And you’ll always know your neighbor/
And you’ll always know your pal/
If you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.
– Thomas S. Allen, Low Bridge, Everybody Down, ca. 1905
This is the first in a series of posts about New York.
This is a story about How I Became a New Yorker.
To be honest, there are many Stories About How I Became a New Yorker. And this one really has two beginnings: One version starts on a summer morning ten years ago, on the Taconic State Parkway, heading to Albany with my then-fiance, to sit for the New York Bar Exam. The other version begins in California, in the 1980s, singing folk songs about the Erie Canal when I was in third grade.
I hated my third grade teacher. The feeling was mutual.
Mrs. H, the teacher in question, was one of those archetypal 1980s, big-haired, blue-eyeshadow-to-the-browbone, pink-lipstick’d divorcees. She wore dresses that were too tight, and tried to teach us our multiplication tables by telling us: I will let you drive my 4×4 when you are 16. That sort of thing was lost on me because I didn’t even know what a 4×4 was. I came from the sort of family where my parents drove sedans, and my father even had a carphone from which he called Tokyo and Hong Kong on the endless commutes that justified why I never, ever saw him.
And Mrs. H was maybe the first divorcee I had ever confronted in the wild.
The one thing that stood out about that year, aside from the mutual dislike between myself and my teacher, was that when Mrs. H. had a free moment in class, she’d throw a Pete Seeger album on the record player. And our class would listen, and sing along in our chirpy, prepubescent voices – largely oblivious to the political overtones of the words on our lips.
That’s how I fell in love with folk music, and came to fear divorce – sitting in a circle in third grade behind a kid named Bobby; reciting multiplication tables and rolling my eyes about driving a 4×4, and learning about the exotic destinations of Albany and Buffalo on the Erie Canal.
And I didn’t know then, at eight years old that I’d find myself nearly 20 years later, one summer morning driving up the Taconic State Parkway from NYC to Albany, tracing parts of what were once the New York State Barge System, and winding up near the start of the remains of the Erie Canal.
At the time of that drive, I had a university degree in politics and freshly minted law degree. I knew about Adam Smith, and John Locke, and the Founding Fathers. I carried a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution, which had gotten me laid in college but hadn’t done much for me since. I knew about torts, and contracts, and that the jactitation of marriage was the wrong answer if the bar examiners asked it. And I knew the words to the Erie Canal song.
(The Erie Canal, for its part, was constructed nearly 200 years ago. It was once considered an engineering marvel, and its system of canals, bridges, and locks helped to connect the eastern port cities to the Great Lakes via the Hudson River before the Transcontinental railroad was built).
But didn’t know then that the man beside me on that drive – the one about to become my husband – the one piloting our red Volvo station wagon, was merely the means to an end. I had no idea at that moment, as we approached Albany in a Volvo, that I was going to wind up exactly like the tight-skirted, pink-lipsticked, trying-too-hard woman I feared in my youth.
Mostly, at that time, I was thinking about the prospect of failure. I was thinking about how I didn’t want to be the only one of my friends who didn’t pass the bar exam. For some reason, my then-fiance thought I was angry at him, instead of nervous as I contemplated my fear of failure, and insisted I tell him what was on my mind.
And I just couldn’t.
I simply couldn’t tell him that I was nervously repeating …From Albany to Buffalo-ohhh over and over again in my head, since my only context for Albany as a destination was when it was a faraway, exotic place mentioned in a third grade folk song.
The song was in my head throughout the entire bar exam.
Sal the Mule notwitstanding, I passed the bar, and became a New York lawyer.
Everything else aside, I was divorced within five years.
But in succeeding at becoming the thing that I hoped to be; in getting to New York in the first place; in coming back down the Hudson from Albany, I eventually learned that I had become the thing I feared. I learned that the best laid plans go awry. Marriages fail. The engineering marvels of yesteryear eventually become quaint ruins – once fit for grand barges; now fit mostly for kayaks.
There is no easy way to get to New York City – whether you are coming upstream or down.