I feel more at home in New York City, especially the Upper West Side of Manhattan, than in anyplace I have lived as an adult. I’ve been trying to figure out why this should be. For that matter, why does anyone feel at home anywhere? And what does “feeling at home” even mean?
I’ve felt totally at home only one other time. During World War II when my dad went to Iran to work in a refinery, my brother, mother, and I moved a thousand miles to live with my maternal grandparents in Muskogee, Oklahoma where my parents grew up. Being there felt perfectly right. I have some ideas about why, but to do them justice would require a long book that probably wouldn’t interest even my children, so I make do with boring Ann from time to time with early-stage perseveration of recollected experiences and images. What they all point to is that the adults I was surrounded by were utterly happy to be who they were. I can’t say how much of that was a result of the place and how much came from within. In any case, we lived in a small house and had little money. But we wanted for nothing, material or otherwise. When my Dad returned after eighteen months, the episode ended, and the necessity of making a living took us to live in another way in a different place. For one reason or another, I’ve been on the move ever since.
Back to the question I started with. For me, feeling fully at home requires a sense that I’m not out of step, a requirement not well met in most circumstances of my life. As a teenager I didn’t like thinking I was the only person in high school who supported Adlai Stevenson for president or feeling discomfort at those windy, Bible Belt invocations at football games. And if anyone else in town aspired to a cosmopolitan life of books and music, I never met that person. College days could have been perfect – I was in an elite liberal arts program and studied with gifted teachers – if I’d had enough money so that I wasn’t always working when everyone else was studying or dating. Living in Washington D.C. during the Kennedy years was exciting and promising, but I couldn’t get satisfying work. And so on.
Feeling at home is not an on-off matter, of course. It’s a continuum. I’ve lived in a couple of places that were way down at the bottom of the scale and others that were up near the top. To make matters more puzzling, in two of the near misses, I was definitively alien – Baghdad in the sixties and London in the nineties.
In New York City, it’s common and acceptable to be from somewhere else. Cradle New Yorkers may actually be a minority. That means my being born and reared in a refinery town in Texas does not prevent me from being a full New Yorker.
Besides that, there is much in everyday life here that is to my liking. As a big-government, tax-and-spend progressive, I am among my own people as surely as if we were blood relatives. There are any number of people on this island, some right in my neighborhood, probably in my apartment building, for whom – like me – putting on a tuxedo and spending an evening at the opera is a consummate pleasure. There are vegan restaurants close by (some offering entrees other than grain bowls and veggie burgers). Ann and I are able to practice our faith as Anglo-Catholics; in many places we’ve lived, it’s less well-known than Zoroastrianism. And so on.
Things such as these do a lot to make me feel at home here, but they aren’t the whole story. It’s ultimately inexplicable and inexpressible. It’s about feeling good walking down the street, about feeling free to start a conversation with anyone about anything, about just being comfortable with who I am (the way my family was in Muskogee) and knowing in some way that it’s the right place for me to be.
If I ever figure out how this works, I’ll let you know.