designer who moved to Claverack in 2004. “I feel like I haven’t found a niche.”
My first winter in Columbia County, I tasted madness. Snow shoveling was a four-hour ordeal. It was like I’d missed the memo. I didn’t have the right equipment, or I’d get the timing wrong. During one storm, I shoveled too early, and more snow fell, then thawed, then refroze overnight, creating a two-inch slick of ice on my driveway. I ended up chasing a plow guy down the street. Or I’d shovel too late, and the snow would get too heavy to lift. This is what it’s like working on a chain gang, I remember thinking.
With my husband gone most of the week, my daughter and I spent long hours together. Sometimes, I’d get hinky from operating on her mental level all day. One night, my husband called from a family gathering in Fort Lee. Happy humans chatted and chortled in the background. I could practically smell the pot roast. I whined about some random incident of the day. “Look, I’ve gotta go eat,” my husband said. “Don’t you hang up the phone!” I screamed. “You’re the first adult I’ve talked to all day!” At nights, after my daughter went to bed, I’d try to knock out some freelance work. One evening, I was trying to review a three-CD Nick Cave collection. It should have been easy—I’d been a fan for twenty years. Maybe that was the problem. I kept reflecting back on my carefree, beer-soaked indie-rock days. I remembered seeing Cave at the old Ritz on 11th Street. I was so psyched that I crawled out onto a girder holding up the balcony, just to be closer to the stage.
Now here I was, stuck in a dark, chilly, empty house. Outside, the wind howled. Moonlight reflected creepily off the snow. On the main road a quarter of a mile away, a lone car’s headlights flatlined across the window.
In a fit of defiance, or maybe just desperation, I grabbed a composition book and started sketching. I drew my desk, my computer, my pencil box. Then I drew my Frank Sinatra poster. Then, feeling oddly energized, I drew myself. I’d never thought much of my artistic abilities, but it felt good, just moving the pencil across the paper. I had a new purpose in life. The whole rest of the week I was preoccupied with sketching. I felt as though I’d liberated some long-repressed facet of my creative being. When my husband returned home, I displayed my accomplishments. He glanced at them quickly, then laughed. “These look like they were done by someone in an insane asylum,” he said.