Now that I’m 35 and a courthouse away from near-marriage, it’s time to dig in my heels and resign myself to a sobering fact. I should no longer use my mom’s house as my permanent mailing address. It’s high time I give up the life I’ve led these last eight years on a spastically namby-pamby bummel about the nation, settling but briefly here or there for three months or six, once for three years, another for two.
I served my time throughout my twenties in Hollywood, a two-hour drive from where I’d grown up with mom. I followed the run up with three separate stints in New York City, where one’s individual rent goes up by thousands per number of necessary roommates in one’s apartment (no less than 2.5, no more than 6.5).
Simply put, I’d learned my lesson.
So, underwritten by a long-running remote gig for a Food Network show and largesse from a modestly successful book publication supplemented by regular freelance work for local weeklies/theaters/TV stations and their ilk, I set off not only to visit but to live in and truly experience the rest of this for-spacious-skied country of ours, seeking out places beyond those entertainment hubs where creative elves cobble books, music, television shows and films involving characters who tend, more often than not, to reside in the very same places of their conjurers.
I wanted to avoid the effects of that charming myth I’d once heard while living in Boulder, Colorado, called “Niwot’s Curse,” where it seems that Chief Niwot (trans. “Left Hand”) put a curse on the white imperialists who invaded his countryside: The descendants of those who had stolen his land would forever be destined to leave the area, only to come back as though locked in some kind of futile Sisyphean loop.
Could it be Niwot’s Curse that has repeatedly pulled me back to the Hudson Valley?
Up through my early ‘tween years, mom, a native of Queens, would whisk us back to her home state a few times each year, where we’d spend most of our time at my uncle’s in Red Hook (not the Brooklyn one) following a split-second stop at the childhood home back in the city. Red Hook also meant trips to Woodstock, where we found postmodern old-timey general stores proffering all manner of candy from barrels taller than I, along with pastel-colored pixie stick tubes just as big.
Midstate New York meant freedom and fantasy to me, like some tranquil state of hypnagogic reverie where one could tromp safely for miles in woods. There were never crowds, and everyone knew each other’s names and wore the same red or blue jackets or sweaters. It was simple, like a television show.
Toward the end of my time served in LA, while still deciding What To Do Now and being just mopey enough, I considered grad school. At one time I point hopped a train up to Rhinebeck in search of Bard College. Taking taxis was a price I had expected, but paying a fixed $20 wherever I went, anywhere, seemed a bit steep. So I walked the eight miles to campus.
I skulked about the cafeteria, noticing everyone wore purple pajamas and pink slippers, had short blue hair and Phil Silvers-like glasses. Something didn’t jibe with my own sensibility and I nearly left before discovering that the filmmaker of my favorite movie of that year, Wendy & Lucy, was teaching there, but wouldn’t be in her office until the next day.
I decided to spend what little I had to make her acquaintance, and took a cab back to my motel and to and from Rhinebeck once more the next day.
“Kelly?” I asked, creeping into her office. She answered that I was in the right place. and we spoke briefly about her film. While talking, I found myself unconsciously petting a beautiful golden dog. When I looked up to Reichardt and she smiled, nodding, it dawned on me: I was petting Lucy, the dog from the film: oh yes!
The price of the train, motel and cabs was well worth it for that experience alone.
Awhile later, mooching off an on-again-off-again girlfriend mooching off of her sister who owned an apartment handed down from their dead grandfather far up the butt-crack of the Bronx where a much-older roommate mooched off of said girlfriend squatting in her living room, I realized that I needed a place to get away to finish that soon-to-be-modestly-successful book of mine. I asked a few writer colleagues where they would go and all gave me the same answer: Hudson Valley.
Craigslist turned up a perfect-sounding situation, and I ended up for a month away from “the City” in Kingston. I met my innkeeper at a delightfully hamishe coffee shop where I had been dropped off by the bus, and lugged my duffel bag to her house peopled by the many she rented rooms to. I felt at home in a way I hadn’t truly felt in far too long (if ever) and worked 15 hours a day on my book.
It did not surprise me that artists and writers such as Jim Jarmusch lived in the area. There was a festival or two, a parade or two as well, and plenty of jazz, a small music venue acting as a community hub for us nocturnal weirdoes. There was fairly good riverside seafood.
Even though I eventually had a strange exit from town, with money owed me by the innkeeper/landlady who kept her five dogs in diapers, the Hudson Valley remained firmly in my mind as a place for a longer stay. And, indeed, the following summer, I decided to give New Paltz a try, having traveled through it on that initial bus ride to Kingston, and feeling it might make for an even better stay just from the glimpse of its bars, coffee shops and bookstores outside the dusty bus window. I decided to try a summer at the local hostel.
Although I should have known better than to have made my arrangements with a girl whose dread-haired patchouli stoniness I could actually hear over the phone when I called (two months in advance), I made the error regardless. Calling to confirm my plans two days before heading up by train, I learned that the parboiled pixie had forgotten to enter my information and there were no availabilities.
I quickly Craigslisted an entire floor to myself in a house in Catskill and stayed a full month developing my next book, remotely working for that Food Network show and exploring the forest wilderness, the placid riverside walks. I enjoyed myself at the assorted restaurants, coffee shop and two occasionally opened bars in town that, like far too many other businesses in the area, only vaguely understand the idea of offering goods and services throughout the day and week.
I met a number of various people who were as immediately welcoming as could be. They fit neatly into two categories: older area habitués, mostly semi-retired and moved into town only a few years previously to find sanctuary away from a loudly booming life elsewhere, and native bikers populating those aforementioned bars, or local young people shambling around elsewhere, who never seemed legally married but undertook all manner of “domestic” relations that resulted in all manner of fascinating modern-day melodrama.
From Catskill, I found that Hudson — across the river — proved an even better answer to my seeking of a perfect place to possibly settle in, what with organic falafel pizza, all the live music I could possibly muster, plus a bookstore-brewhouse-coffee shop where one could mutter about the ongoing iPod playlist, “Could you play that Sonic Youth song one more time?” and draw cheers.
That quietly hamishe vibe was there, yet again, and I learned almost instantly that there was no point in bringing work to the coffee shop or bookstore or pizza place, for someone would inevitably engage me in conversation or offer up the finest of breads, or even, once, their car.
I nearly ended up settling in Hudson, and had begun talking with a real-estate agent who moonlighted as a bartender (or was it the other way around?) when I realized I was too much of a pharisaic tenderfoot for the winter ahead, and the area’s creative pipelines and infrastructure needed a bit more investment of money (and business hours) before I could comfortably call it home.
Sure, the Hudson Valley is a cheaper, cleaner, healthier, more serene place than the urine-soaked Big City two hours away. But having grown up without religion or sports, I’ve never been one for a sense of team or community and I think I was similarly frightened off by a kind of cult-like “join us” quality that struck me as something I am not yet mature enough to resign myself to.
Fast-forward past a few years in seeking out new people and their underrepresented stories in the Midwest to my current spot in Baltimore and I can tell you that yes, I’ll always return, and yes, the day may very well come when I’ll call Hudson Valley my home. It may prove too late, after everyone else in New York City discovers its hidden secrets and it too becomes too loud, too bright, too expensive and, as the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson would say, “too too.”
But at least it would be via my own terms for the Niwot Curse … and while finally using my own address.