by Kristian Tonnessen
Columbia University in the City of New York is a place as divided as the rest of America, but it is not divided in the same way. One side is the people who seek the same roles as their parents in a system which has worked for them; they can afford the lifestyle of the city, and know, already, even on their first day of orientation, the bank where they plan to work, or the ambassadorship that they hope to claim. Their competition are not people like me, but people of their own class, who run in the same circles. Then there are the outsiders; students who come from immigrant families that are not here because of their wealth, black students who come to a racist institution in the hopes of forcing institutional change, white students from rural communities who have braved the east coast in hopes of finding that elusive more. The gaps between these two groups – the legacy kids who grow up knowing they belong on rooftops sipping cocktails and, while not necessarily seeking to work evil, certainly preserve that which is because what is, is so to their benefit; the others, who don’t necessarily belong together but certainly don’t belong with the first group – leaves little room for anyone crossing lines, students from less privileged background looking to be absorbed into finance, or students from privilege looking to go into nonprofit work. Certainly, some may seek to work in nonprofit law, but that is because there is a financial net to save them. But it is the others who become the social workers of the world.
I said the name of my hometown often in class, for no reason other than to feel the word in my mouth. Binghamton. That’s so people would know the general area. If I trusted you, or was feeling particularly sentimental, you would hear the name of the suburb. Johnson City. I would tell you that it was an awful place, and that I missed it every day. I would spend the next few minutes thinking about the fog that gathered in the valley there on cold, autumn mornings, hovering over the river, that could only be broken through just above the elementary school, high on the hill up by the Methodist housing development. I would emphasize with more gusto than necessary that I was a poor kid, in the way that white people are poor. My mother and I had a house, and a car, and never exactly ran out of food. But we lived on food stamps, child support from my estranged dad, and we never owned a house, or even came close.
I stopped mentioning where I had come from after that first semester at Columbia for two reasons. The first was because I was making people bored and annoyed, trying to protect and define myself with the few things I held dear in the face of the biggest change I had ever dealt with. The second was that the suffering of people other than me was put in front of me and I was forced to see it and confront it as different from my own. I felt that it was beyond my right to speak of my background as one of being underprivileged when, in comparison to others’ experiences, I had privilege to spare.
Still, privately, I dreamed of not just being the person who had left Johnson City – a place where many, if not most, remained after high school – but being the person who returned there. In that dream, though, was an element of denial.
I did not grow up in Johnson City, New York. I grew up, and went to school until the 10th grade, on the North Shore of Long Island. Until 2008, my father, not yet estranged, was in the middle class, shooting upward in society until the financial crisis laid his mortgage business to waste. My mother and I, half the time, lived in various apartments around the town of Port Jefferson; my father built his own house. It was a mansion, and it left him a million dollars in debt, but that was his choice. At age thirteen I started living with my mother full time, only in those temporary apartments, and the change that had started in 2008 was complete. I had moved from a child of both worlds – middle and lower class – into just one, decisively. It was as if we were spies, living among the middle class and the rich who populate the North Shore. My mother found her people in AA meetings, but I had no one. So, when we moved upstate, to Johnson City, it would seem ridiculous to anyone looking on that I might be furious about the move. My mother wanted to be closer to her own mother, who was getting older; the house next door to my grandmother’s house had just come up for sale, an opportunity to perfect to miss.
I spent the next six months, the next year, furious, escaping to Long Island whenever I could get on the bus and go. The reason I’m writing this now is…complicated. Mostly, it’s because I just went to see the excellent Blinded By the Light, a film about a Pakistani teenager living in Britain who discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen. Those first few months in Johnson City, I would walk through the street, in sun, in cold rain, in bitter snow and wind, and I would listen to Bruce’s music. I would tell myself, unwillingly at first, but then with more enthusiasm, a story about myself. It was the story that I was a working class kid, who came from a working class town, and had friends who knew real suffering…the people I met in Johnson City High School were, unwittingly, part of that story too. I knew their lives and they knew mine much better than anyone on Long Island ever had. I believed that there was something fundamentally noble about our financial conditions, the brokenness of most of our families. I grew to hate Long Island as I saw it for what it had always really been – a false home, a false promise, a place of complacency and materialism. I believed Johnson City would be the place I spent the rest of my life.
But with those lies came another lie. This lie is the myth of people who leave small towns and cities: the lie of the one who got out. As if leaving the town you loved to go to school somewhere else was noble too. It is the lie of those who have given up on the places they came from, and left them for the cities, or left the cities they came from and headed somewhere else. It is a lie that drives so much of American life. The new version of this life is different from the old frustration teenagers had with the old-fashioned ways of their hometown. This new version is fueled by a desperation – the idea that we will not be able to work, thrive, live, if we do not escape, and that those who stay behind are somehow trapped.
So, after only two years of living in my ‘hometown’, my Johnson City, I left it for Columbia University. You know how that turned out. I would go home every chance I got, see my mother, see my friends, go drink in the dive bars or smoke on the golf course late at night. I showed my partner the places I loved. I felt in my bones that I would come back here, someday, for good. It would replenish me to come home.
Reality has a way of kicking you in the teeth. It broke the lie into all the pieces that, now, I am still trying to put back together in a way that resembles the truth.
Here is the other half of nobility, and the dream of a hard-luck town, and drives on country roads soundtracked by Darkness on the Edge of Town. There is real darkness on the edge of town, and you can’t get away with telling half a story just because it’s easier for you.
The other half is that many of my friends lost one of their parents growing up. Some of their siblings were addicts. Work was hard to find. My mother wasn’t able to work because of health issues, and, just this last year, my grandmother sold both of the houses our family lived in, side by side on Virginia Avenue. I think about that house every day. I think about how badly I wanted to cling to that thin piece of time – two years! just two years – half of which I had spent hating the place I was now being forced to leave. I thought about how the summer after freshmen year, instead of going home and working and helping my mom, I went to live in LA for a month with my girlfriend’s family; the next summer, I went to LA and to Siberia; last summer, I spent, for the most part, living in Saint Petersburg. Every time I came back, I would try and see everyone I loved before I had to leave again, which was only a few weeks away, no matter what.
It would be easy to say that this departure, this progress in my own life forward, is natural. No one should live in the same town their whole lives. And it’s true that it’s impossible to capture a single moment in time long enough to make it last forever. No one can avoid the fact that they will turn eighteen and high school will be over. Bruce Springsteen may have come from poverty, but he never worked a day in any factory, no matter what his songs say. He had to admit that to himself, eventually. You can only be a true storyteller if you admit that all stories are fragmentary, momentary, incomplete. Seeking a deeper version of the truth is the first, next, and last step. I still think about the fog, though, on the cold and miserable November mornings, and how no one knew it was my birthday that first year. I listened to Born to Run and wrote slapdash poems about fleeing with some Springsteen-esque, barefoot girl, unable to see that was its own kind of lie.
Today, I’m writing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, because I’m choosing to believe another lie. This one is a popular one – that getting a doctorate means you can go anywhere, do anything. But it also means crossing over that line to the people at Columbia who would look uncomfortable whenever I mentioned food stamps or working three jobs to pay the tuition left over after financial aid. I could never tell them the whole story. I can still barely tell it to myself.
Johnson City is a broken place. And it would be hard to live there. One person, choosing to return, cannot make a place whole again, no matter their intentions, their education, or their love for it. I love it because in its fragments I see myself, reflected, even as I continue to run away. Maybe someday I will be brave enough to go back and see what life can be found there. Or maybe I will end up somewhere else with my eyes, sometimes, returning to the north and dreaming, quietly, of the fog in the valley, the red leaves, my first kiss, the musical… You can’t make a story true by telling it to yourself and ignoring the truth. All you end up with that way is a lie, every morning, in the mirror, and a lie every night before you sleep. A lie that breaks your heart. I just want to be honest. And that means admitting I am a child of two worlds, someone who comes both from nothing and privilege. I may never live in Johnson City again, but it lives in me; I will tell you only the truth about it from now on. I promise that, at least, as much as anyone can promise to tell the whole truth about themselves.
Kristian Anfinn Tonnessen is a current PhD student in Slavic Literature at the University of Michigan. He studied Russian Literature and Creative Writing at Columbia, and has had several poems published online at Quarto Magazine and the Columbia Review. He is originally from Johnson City, New York, and is sticking to that. He hopes that you will look at birds more often. What is your favorite bird? Do you have one?