Eliel—another commuter; he works in the Manhattan district attorney’s office—wonders whether he wants to sentence his children to an upbringing of standing out. “My parents moved here from Haiti,” he says. “We ended up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Spring Valley. Spring Valley being a bedroom community, it had a very wealthy middle class also, so it had a great public-school system. But the people who lived in my apartment complex were all black. I went to school and got tracked, and all of my classmates were white. So I’ve always had that experience in my life. I survived it, but when I think about the children, I start thinking, How will they define themselves?”
I try to remind myself that upstate-downstate prejudice goes both ways. As city people, we’re just as guilty of making generalizations about the kinds of people we meet up here and leaping to flawed conclusions. “We had an intern working for us, a girl from the local school who goes to one of the local churches,” says Kelley Drahushuk, a co-owner of the Spotty Dog, a Hudson bookstore and microbeer bar. “She was saying, ‘I don’t like gay men because they take away men from women who need good men.’ ”
I’m appalled. “That’s just ignorant,” I say.
But Kelley’s partner, Alan Coon, is appalled at me. “I’m not going to judge the way she was brought up,” he says. “She’s a terrific girl, and she was getting straight A’s in high school. I would never call her ignorant.”
“Her reality is just different than my reality,” says Kelley.
Sometimes living upstate is like being on a liberal-conservative talk-show panel, only instead of yelling at each other, we’re supposed to listen and actually learn from our differences. Moreover, I’ve discovered that despite the lack of racial diversity, Columbia County is hardly a monoculture. The term locals should be recognized as the vague slur that it is and dispensed with altogether. I’ve met non-city people who are better educated, more liberal, and more affluent than me. Others serve the community in ways that put me to shame—as firefighters, church volunteers, peace activists. And contrary to my New York friends’ dire warning, there are plenty of Democrats—our district just threw out a Republican incumbent and elected freshman congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand. I’ve met longtime residents involved in alternative energy, water conservation, and open-space initiatives. Transplants don’t corner the market on giving a hoot.
Recently, I’ve been feeling hopeful about my prospects here. It occurred to me that someday, the newcomers will become old-timers. We’ll settle in and wreak subtle changes on the landscape and the population—one hopes progressive changes and for the better. Some of us may turn tail and run, but others are in it for the long haul. Sue Dixon got over her initial trauma. In 2004, she founded Dancing Moon Playhouse, a children’s art, music, and theater space in Ghent. Two years later, the town gave her the boot after serving her with code violations. Her idealism is undiminished. She envisions selling her current house, buying a new one, and building a three-story barn to house a bigger, more ambitious Dancing Moon, one that will offer “a great camp, outdoor space, and a gardening program.” “I love it so much,” she says. “It’s been a magical place for me.”
I wouldn’t get quite that dewy, but over the past several months, I have started to feel a lot better. After that initial adjustment period, I settled on a formula for making my new life more manageable. (1) Make frequent weekend trips downstate to visit family and friends. (2) Schedule those trips around stock-up sessions at Trader Joe’s. (3) Don’t try so hard to fit in. It’s not like I think I’m ever going to turn into a “country” person, but I did, after about a year, wake up to the notion that I needed to stay the same freak I’d always been and let the people around me take or leave it. On the upside, I’ve decided that my cultural interests could use a little broadening beyond the Guided by Voices catalogue. I’m rediscovering poetry, getting out to local galleries, and generally working harder to meet halfway the much wider variety of reference points I encounter. When I tell my upstate friend Donna that I have a crush on Pete Yorn, and she responds by telling me about the Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon triple bill she saw with her husband in Albany, I don’t panic—I get inspired. I slip her 6-year-old a CD of our family favorites, like “TKO,” by Le Tigre, and “Bathtime in Clerkenwell,” by the Real Tuesday Weld.