From Nowhere

I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My father was born in Brooklyn, my mom in Manhattan. Two of my grandparents were Brooklynites, one was from Manhattan, the fourth from "the motherland," Ireland. Before that lay various threads connecting Brooklyn to western Ireland (one scandalous thread lead from our Brooklyn-Irish outpost to Sweden). 

My ancestor's experience of the American dream -- suing your boss!

My ancestor's experience of the American dream -- suing your boss!


In the early 1990s, when I was preparing for the first grade, my family abruptly moved. This had happened a couple of times before I was born, and we had always returned. I just figured this was all temporary.

We moved to places where a kid with a New York accent was ostracized. I went to four different elementary schools. I got older, more alienated and lonely, still hoping we'd go back. But we never went home.

I was teased by immediate family and friends for saying I was from New York, and rightfully so. Sure, I was born there. There were home movies of me speaking in a Brooklyn accent. I had been harassed by classmates for sounding different. But that accent, like the geographical knowledge I had of the city, had died away. I certainly didn't belong where I was -- I enjoyed diversity in places where very few differences were permitted. Close friends were hospitalized for beatings received for their religion, politics, race, or sexual orientation.  The last place I remembered feeling like I was part of a place that had moved on without me.

This feeling of being untethered is a theme in most of my writing. Main characters are disconnected in some fundamental way. They are outsiders who don't try to assimilate because it is impossible and distasteful. Some pretend to blend, others hold on to the public displays of their differences, often to their peril. Some try to go home. This is a choice that sounds simple, but the result is only more pain. This is a lesson I have also learned. 

Morning fog in Manhattan.  Photo by Norah Woodsey

Morning fog in Manhattan. Photo by Norah Woodsey

When I finally grew up and met the man who would become my husband, moving back to New York became a goal. We married in New York City. We visited regularly. But the older generations of my family had moved on, one way or another. The younger generation had been priced out or had chosen to build lives elsewhere. The genetic infrastructure I remembered was lost.

I still love New York City, but now for its own sake than for my sentimental recollections. My older brother, who was nearly in high school when we left, has moved back to Brooklyn. My younger brother wants to move there after graduating college. I'm a parent now, and I want my kids to experience that their worldview is one of many. I want them to be New Yorkers. 

I'm no longer a wistful, angry and lonely kid dreaming of moving to where I fit in. I'm an adult now. I know that life is always active in altering your plans. Being rigid in expectations simply prevents you from negotiating unexpected challenges. So I'll keep visiting NYC. When people ask me for directions when I'm there, I'll apologize and say I'm a tourist. Here in San Francisco, I'll remind ignorant friends of New York City's dark days, before the Disney-fication of Times Square, as I remember them.

When people ask where I'm from, I'll try to respond honestly; "I was born in Brooklyn, but I've lived all over the place." I'm from nowhere.


Correction: Updated to show my mother was born in Manhattan, and moved to Brooklyn as an infant. If you know anything about New York City, this is not a minor oversight. My apologies, mom!