There’s nothing quite like leaving the city.
I was excited to leave New York City for college, thinking that I had long been a misplaced soul; a country baby accidentally delivered by a confused stork to city parents. Plaid flannel shirts far outnumbered the jeans in my closet, and I wore the same broken-down pair of sneakers day in and day out, while my high school classmates adopted the styles of the city around us.
But even if I was wearing dirty brown work pants, I always cruised the streets with my head down, eyes looking straight ahead, like any New Yorker.
I read on the subway, and don’t talk to anyone who isn’t a friend. I walk fast, I talk fast, and I get mad when the deli takes more than two minutes to make my turkey sandwich. I’ve got places to be, and people to see, so don’t get in my way.
College in Saratoga Springs wasn’t too much of change. Skidmore College is in many ways just an extension of the Upper West Side, with a little upstate flare mixed in. Almost everyone I met at school thought the right to abortion was an important human right, that the Second Amendment might as well be gotten rid of, that Bush was the devil’s spawn, and that there was little more important in life than a pair of UGG boots and a giant pair of Prada sunglasses (and, no, I’m not just talking about women here).
Thirty percent of my peers came from New York State, with a heavy representation from New York City and the surrounding areas—you know, kids from Westchester who would introduce themselves thusly: “Hi, my name is Katie, and I’m from Chappaqua; it’s right near Manhattan.” Right … and I’m from Brooklyn, it’s just downtown from mid-town. I didn’t realize until much later that this little bubble of Manhattan exists in a vacuum.
In that interim period that every liberal arts student seems go through between graduating college and starting a career, I was back in New York City. It felt pretty much like it always had, as if I’d never left. I hung out with high school friends, visited my favorite places, and was surrounded by people just like me.
During this time back in Brooklyn, I was working at a sneaker store staffed with a number of nearly starving artists-cum-amateur athletes. We were all poor, mad at Bush, and better versed on running shoes than your average Olympian. It was a fun job, and I looked forward to work every morning. But I knew I didn’t want to sell sneakers forever.
One day, just as we were getting ready to open the store, my phone rang. It was Saratoga Springs calling. They wanted me back. Specifically, it was a daily newspaper where I had interned during my senior year. They had an opening for a reporter and wanted me to start immediately.
I swallowed and thought about it. I had always entertained a vague notion that I wanted to be a journalist. I felt a much stronger draw toward long-form journalism, at a magazine perhaps; but this was a start, and I had nothing else going. Taking the job seemed like the right thing to do.
Two weeks later, my girlfriend and I moved into a small apartment not far from my former college. On our first night back in town, friends still waiting to graduate piled into our place and looked around; then we went out for Mexican food and beers at our favorite watering hole. It felt great to back in the town, which retained so many positive associations for me.
But then I started work. I quickly realized that while campus was just a few blocks up the street, the city and college had strikingly different attitudes. The bastion of liberalism from which I had graduated might as well have been in Texas.
Though all very nice people, my coworkers at the newspaper are almost all Republicans. Not only are they fiscally and socially conservative, but one or two of them are even backward to the extent of using decidedly non-PC terms to describe black and gay people, in the relative privacy of the office. Almost all of them thought the government was too large, that they paid too much in taxes, and that we were doing a great things in Iraq.
“Celia,” I said to my girlfriend one morning, “I don’t think we’re in Brooklyn anymore.”
This was the first time in my life that I hadn’t been comfortably surrounded by blue peers. At college I’d always heard that Saratoga Springs was a conservative city, but I’d never realized how deeply red this city’s blood really is.
At work, most of the people I met as a reporter hated the Democratic mayor, and celebrated when she lost her bid for re-election to a Republican in November. There was a controversy at work when the Features department decided to run a lesbian couple’s wedding announcement. Sure enough, we were quickly flooded with complaints about it.
“How could you sully the wedding announcements page with this false union?” asked one anonymous caller.
All I could think about was the New York Times’ wedding announcement pages (after New York City adopted domestic partnerships in 2002). The paper had been glad to celebrate what was viewed in the city as a long-overdue right. Now, this caller—who wouldn’t even identify himself (or herself)—was making an argument straight from the 1950s.
The adjustment to life in this bastion of conservatism wasn’t just about politics. One day, going to lunch with a co-worker, I realized everyone around me was walking uncomfortably slowly. Many of my acquaintances could consume whole weekends doing just a few errands, and no one pinned the pedal to the metal when the traffic light turned green. People in this town walk around with their heads up, and stop to talk randomly to people they only vaguely know. Service at restaurants and shops is slow, and the unhurried pace of salesmen here is a point of pride for them.
“Better to take your time and do it right than risk making a mistake, I always say,” said a manager at a bookstore, who took about fifteen minutes to ring out a patron buying two books, as I stood behind her tapping my foot.
“No, it’s better to do it fast,” I thought. Such lackadaisical service would never have been tolerated at the sneaker store.
The biggest adjustment I’ve had to get used to is the use of cars in this small city. Everyone drives everywhere. My co-workers continually give me funny looks when I ride my bike to work.
“Why waste gas?” I ask.
“Don’t you get cold? Driving is so easy!” they reply.
Never mind that I’m still one of only a few of my friends from home who even owns a car, and that I can hardly afford groceries—let alone a tank of gas.
It’s like I said to Celia on that day shortly after we moved in. “I don’t think we’re in Brooklyn anymore.”
Photo of downtown Saratoga Springs courtesy of John Davis