If I’d known about all the other New Yorkers hunkered down nearby, I’d have felt better. I’d have realized my experiences weren’t unique. Hell, they weren’t even that bad. Sue Dixon, who moved to Columbia County four years ago, remembers her first winter. “When we moved here, it was February,” she says. “Which I thought was the tail end of winter, because I’m a California native. The day we arrived, it was beautiful. Then my husband went back to work, so I was here by myself. Two days after he left—blizzard. I had never shoveled snow in my life. I remember not even knowing where to begin. I didn’t have the wardrobe. I had my sneakers on. I would be outside for ten minutes, and I would be soaking wet. The tide had turned. It had gone from ‘Oh, everything’s going to be so wonderful and so amazing’ to ‘I hate this place with a passion.’ ”
Nick Raposo and Ticky Kennedy’s first winter was equally rough. “We were constantly hearing that it was the worst winter since, like, 1820,” says Ticky. “There was basically no school. We put our garbage out in December and didn’t see it again until April. It was unbelievable. And very cold too. You really couldn’t go outside. People walked around pale. Shell-shocked, stumbling around—like rickets. Scurvy.”
Megan Kane and Zohar Lazar, Brooklynites who relocated to an eighteenth-century brick house in Kinderhook, unwittingly chose the winter to renovate their third floor. “We had no roof on our house,” she says. “The average temperature that year was three or four degrees.”
“Our bathroom was this makeshift shower they put up for us,” says Zohar. “We could see the stars at night. We had a little heater—some sort of heater mounted on top of a barbecue propane tank. It reflected the heat forward. So if you were directly in front of it, you were burning, but if you stepped one foot to the side, you were freezing. It was very quick showers.”
Even mild winters can be difficult. Heather and Jeff’s Hudson mansion had been vacant for several years before they bought it. The first couple of months, they came up only on weekends. “Not only did we not have a furnace or any heat, we also didn’t have any running water, including a toilet,” says Heather.
“What did you do?” I asked. “Dig a hole in the yard?”
“You do three things,” says Heather. “You learn every public restroom in the area, and you schedule your errands around when you have to go. And then you buy camping supplies for the middle of the night. And then your nice neighbors let you use their bathroom.”
Coping with upstate contractors is no mean feat. “We had no hot water,” Nick Raposo recalls. “In the city, if you don’t have hot water, you call the super and the super takes care of it. Here, I called the company that had been doing our heat. I’m like, ‘When can you get here?’ They’re like, ‘There’s nobody here this weekend.’ We didn’t have hot water for four days. In the city, if there’s no hot water for a day, the entire building goes into revolt.”
There’s also the critical question of how to make a living. Well-paying jobs are scarce, forcing many people to endure long commutes back to the city they were hoping to leave behind. Sue Dixon happily gave up her career in interior decorating to devote herself to raising her daughter, but her husband, Bob Candeloro, couldn’t cut the money cord. So he makes a daily commute on the train from Hudson to his banking job in the city. It’s three hours door-to-door each way. “The first couple of years, he was staying down there part time, but it just didn’t work for us as a family,” she says. “So in the morning, the buzzer goes off at 4:15 and he gets on the train. That train, no one’s working. Everyone falls asleep. You will be thrown off if you dare turn on a light. For a while, he was taking the 7:10 train at night. To get home at ten, and unwind for an hour, and then to get up at four—it’s crazy. I’ve been reaping the benefits of living this very simple life. Bob has not.”
Heather and Jeff have a novel approach to making a living upstate: They don’t. They’re renovating their house themselves, with the idea of selling it and starting another rehab. Or maybe they’ll stay in the building and open a store on the ground floor. “Not a vanity shop, like, ‘Oh, I always wanted to do this,’ ” Heather points out. “We want to create a business the community needs.”
But that’s years away. Right now, they barely have a working kitchen. “In the beginning, we ate out a lot,” Heather says. “I was thinking I would have an ongoing consulting stream, but we eventually decided it wasn’t worth it. So that required tightening our budget a little bit. The one thing we had was a panini maker. People would invite us over for dinner, then we’d feel obligated to invite them back. So we’d invite them over for paninis. That’s pretty much all we ate all winter.”
The mansion is job, child, and parent. It’s the mother of all home renovations: a three-story warren of raw walls, exposed ceilings, peeling paint, and loose wires. The second time I visit, on a weekday evening, the house is dark and I wonder if I’ve mixed up the date. But Heather and Jeff answer the door and explain that, since my first visit, several rooms have lost electricity. “We went out to dinner, came back, and none of the lights on the second floor worked,” Jeff explains. “We traced it to a junction box, and the little cap on the thing had actually fried. Melted. I’d never seen that before.”
“How long ago was this?” I ask, expecting they’ll say last weekend.
“Oh, about a month ago,” says Jeff.
Flashlight in hand, they lead me through front and back parlors, through side porches and sun porches, and many bedrooms. “We have periods where we walk around trying to find each other,” Heather says. “ ‘Hello! Hello!’ ‘Where are you?’ ‘On the staircase!’ ‘Which staircase?’ ”
In one room, tangled clumps of wiring hang between studs like strands of matted hair. Back downstairs, we arrive at central command, a room they call Germany.
“Why do you call it Germany?” I ask, the straight man in their absurdist comedy troupe.
“This Old House suggests that you set up a room that’s very organized with all your tools,” says Jeff. “They call it Germany.”
“And you set up a room that you don’t do any work in,” adds Heather. “They call that Switzerland.”
“Our Switzerland is in heavy retreat,” says Jeff.
“Switzerland is losing the battle,” agrees Heather.
I’m starting to love these people. They’re way more insane than I am. I glance at Germany’s ceiling and notice that it’s coming apart. Flimsy acoustic tiles, dating from an era of cheapo redos, dangle in midair. “One started to come down,” Heather explains, “and then Jeff started to take a little bit more of it down, and that involved large portions raining down.”
“So watch your head,” says Jeff.
I’ve lived through permutations of each of these challenges myself. My husband and I are doing the This Old House thing; for months, I washed my hair beneath a copper pipe sticking out of an unfinished wall. We’ve had the work drama—my husband’s still trying to establish himself upstate as a contractor, competing against better-entrenched locals and equally eager artisan-handymen transplants. We’ve had possums in the yard, randy cats in the garage, and a spider bigger than my fist in the kitchen sink. (My husband, in Jersey at the time, coached me over the phone: “Cover it with a dish towel, mash it with a potato masher, and throw the whole mess in the garbage.”)
Yet, for me, all of these issues pale in comparison to the central issue of assimilation. I can deal with bugs, a barn that a strong gust of wind could knock over, and even subzero temperatures, but the neurotic city achiever in me can’t stand to be unloved, misunderstood, or ignored. A remark made by a former New Yorker, the friend of a friend, recently found its way to me. She was discussing her decision to pursue options other than public school. “I visited the public school,” she said, “and I looked around and I thought, I just can’t assimilate.”
Like her, I’ve never had to assimilate before. I’m white, educated, and reasonably secure. The question of assimilation is even more acute for Elizabeth Powell and her husband, Eliel Mamousette, a multiracial couple with three young children. Columbia County is infamously monochromatic, unless you wander away from Hudson’s antiques district into a disturbingly segregated area of minority poverty. “I find it difficult, thinking about our kids,” says Elizabeth. “Everything I hear and read is that children of mixed race tend to consider themselves black. So how would we explain that disparity in Hudson?”