Fuzzy geography on the streets of Manhattan
She was wearing four-inch heels, a black skirt and red top, rings the size of disco balls, and long blond hair, and showing me how to collapse one of those tiny fold-up bikes for people with tiny city apartments. A minute or so later I’d ﬁnd out she was raised in Italy, had been to the deserts of Morocco and knew where to ﬁnd a great egg-and-cheese sandwich. After the demonstration—this was in an overpriced home-furnishing store; she, wrongly, thought I wanted to buy something—I asked the question I’d been asking all over New York City: “Do you know where the Adirondacks is?”
I moved to New York City the ﬁrst week of December after eight years in Saranac Lake. It’s a jarring transition, but I went to grade school in Manhattan and have friends and family here. Still, New York’s a strange place, and it’s hard not to feel like a stranger. It was nearly impossible for me to walk around Saranac Lake and not see someone I knew. Folks I didn’t know got a wave or nod and always responded in kind. In the city, nods and waves go one way. People probably think I have a tic.
For years I’d wondered how well known the Adirondack Park is to those who live nowhere near its beautiful mountains, lakes and people. Most of my city friends could never remember the name of the place I lived. On visits to New York, they’d say things like, “So how’re things up north?” or “Still enjoying the woods?” Rarely did I hear, “Ah, the Adirondacks. Beautiful this time of year, no?” Folks who make their living trying to bring visitors to the Adirondacks would say the place has a stellar reputation, and they’re right. In the introduction to his Adirondack Reader, Paul Jamieson wrote that no other American wilderness has been paid so much attention by writers and the general public. And the park’s Great Camps, second-home market and summer crowds would all imply the secret’s out.
Still, type “Poughkeepsie” into Google and you get three times the number of hits you get if you type in “Adirondacks,” and who writes about Poughkeepsie? I’ve long pondered Adirondack name recognition on the streets of a city whose people have historically placed a lot of value on recognizable names. This is, if only in myth, the proving ground. If you can make it here … And yes, they feel worlds apart, but the city and the Adirondacks are separated by only a few hours’ drive and a thousand or so feet in elevation. When asked at a recent job interview where Saranac Lake is, I pointed out the ofﬁce window to the Hudson River. “Follow that all the way up, and you’re pretty much there,” I said.
Chris, the lady from the high-end store in the four-inch heels, at ﬁrst, came up empty. “Out West?” she asked. Then she guessed Maine. Then a few other New England states. “I have an artist’s brain,” she said, casting for an excuse. “I don’t think linearly.”
Finally, I told her.
“Oh, wait,” she said, on to something. “I’ve been there, in, like, 1998. I went to a lake with little houses all around it.”
After some work, we decided she could have been to Lake George, though neither of us was entirely sure. Her coworker, from Holland, told me the Adirondacks is two hours away, on Route 17. He was thinking Catskills.
Both of them outperformed the trafﬁc cop I talked to. He was taking a break from the cacophony of a Midtown afternoon when I asked him where the Adirondacks is. He pointed east. “It’s one block over,” he said.
“Not the hotel,” I replied, thinking of the famed Algonquin and reckoning there might well be an Adirondack hotel in the city. “The region.”
He put his hat back on and looked me in the eyes. “Is this a trick?” he asked.
“No, I used to live there. I just want to know if anyone down here knows about it,” I said.
“No. But that’s good. I’ll ask the next person I see.” With that, he walked out into the intersection and resumed waving and whistling at town cars and taxis.
Internet-connection woes took me to the Apple store on Fifth Avenue, a place to be avoided if you don’t think computer shops should count as tourist attractions. Inside I asked a saleswoman with a pierced upper lip if she knew about the Adirondacks. She grew up on Long Island and her parents went to school in Oswego. “Upstate,” she replied. I smiled. A friend, I said to myself. Out of curiosity I asked for her deﬁnition of upstate. “The part of New York where it snows,” she said. “Everything north of Manhattan. Well, not the Bronx. Everything north of the Bronx.”
A cab driver from Senegal said he’d never heard the word Adirondacks before, but he wrote it down and asked me about it. Then he told me I should write about the city’s nightclubs. “That’s what people want to know about,” he said.
An Irishman sitting in an excavator at a construction site said he’d been to the Adirondacks 20 years ago to move furniture for his boss. “A whole lot of snow,” he said.
On Broadway I asked a lady raising money for a do-good organization if she knew where the Adirondack Mountains are. “I don’t know, where all the mountains are?” I asked her if she’d ever heard of the Adirondack Park. “Nope. I’ve heard of the Adirondack drink, though.”
I’ve never heard of that drink.
A few blocks north, I came across a hundred or so people herded into pens outside a theater. They were waiting for the premiere of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the latest apocalyptic fare. A guy with long dreadlocks in one of the pens told me Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly were about to show up. I asked him if he knew about the Adirondacks. No dice. I turned to his pen-mates within earshot. They all shook their heads no. I crossed the red carpet and talked to two women who, it turned out, had been hired to dance for the event. They were from New Jersey. I asked my question.
“I’m going to seem really dumb, but I have no idea,” one said. The other shook her head.
“That’s not dumb,” I offered, worried that in the last few days I’d done little more than sow insecurities. “I don’t know anything about dancing.”
“Yeah, but the Adirondacks, that’s general knowledge. Only dancers think about dancing.”
A third dancer appeared. I asked her, too. “Yeah,” she said, “They’re mountains upstate. I’ve been to Lake George.”