Friday, October 23, 2009


What I notice most about my part of upstate New York is that it seems clean. Literally, it is clean: The farms are wide and green with fresh red barns. The little towns along the lakes have non-matching houses with tidy yards. Even Watertown, which is disheveled in places, isn't actually dirty. And Fort Drum belongs to the Army, so of course their standards are the rule there.

But beyond the literal, this place feels clean. It could be the cold air, Lake Ontario right beside me wherever I go, the million and one rules and regulations and taxes imposed on every action and decision...It could be that I just live in a small place where the churches don't have room for more than a hundred people, or that I'm not a poor person and so have no inconveniences in my life.

I still think it's more than that. It's the manners of people I meet, maybe: They don't tease all the time like people in the South or Southwest. They are pleasant and friendly, in the precise manner of etiquette books. Their accents are clear, as if they are the sound embodiment of Times New Roman. They don't seem to litter or let their dogs run free all over town or break any rules of any kind. (This is not to say they aren't passionate, but that's for another blog.) They rake their yards, and then they plant flowers. In the winter, they will shovel snow. They keep themselves and all the expanding circles of themselves in least to my newcomer eye.

They don't say "mornin'"; they say, "Good morning." They don't say, "Cold enough for ya?"; they say, with a concerned tilt of their heads, "How are you taking the weather here? Is it much colder than Oklahoma already?" (It's not, so far.)

They are the descendants of people who built houses with right angles out of permanent materials. (They are the descendants of people who broke the hearts of Native people, but not the heart of this one.) They sweep their sidewalks. They install poles with tear-off bags for dog walkers. They let you bring your dog into stores and restaurants. They think of little things like that to make everyone have an easier time. I'm speaking of Sackets Harbor people now; the farm people are clean in a different way, and I don't know them well yet. I just see them fixing their fences and driving their Amish carts (they always nod at me when I creep slowly past them...I'm not gawking; everyone drives by them slowly because it's the polite, and clean, thing to do). I play bluegrass in their towns, sometimes with them, and they sing the same hymns we sing in Oklahoma and Mississippi, except in their clean accents.

I'm not explaining myself well, and I've gotten off track. This is a quiet place, and not everyone would love to live here or even visit. But I love it. I feel like I could eat off the ground here. In Mississippi, I had the persistent vision of digging myself into the ground and growing like a root vegetable. In Oklahoma, I expect to smell of rivers and dust. Here, I will never belong, and I don't want to. I want it to always feel this pristine and unreal.

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