What Does It Mean to Be 'From' a Place?

Is it from birth or for how long you lived there, or is it something more?


I moved from Los Angeles to New York City when I was 26. I think of myself as a New Yorker. New Yorkers will say that I’m not a New Yorker because I am not “from” New York City. People born in the city hold on to that status like an accomplishment. I’ve never heard anyone short of an urban planner go on about city geography the way someone does about their New York City childhood: The streets they played on, the schools they went to, the number of blocks to school, playing handball against an abandoned building at the corner of wherever, the roughness of the neighborhood, the gentrification now.

And then there is the NYC conversation challenge. Let’s say at a cocktail party you’re talking about the Ed Koch documentary that you just saw and you say, “I remember NYC in the '80s, that’s when I moved here.” And then someone will remember the 70s, and another person will have been at Columbia University in 1968, and someone says something from their childhood in the Bronx. Face it; it’s a contest: Who is the most authentic New Yorker?

No one is from Los Angeles. Well, people are, but in my generation and before, leading all the way back to the Wild West, we were a population of immigrants and migrants. My people were diasporic Jews from the East Coast.

Take the same cocktail party and make it a backyard BBQ in LA. Two New Yorkers discover one another and before long, it’s the number game: “I lived on 66th and 3rd but then moved down to 28th and 7th,” says one. “Funny, I grew up on 68th and 1st, and then we moved to 90th and 2nd. I’m an East Side guy,” says the other. If you don’t know NYC, you’re thinking, “What? This is a conversation?”

“Everything significant happened to me in New York City,” I like to say. And it’s true. As soon as I arrived in the land of my mishpocha, the Lower East Side, I made a promise to myself that came straight from the Women-4-Women personals: No Drugs, Drink, Drama or Dykes. With that I went in search of a husband.

In New York City, I married an artist, lived in a loft in Soho, had a daughter; we bought a beach house; we had a son. I went to NYU as an undergraduate at 33 when I had a baby and toddler at home; learned about Queer Theory, got a master’s degree; came out as a femme, met a butch, divorced.

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Some things started in LA but the denouement was in NYC: I went to therapists and therapies, haunted by the sexual abuse I first told my mother about at 11. After my daughter was born, I couldn’t stop remembering. I needed to protect her the way I couldn’t protect myself. Finally, I called my mother, told her what I remembered, she confirmed it with him (her husband, still) and understood that he could never contact me or my child(ren) or she too will no longer see them. New York City — 2,500 miles away from them — was our shield.

In Los Angeles, I fell in obsessive love for the first time. I was 17, going to summer school trying to finish high school and he was a 45-year-old playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize. We lived in Beverly Hills and Ibiza, Spain, for two summers. He ended it; he was not my father. Across from the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West at the entrance to the park, sitting beneath the hoof of Simon Bolivar’s horse, I learned about his death in a New York Times obituary.

In LA, I got into the music business and in NYC, I quit, becoming a personal trainer and a copyeditor. I met my biological father for the first time.

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My question is: What does it mean to be “from” a place? Is it from birth; or for how long you lived there; or is it the city/country that most likely meets other’s expectations about you, such as when a person’s accent doesn’t match the accent where they are living? Or maybe the question is, how do you impart that a place made you YOU, even if it is not where you are “from”?

Tags: memoirs