As our car crunched up the seashell driveway of our tiny Nantucket rental cottage, my wife spotted it first. “Rochester,” she said — my hometown. “That car next to us is from Rochester.” The license plate frame confirmed it.
I spotted it next, at the shop selling my daughter’s future Nantucket sweatshirt. A Mets cap. In the heart of Red Sox Nation. “You a fan?” I asked the 20-something working the register. “Diehard,” he said. “I’m from Westchester.”
Later that week, eating seafood with some friends who had come to visit from Boston. We somehow got talking about the divergent ways of pronouncing the upstate city of ren-se-LEER and the county of REN-slur. A woman carrying a tray of fried clams leaned over. “I can’t believe you’re talking about Rensselaer,” she said. “I went to RPI.” She joined the pronunciation discussion, then sat down at another table overlooking the harbor. I noticed a man at yet another table, smiling. “I haven’t heard ‘Rensselaer’ in a long time,” he told us. “I went to Rensselaer, too — but a long time before she did.”
Another day, a walking tour. The guide had us introduce ourselves. “My name is Mary,” said an older woman standing next to me. “I’m from Rochester.” I leaned over and asked what part of Rochester. “Pittsford,” she said. “Mendon really.” My brother now lives in Pittsford; his children graduated from Mendon High School. “I’m from Brighton,” I whispered. She whispered that she used to live across the street from my high school. I probably walked past her a hundred times. Before I could ask her more, we were shushed by the tour guide. “Sorry,” I told the group. “We’re homies.”
Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that you can’t go home again. I am here to less-famously write that if you’re a New Yorker, you can’t leave home. Ever. Now, I’m sure that folks from every other state in the Union run into their own compatriots. And we are naturally tuned to notice familiar signals; I couldn’t tell you where the other folks on the tour were from (except the three from Italy). Still, it seems — from my not-insignificant amount of traveling experience — that, while, say, Oklahomans pop up here and there, New Yorkers are, frankly, everywhere.
Chicago, last June, for instance. My niece’s college graduation. “Kimberly, come here,” my mother-in-law shouted to my wife over the din of the post-ceremony party. “You have to meet this woman. She’s from Albany.” The woman had lived, for a long time, two blocks away from us.
And, speaking of Italy, overseas. My very first long-distance trip: six months spent “doing Europe” while in college in 1977. It was October, the Yankees were in the playoffs, and Yankee caps were everywhere. “How they doin’?” one downstate-inflected voice would yell out a train window to another.
When the International Herald Tribune reported Reggie Jackson’s historic three-home-run game in the Series-clinching sixth game, you would have thought you were on Metro-North, not Eurail. High-fives everywhere as strangers met and celebrated, bound together by the ubiquitous, interlocking NY logo.
“Where you from?”
“The City. You?”
Even amidst the Great Capitals of Europe, as we expats scattered to London and Paris and Rome and Vienna, there was only one City, only one Island. That’s how New Yorkers roll, no matter where we are.