Woodstock, NY Native and Writer Susan Barnett Contemplates Being an Outsider in Her Hometown (Final Word Opinion Column)

Waving my freak flag (a little): Growing up in Woodstock during the 1960s leaves an indelible — and unexpected — impression

Not everyone who lived in Woodstock in the ’60s was comfortable letting their freak flag fly. Me, for example.

I was the only child of two very sweet, very straight-laced people who lived in Woodstock from 1966 to 1976. Well, not exactly Woodstock, as I explain to anyone who would understand the difference — we were in Zena. That was the Ozzie-and-Harriet suburb where the IBM’ers lived. Every morning all the dads buttoned up their mandatory blue shirts, tied their ties, kissed their wives goodbye, and drove to that massive complex in Ulster around which so many lives revolved. We weren’t an IBM family, but my parents fit right in. They played bridge with the neighbors and Dad played in the local men’s basketball league. The neighborhood kids, and I, went to Kingston schools. Woodstock could have been a million miles away. 

I didn’t go to the festival in ’69; I was 12. By the time I was 14, I was attending Catholic school. I was an outsider in the world’s coolest small town.
Every weekend, my friends and I wandered around Woodstock like tourists. The village smelled like incense, leather, and patchouli. Kids just a little older than we were — visitors from another, hipper planet — were draped around the green. On Saturdays we wandered through beaded curtains and Indian fabrics that smelled of sandalwood oil, trying on velvet coats and thumbing through record albums. I peered into the dim recesses of the Café Espresso, which beckoned with its 24-hour smell of beer, sweat, and freedom. I kept walking. I didn’t go to Joyous Lake for a plate of rice and beans. I never saw a single live music show in town. I wanted to — it just never seemed to happen. On Monday, we put on our good-girl uniforms and went back to school.
But something happened to me in those formative years, something I didn’t notice until much later.

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Putting Woodstock behind me, I grew up and became a TV news reporter, then an anchor. I got married and had a son and a daughter. By the time I was in my 30s I was living in the straightest state in the nation — Connecticut. I was light years from my bohemian hometown.

But my buttoned-down lifestyle belied the fact that something in my life was askew. My first clue was the clothes. I believe regions have their uniforms. Northwest Connecticut favors Volvos and khakis. Woodstock was jeans and dangling earrings. I tried the khakis — and hated ’em. Gradually, they found their way to Goodwill.

Too many people I knew seemed obsessed with big money and bigger houses. Friendships were rare — social climbing was the norm. I liked the woman who raised goats and grew her own food.

I started writing. My stories all had a common theme — they were the tales of outsiders. Something in me desperately wanted to belong — somewhere. More and more, I found my thoughts turning to my hometown.

I came back to Woodstock for good six years ago. The town has changed, but some things remain the same. Self-expression is still considered an art form here; everyone is an artist because life is art. Idealism isn’t considered silly, and eccentricity is accepted without comment.

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I was lucky enough to land a job I loved with our public radio station. For a short while, I also worked in a very traditional office job. And that is where I discovered that my Woodstock childhood had taken root someplace really deep, someplace I had to grow up to access. 

I worked in a corporate atmosphere with meetings about meetings and lots of intrigue and too many rules. Many made no sense to me. So I ignored them. I spoke plainly. I suggested changing things that didn’t work. My boss and coworkers said I was “a breath of fresh air,” but we all knew that it was just a matter of time. When I told them I was leaving to launch a freelance writing business, they nodded. “We didn’t think you’d last long here.”

There was a wistful longing in their voices. I know that feeling — I remember it from my days as an outsider in my hometown. I grew up surrounded by people who believe life is an adventure. Woodstock seems to draw people who want their lives to be a wild ride.

I get it now. After spending years on the outside looking in, I’m home.

Barnett is the author of The View From Outside (Hen House Press). She owns Barnett Communications, writes regularly for Ulster Publishing, and is the producer and host of WAMC’s nationally syndicated program 51%, The Women’s Perspective.

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