Recently, I joined the YMCA in "the big city." The term is relative: I live in a hamlet so small its sole businesses are two pizza parlors, two gas stations, one wine store, and an unspeakable "Chinese" takeout (you see where our priorities lie). The city that has vastly more gas stations, pizza parlors, liquor outlets--as well as the Y--is twenty-five minutes away.
This town is Kingston, New York, on the mighty Hudson. It is an undiscovered gem. I like the fact that parts of it feel like I alone know them--this sense of ownership of discovered things that appeared to be waiting for one for a hundred years is what made New York City in the seventies and eighties such a paradise in which to be young and poor. I also like the fact that lately a few enterprising folks have seen the promise in Kingston's situation, above the river, with unremodeled nineteenth-century buildings (and more than a few ghostly seventeenth-century stone houses, too) so that now, in uptown, we have a couple of gently hipsterish restaurants and one of the most awesome bars ever (so awesome, in fact, it renders me speechless but for teenage gibberish like "awesome"). The rest can stay undiscovered, and mine . . . now that I've got my hand-made cocktails and raw oysters.
Then there is midtown Kingston. Poor, poor midtown. The summer after I graduated from college, I went to visit friends, a couple who had taken an apartment somewhere. He (who would later become an architect in the true big city) gave me directions to a place I'd never heard of before. I simply drove, glancing down at the paper in my hand, until I got there. Later, I didn't even remember what city I had gone to, or in which direction, only that it was about an hour from the town in which we'd gone to school.
I do remember thinking I had to be lost. This, this . . .depressed landscape of ugliness, emitting hopelessness from every lopsided, peeling building, nary a tree in sight, could not possibly be where anyone--much less a couple of young bright stars just out of a very good college--would choose to live. It was the kind of place people no longer bothered to dream of getting out of; it was so bootless, and so they continued to shuffle up and down the wide avenue, their horizons ever the same, and ever gray.
Twenty years later I was talking to my friend and thought to ask, "Hey, where was that that you guys were living the summer of '80 and I came to visit you?"
"Broadway in Midtown Kingston," he replied.
"Trust me, it will never change," he added.
This is thus the perfect location for the YMCA, an institution that was founded in industrializing London, where in 1844 workers faced a bleak and filthy future. George Williams, 22, was concerned and wished to offer a farther horizon (and some Christian saving) to the men coming to the teeming city from the countryside. (In Boston in 1851 the first American Y was created, by a retired sea captain.) It now promises "strong children, strong families, strong community." Midtown Kingston needs it.
I need it, too. The Y is no-nonsense, and every single type of person makes use of it. In the parking lot you'll see Audis and Hyundais, Volvos and Scions, as well people waiting outside for a ride because they have none of their own. We'll all equal inside the walls of the Y: we're fat and thin, young and old, black and white. Signs in the teen center remind kids to be respectful of one another, no dissing allowed. People say hi with a smile, and mean it. As there are in the tumbled-tile locker rooms of a posh spa, here there are no cotton balls, Aveda hand lotion, or basket of tampons in individual protective cardboard cases (BTW, lady motorcyclists, take these when you find them: one day you'll be very glad you remembered you put one in the tankbag). Eh. Who cares. Anti-elitism is the best medium in which to grow, even if the faint odor of mildew that hangs over the pool and the strange smell that greets you when you open the door to the steam room knock you back temporarily. But then you quickly get down to business. We're here to swim, and to sweat. And occasionally to say hi, smile, and mean it.