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Nowhere, Upstate NY

Memoir of a Childhood in the Sticks

 

There is no Main Street in Spencertown. No bar, laundromat or restaurant, either. There is no motel, no cafe, and no place to buy bananas. What there is: one cemetery, one Presbyterian church, one playground, a general country store, and a post office the size of an NYC East Village studio apartment. The post office keeps good candy — Tootsie rolls if memory serves — on the counter in a bowl.

I’m willing to bet fifty dollars you have not heard of Spencertown, NY, and if you have, you may be confusing it with Stephentown, a much bigger town, about thirty minutes away. Though Spencertown has the word “town” in it, it is actually a hamlet — flanked by the towns of Chatham (where the schools and grocery stores are) and Austerlitz, two hours from New York City. This is the hamlet I grew up in, and am still, in some ways, growing up in. Wikipedia does not even bother to give its population, but another website says it’s comprised of 110 men and 126 women, 0 African Americans, and 4 Hispanics — about the same crowd a Yo La Tengo concert would draw.

The seasons in Spencertown are extreme. In winter, I’d get stuck in our driveway on my way to school more than once a week, having to call my dad to come help, since he’d recently moved out when my parents split. He’d have to dig me out, push me out, and throw ash on the ice. In the summer, it was the opposite — the driveway was flooded with buds and greenery, completely hidden from the road.

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Spencertown is “in the woods,” though not far from a main road, Route 203. With no shoulder, it isn’t a walking town. We didn’t get to grow up with neighbors, never knocked on someone’s door for butter or sugar. When we heard a car pulling up our driveway, we’d gasp, look at each other, freeze, raise eyebrows, run to the window. Sometimes even just the phone ringing could encourage the same actions. Who was showing up unexpectedly in Spencertown? One of the first times I stayed home alone, with my best friend Lindsay, we heard cars roll up the driveway and called 911. It ended being the UPS truck.

“Do you like butter?” my friends and I’d ask each other holding a buttercup flower under each other’s chins. We made dandelion crowns and necklaces and bracelets. We salted slugs and sang he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not, throwing daisy petals on the ground. We practiced “toughening up our feet” for the summer, walking barefoot on my gravel driveway. We contemplated eating poison berries and my friend Penelope touched the electric fence behind our woods. Twice. For fun.

In the early nineties, a sixteen year-old girl was driving her car and went to light a cigarette, when a can of gasoline that was sitting in the back of her car exploded and she died on the spot. My friend Penelope’s brother saw the entire thing go down, so specific to Spencertown, nothing happened that went unseen. There’s a big Mack truck on her grave and a stuffed animal teddy-bear sitting aside her, that’s been there for over twenty years, deteriorating.

***

My bus ride was long, loud, twisting around dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. I had to get on the bus early going deeper into Spencertown and Austerlitz because the driver took a different route back. So I got on the bus on the way to pick the other kids up and was alone on the bus for a good forty minutes, listening to my En Vogue tape on cassette. There were the special-needs siblings, the kid who we had to wait ten minutes for, beeping until he ran out panicked and disheveled. There was the kid who had to stand at the end of his road in the rain and snow, freezing, until his father built him a shed to stand in that is now a Little Free Library.

As you near Spencertown, your iPhone will say No Service and all the radio stations become fuzzy. That’s how you know you’re there. When I got my first Nokia cellphone in 2004 or so, I had to walk down the driveway and stick my arm up in the air, holding it like that for multiple tries until my text message finally sent.

The grocery store and school district were a seven to fifteen minute drive away, depending how you drove, (and I drove like a straight-up maniac when I got my license). Senior year of high school I became friends with Justin who’d relocated to Spencertown during his parents’ split, and I picked him up for school every morning. He’d drink liquor out of soda bottles on our drive and I’d toke on my one-hitter. “I’ll take a rip if you’ll take a sip,” he used to say, and we’d swap our drugs of choice, singing along to G Love and Special Sauce and lighting our cigarettes after we caught our buzzes. I’m sure we entered our school smelling amazing.

***

Shortly after my twentieth birthday I moved to Brooklyn, eliminating all nature from my life, never looking back, never knowing how much I missed it. Nature wasn’t cool, bars were cool. That said, I didn’t grow up wanting to shed Spencertown or talk shit about it. I didn’t identify with it, until now. It was such a big part of me that I never considered it to be part of me at all. It was simply where my house was. Inconsequential. So inconsequential that I took to saying I was from ‘upstate,’ a statement that works in New York but means nothing to those who live in other states.

Nevertheless, I am more myself in Spencertown than anywhere else in the world and if you have not known me there, then you have not known me. Barefoot. Hammock. Freeze pops. White wine. Badminton. Night-walks. Ponds to skinny-dip in. I remember my mom telling me she took her shirt off on the deck because her breasts needed sunlight too! It was private enough to do this. Private enough to walk around naked and blast music loudly. Private enough that my ex and I once had sex in the yard, in the grass, in bright afternoon sun, like real hippies. It was there that he told me about the song Remember the Mountain Bed by Wilco. “Trees held us in on all four sides so thick we could not see/I could not see any wrong in you, and you saw none in me.” There was nothing to do in Spencertown, but you could swim, you could walk, you could blast music, and you could also, god forbid, talk to each other. When we began smoking pot out of cans, my friends and I’d walk to the playground and smoke in the cement tunnels.

That same trip, my boyfriend Aaron and I took a walk, and ran into Penelope, who I hadn’t seen since high school. Aaron was so stoned he couldn’t get over this fact, that we were running into someone I used to take the bus with in grade school on this bright dirt road in the middle of the day. Penelope and I rekindled our friendship then and there, and have been good friends ever since. She’s what I call a Spencertown rat. She still lives there, knows all the gossip (such as who’s out of town, whose pond we can jump into at night and when the speed limit changed from 40 to 35mph), still walks the dirt roads often, goes to the Country Store for coffee, says hello to everyone. She keeps a chainsaw and an axe in the back of her car.

***

On Tinder, someone asks where I grew up, and then says he doesn’t think he’s heard of it. “No one has,” I say. The next morning when I open the app, he’s written, “The image that comes up when you put Spencertown into Google Maps is amazing by the way. Huge sculpture of a head in the middle of a field.” He is referring to the Taconic Sculpture Park. Roy Kanwit, a friend of my parents’ is a sculptor and atop a field sits an enormous head among other scupltures. The New York Times profiled him in 2001, What’s With the 19-Foot Head? A Sculptor Is Counting on Drivers to Ask. It’s strategically placed, in that when New Yorkers are driving on the Taconic to their weekend homes, they see it and say, “Look at that huge head,” then drive to the field and (hopefully) buy some art.

Kanwit’s daughter was one of my babysitters. I remember one afternoon she fell asleep in our living room chair. I was too polite to say anything, so I let her sleep. I figured that’s what old people did, fell asleep anywhere and often. She was no more than fourteen at the time. We had a bunch of other local babysitters: the one who grew up on a nearby farm and brought over a game called Don’t Tip The Cows! A Game of Udder Madness that I loved. There was one who brought us a tiny gum ball machine and one who taught me how to flip my head over and scrunch my hair with a T-shirt to make the waves. I was seven, and still do my hair that way. Then there was the babysitter who was scared. It was easy to psych yourself out in Spencertown, no streetlights, the possibility of bears, raccoons, the hedgehog who lived under the porch, the deer that ate the tulips from my mom’s garden, the bats who once flew in and around my mom’s bedroom.

***

Not leaving Spencertown was never an option, and I don’t mean that snobbily; I mean that unless you’re a contractor or tree-cutter (and Penelope did this for a time, along with care-taking for the elderly) then you will not have a job. I wanted jobs. I did get one job there, at age fourteen, at The Spencertown Academy. That was my first job and the first one I got fired from. I worked on Sundays from 1p.m. to 5p.m. The academy was closed Sundays and I was to answer the phone and work on the scrapbook. For some reason I couldn’t even do that. My best friend would come to work with me and we’d spend the hours straightening each other’s hair.

Nothing happens in Spencertown. That is not part of it’s charm, that is it’s charm. Nearby Austerlitz has its own cannibal, Oscar F. Beckwith, who ate people and then he hung himself. Spencertown has no cannibal. Joan Didion says of New York City, To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu. 

I never thought: I have to get out of Spencertown! To say that would be to state the obviously obvious. I never felt — as I did when I lived in Portland, Oregon for example—  stuck. “That’s because Portland is a valley,” my friend used to remind me when I whined about my stuckness. I wasn’t used to it. I wasn’t used to the houses close to one another. It felt like a suburb, and I am weirded out in suburbs. “Can someone see me?” I’d always think, even just reading in the backyard. I never got used to it.

I used Spencertown to my advantage of course, specifically with new boyfriends. It is an ideal space to tuck away within a new relationship. To see how my friends react to Spencertown is interesting to me. Are they charmed? Bored? Obsessed? Disenchanted? Scared of the dark? There are no lights in Spencertown.

There was the boyfriend and I who used to fuck in my mom’s bed, staring out the windows. There was the one who wore awful Brooklyn cheap hipster shoes and when we went on a Christmas walk with my family, slid around everywhere, clinging onto my arm. I was mortified on his behalf—didn’t he have snow boots? I remember feeling goth-like on that trip, my black clothes were more than a bit harsh against my pasty skin, and there was a broken blood capillary in my eye.

***

In our yard the swing set is gone, the tree house dilapidated. My mother now has a garden which grows tomatoes, onions, and a type of plant I won’t disclose. Spencertown is the epitome of an inside joke, and just the three syllables of the word Spence-er-town itself can sometimes make my cousins and me lose it.

“You like Columbian?” we like to say, standing in a circle, inhaling the homegrown plant, in mock infomercial voices, “Try SPENCERTOWN!” before erupting in laughter and coughs. Our little quip is most likely funny to no one but us, funny to no one but those who see Spencertown through our eyes.

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We ridicule Spencertown because we treasure it. There is something thrilling about spending time in a hamlet most have never been to, something thrilling about feeling safe, solitary, unreachable. Something thrilling about answering, “Where are you from?” with the name of a town that evokes nothing in most people. It’s a secret, and it’s ours, and the more we laugh about it, and the more weight we give the word, the more special it becomes. Like an ongoing joke you get more out of each time you tell it.

Throughout my entire life, when approaching and turning into our driveway from wherever we are getting back from, my mom religiously and inexplicably turns the music down—not off, just soft enough so you can barely hear what was playing at a regular level moments before. I think I get it now, and I find myself doing the same thing when I’m alone. The turning down the volume knob is slowly draining out the end of one thing, and making space for what is next, the regale and quiet peace that all 236 of us — more or less — call home.