One of the unique things that is somehow common to many people (we are all alike in our uniqueness) is a stated belief that our hometown is no place special. We are taught to be humble, so anyplace that our humble selves hail from must be thought of as not all that special, either.
This often masks a fierce inner secret belief that one’s hometown is in fact the best place to be from and (insert name of a higher power one believes in here), please help those who chose to be born somewhere else, especially those unlucky ones born in the nearest next neighboring town. Those people are the unluckiest of all, perhaps because they were born so near to our town’s obvious greatness but they were not, which renders all the more dramatic their failure at their life’s first and easiest task: pick the right place to be born.
I have resided in towns and cities in six counties located in three states in two time zones (Eastern and Central). This is not any sort of record-setting achievement, but it has given me a lot of hometowns and adopted hometowns. Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park and New Paltz and Goshen in New York. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Poughkeepsie, New York, population 30,000-plus, but not me (because I do not live there now), is my birth hometown, and I lived there every day and night past age 21, which I thought of at the time as some sort of Guinness Book-level record until my sister broke it.
Poughkeepsie is known for a few things, most of them to do with it not being worth knowing about, much less reside in or be from, if one was to listen to a Poughkeepsian. It is one of the nation’s minor punchline cities for two reasons: partly because the name is longish and amusing to say and hear, and partly because it is Poughkeepsie. (See what I did there? The joking is sometimes too easy. The word is a punchline by itself.) Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a city that I came t-h-i-s c-l-o-s-e to residing in, ranks one place ahead of Poughkeepsie in the list of punchline American cities, according to international surveys of Mark’s Available Wisecracks on This Subject.
The name is an Anglicized version of a Dutch rendition of what the first Dutch settlers claimed they thought they heard the local Algonquin peoples, the Wappingers, call the place. Phonetically, it is this: U-puku-ipi-sing, which means something like “little reed-covered hut by the water.” Old Dutch maps spell it “Pekepse.” The current spelling, “Poughkeepsie,” is the Anglicizing of that.
Something that I noticed early on in this life was the city’s fascination with itself. Its media outlets love to recount every one of these punchlines, every occasion in which our jewel on the Hudson has been ridiculed in the national media. It is perverse. It is a city-sized humbleness. Because there are so few mentions of Poughkeepsie in the national or international media, those examples, these few mentions, are treated as precious, are subjected to a sort of Sportscenter slo-mo instant replay.
Any Poughkeepsian can recount some of them. Poughkeepsie’s location was a plot point in a Friends episode. There was a vaudeville song, “I’m a Gypsy from Poughkeepsie.” (Now you know how to pronounce it.) Jimmy Fallon is from near here, so the name probably appears frequently as a punchline in his monologues.
It is either a perverse civic pride in being a small joke or we have professionalized the art of setting expectations low for the entire planet, so that someone might visit and report that they were pleasantly surprised by our lack of abnormalness. (“You know something? Those people in Poughkeepsie eat food! They walk with both of their feet!”)
Any attention is better than no attention, someone probably from Poughkeepsie once said. And woe will befall anyone from Wappingers Falls, the next nearest town, since they are unlucky enough to be from a place near to such famous not-greatness yet reside in a place that is not-so not-great itself. Poughkeepsians ridicule Wappingers Falls-ians-ites at any available any chance.
But ask me where I am from and sometimes I can sound like I am applying for a job with the Poughkeepsie Chamber of Commerce. I will begin to describe sights and sounds and memories. (Halloween in Poughkeepsie) For instance, the man who invented Scrabble was from here. Smith Brothers Cough Drops were invented here. IBM has a long history here. The colleges: Vassar, Marist. The Hudson River.
The photo at top was taken last Sunday from the Walkway Over the Hudson, one of my favorite things on this planet we live on. The view is of Poughkeepsie, my home town, and the Hudson River as it flows south, away from and under us.
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[…] And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same
Back in my little town
My little town, my little town
Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town.— “My Little Town,” Paul Simon
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This is a re-written version of a column that first appeared in October 2014, and then in February 2015.
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