Hometown Stories: Rhinebeck, New York
I have left Rhinebeck many times in my life. The first time I left I was in the ninth grade, fed up with the small town and its lack of diversity, aghast at my freshmen English curriculum that trafficked solely in dead white men tempered with a dose of Pearl S. Buck. I moved to California and lived with my mother for the rest of high school and gained the kind of cultural education I never would have gotten in my hometown.
I came back after high school, resigned to living in the town I left for a year before college, working at a Chinese restaurant serving shitty General Tso’s to my friends’ parents, smoking cigarettes behind the CVS and spending endless nights driving aimless circles around town with my friend Hayley, smoking pot and listening to Led Zeppelin.
The last time I left Rhinebeck, it was for good. I had graduated college, and had come home for a couple weeks, so I could pack all my things and drive across the country to live in San Francisco. When I left my father in our driveway, we both cried.
“I know this is the last time you’re going to live here,” he said. He was right.
Rhinebeck is a town that is now a haven for moneyed weekenders, driving through town, taking up all the parking spots and making it so that I have to wait for a table at Bread Alone in the center of town, where my dad likes to have breakfast and read the Sunday Times on the weekends. Rhinebeck is where Chelsea Clinton got married, a weekend that caused my family to go on a self-imposed lockdown, barricading themselves in the house to avoid the cluster of gawkers, foreign dignitaries and media. It wasn’t always like this. When I was little, the only remotely famous person around town was Ethan Hawke, who was rumored to have a house in the area. A sighting of him at Blondie’s, in the center of town, was all the excitement we needed.
We moved to Rhinebeck when I was in the third grade. As the new kid in a school system with a graduating class of ninety or so, being the new kid in school was a particular kind of battle. These kids had been hanging out since nursery school. By the age of eight, it felt like allegiances were already made. Luckily, I came prepared. My best friend from the town we moved from had moved to Rhinebeck a year earlier. My first day, I made friends with a girl named Amber on the playground, and we spent that first day speaking Pig Latin and practicing cartwheels in the grass. It got easier after that.
My sister and I were the only two biracial kids in the school. Growing up, my only experience with Asian people was in the summer, when, as per the custody agreement from my parents’ divorce, we were shipped off to the Bay Area to stay with my mother, who made sure to infuse us with whatever culture we were missing out on during the school year, in her attempt to prevent us from being misguided completely. We ate a lot of Chinese food and spent time with her friends, who jabbered over our heads in Mandarin, and fed us till we were stuffed. At home, my Chinese heritage sat on the periphery, something I knew was a part of me, but didn’t fully understand how to process. My father is fluent in Mandarin, but he is American, dark-haired with a complexion that tans easily. Years later, a few friends confessed to me that they were never quite sure if he was the Chinese parent or not.
When you’re young, race is an issue that is either abundantly clear as a difference, or something you don’t think about at all. In the fifth grade, Ryan Briggs called me a chink, and I slapped him in the face. I didn’t have the strongest frame of reference for why this was bad, but I knew from the gleeful look in his piggy eyes that this was not a good move. When we were hauled off to the principal’s office, I explained what happened, and was quietly happy when he was punished.
We were not poor, but we were not wealthy. Our first house was a smallish Victorian in the center of town, with a huge backyard and a creek that ran through it. Our second house was smaller, farther away from the center, slightly newer but still comfortable. After that, we moved to a duplex, right off the fairgrounds. Our neighbors were an ever-changing group of migrant workers who played loud music and smoked cigarettes on the porch, the smell of which permeated our house and aggravated my father. It was this house that made me realize that in a town of the comfortably wealthy, we didn’t have as much.
Still, it was a fine place to grow up. I had an idyllic sort of childhood that is now a relic of the past. No one locked their doors, and we roamed the streets on the weekends, walking past rows of stately Victorians, some with hitching posts still in place in front of carriage houses that now housed late-model Volvo station wagons and Subaru Foresters. I have an enduring fondness for slate sidewalks because I remember so vividly how the tree roots would push up the slabs, creating an uneven terrain. In the winter our parents would drive us to Mills Mansion, and we’d sled down hills on plastic saucers, sailing over icy speed bumps, and trudging up the hill with runny noses and wind burned cheeks. Hot days were spent at the town pool, roasting on the wet concrete and eating Fun Dip and microwaved mac and cheese, purchased with crumpled dollars.
It was a good childhood, but by the time I was 14, I realized that the town was smaller than I wanted it to be. When presented with the opportunity to finish high school in California, living with my mother and her family, I took it. I earned an appreciation for burritos and E-40 and met people who were also biracial, for the first time in my life. I gained an adopted second hometown, a place where I spent formative years, a place that I always felt comfortable calling home. El Sobrante is home, but it’s not the same.
I don’t go back as often as I could. It’s only a two-hour train ride away, which feels like just long enough to be a hassle. When I do go home, I drag my sister along, and I make my dad take the long way home, driving through the center of town. Rhinebeck looks especially nice in the winter, but it shines the brightest in summer, when the canopy of trees lining Market Street are green, and the sun is shining. I joke that it’s like my own little house upstate, that I was a trendsetter by growing up here and living here before the hordes descended upon it and made it weird. My favorite thing to do is to exclaim over the things that have changed—the boutique that no one ever went into, replaced by yet another antiques store, or the place that took over the lease from the new age bookshop where I bought my first pack of tarot cards.
“Let’s drive through the center of town on the way home,” I tell my dad, every time. “I want to see if anything’s changed.” Usually, it has.
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons