Every time I go to Detroit, I make my customary stop in Hamtramck, the small city within Detroit that’s historically been a Polish and Polish-American community [it’s now increasingly a mixture of Yemeni, Albanian, Bangladeshi, and Polish]. I always do the same things — pick up some Krówki at the Polish Art Center and pierogi and kabanosy at Srodek’s, and usually also some things in jars, like żurek and gooseberry jam. Then, a meal has to be eaten at Under the Eagle. It’s my food pilgrimage, you could say.
When my mother and I came to the US in 1984, there was briefly talk of us moving from NYC to Detroit. I never understood why, until I got to Cranbrook and discovered Hamtramck. It’s more Polish [and still less hipster] than Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, and the city isn’t at all like Detroit — it’s dense and walkable, with independently owned stores, all the basic services and even a bona fide supermarket.
Every time I see a woman who’s roughly my age, I think, “Could this have been me?” What would my life have been like if we’d moved to Michigan? Would my stepfather be a cop instead of a copy editor? Would I have waitressed at Under the Eagle? Would I have dated the butcher’s son? Would I have known Marshall Mathers from back in the day, instead of these fine folks?
If I’d grown up in Hamtramck, I would have learned to drive and, most likely, to mow a lawn. I’d probably have a cute little Michigan accent [maybe not — I managed to avoid acquiring a Brooklyn accent when I learned English]. What else would be different? Would I have become a significantly different person? At 18, my instinct to flee would likely have led me to the big city instead of the idyllic hippie town far above Cayuga’s waters.
To what extent do specific places shape us? Although I’m fairly place-obsessed in both my work and my leisure, I wonder how much place really matters. In my case, I may be more shaped by displacement than by any of the places I’ve lived. Having moved around a lot, it’s easy for me to carve out a life for myself wherever I am — that kind of detachment made it possible for me to agree to move to Cincinnati. It’s not that every place becomes a home. In fact, none fundamentally do. Sure, there are moments when a place feels like home, but they’re ephemeral. I don’t have a home to go back to, and wherever I am isn’t really home either, because I never actually belong.
In a way, it’s easy to be curious about Cincinnati, and to appreciate it for whatever it happens to be, when there’s nothing really at stake. My expectations are minimal, guarding me against disappointment. Am I here for a few more years? For the rest of my life? I don’t know. Four years ago, Michael and I might have just as easily moved from Boston to Baltimore or Buffalo, instead of landing in the Queen City. I can imagine that we probably would have faced similar challenges and opportunities in either of those cities. So, does place really make a difference?
Actually, Coney Island is a kind of home to me, even though I’ve never lived there. Hamtramck, too, has a strange hold on my heart, as the home that might have been. If I had grown up in Hamtramck, “Coney Island” might have a place in both my heart and my belly.