I grew up in a very small town in upstate New York. No, not a town. Smaller. A village – 4,000 people at the most.
It’s called Catskill, and it was founded by Dutch settlers, who bought a plot of land next to the Hudson River from some Mohican Indians in exchange for a few necklaces and trinkets around 1788.
If that reminds you of the purchase of Manhattan Island, you should know that the similarities stop there. Catskill, while only two hours and fifteen minutes by train from New York City, couldn’t be more different from America’s great metropolis. It’s a sparsely populated backwater. A place of hills, woods, rivers and farms. It’s entirely rural, except for one small oasis of sophistication: Main Street.
When I was young, I remember it was always a huge treat when I got to accompany my mother on shopping trips down to Main Street. Our house was only half a mile away, but she would always drive.
Main Street was a proper destination and it seemed to have everything you might ever want. Several restaurants. A movie theater with two, count ’em, two screens. A furniture store. A drug store. A card shop. A music store that sold both records and instruments. A pizzeria. And best of all, a big, old-fashioned department store.
Harrods on the Hudson?
JJ Newberry Co. seemed like the grandest place in the world when I was a kid. On the ground floor they had ladies fashions, right next to a busy, formica-clad lunch counter, specialising in club sandwiches and soups de jour. In the basement was a big toy department, right next to the home supplies and garden appliances. Upstairs was a grab bag of sporting supplies, books and magazines and what seemed to me to be a very large selection of vinyl records.
Best of all, you could travel between those three floors via JJ Newberry Co.’s spacious and modern elevator – the only one of its kind in the entire town. Hell, the only one I ever had the joy of using for the entire first 14 years of my life. To my young mind, it was an amazing contraption – a room with sliding doors – just like on Star Trek. You would get on it, press a button and it would transport you to an entirely different place. It was like magic.
On one hand, I’m grateful to have grown up in a small town. It allowed me to develop a strong sense of wonder about the world, which I don’t think I’ve ever really lost. I was anything but cynical or world-weary. Anything and everything had the potential to amaze me – even a three-floor elevator in a second-rate department store in a tiny town.
On the other hand, all that sense of wonder stuff really meant I had no choice but to turn into a pretty fucking boring kid. When you grew up somewhere without any culture, variety or eccentricity, you are more likely to wind up being uncultured, generic and bland yourself.
Everything I did and liked was the same things other kids of my age did and liked. I read superhero comic books. I rode my bicycle around parks and vacant lots. I watched Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. I played with Star Wars action figures. I even liked baseball. Ugh – baseball. I was about as interesting and unique as a stick figure drawing of a child, drawn by a child. I was flat, one-dimensional and completely indistinguishable from all the other stick figure children drawn by all the other stick figure kids in all the other small towns.
Yes – little things impressed me, but I don’t want to give the impression that I was like some magical zen-buddhist monk who saw the beauty in every little thing on the planet. When you grow up somewhere small and off the beaten path, you do develop the ability to be more fascinated by the little things you encounter, but you also just spend a lot of time being bored.
Yes, Main Street held many wonders for me. As did that elevator. And even some of the slightly out-of-the-ordinary rocks that I would collect from vacant lots when I was out riding my bicycle. But mostly I just spent a lot of time watching television, wishing I had something more interesting to do than collect mildly unusual rocks and wait for the next trip down to Main Street.
Fast forward a few decades later.
Today I’m a father, and I live in London with my wife and my 11-year-old daughter and you won’t be surprised to hear that I have been working hard to provide her with the kinds of childhood experiences that are more or less the exact opposite to the ones I had growing up. And for the most part, I’ve been wildly successful. She does not spend most of her time watching TV.
No, her life is so absolutely jam-packed with eclectic adventures. So much so, that if you were to try to describe it, you would find yourself sounding like Alec Baldwin narrating the beginning of a Wes Anderson film.
DoTheWrongThing’s daughter goes to school in the theatre district, each morning passing a variety of actors and showgirls, often in full costume, standing outside their backstage doors, puffing away on cigarettes. Her class plays are staged at the Royal Opera House.
Her school’s logo is an anchor, as it was founded after the great London fire by a local philanthropist who donated the rich sum of 22 pounds “for the continuing education of children of the local sailors and other members of the sea-faring population.” Each year they have nautical days in commemoration of this heritage. The children dress as pirates.
On weekends, she sings in the children’s choir of a church in Trafalgar Square. It is the royal family’s parish and sometimes the Queen takes her regular seat near the front row and she has to sit in the back. Her choir takes centre-stage at the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The tree is donated by Norway, so the ceremony is carried live on Norwegian television.
When she was eight years old, she was chosen to perform a solo in English Touring Opera’s production of Iphegenie en Tauride at the Hackney Empire. Dressed in a white mackintosh and singing in French, she appears at the end of the play as the goddess Diana, emerging from nowhere to command an end to the slaughter between the Greeks and Scythians. She was reviewed in the Times, which liked her performance. The Guardian was less complimentary.
She swims once a week at the YMCA. She volunteers as a junior police cadet and she knows many of the Bobbies in her neighbourhood. She plays the trumpet. She attends an architecture club that takes place at the sprawling museum that was once the home of eccentric Georgian genius Sir John Soanes. She knows some kung fu, but is a bit out of practice.
She spends her free time reading non-fiction books about wolves and listening to cowboy songs from the 1940s.
Maybe that’s all a humblebrag, but it’s true. We don’t have a lot of money, but just by virtue of the fact that we live in a huge, diverse city filled with history and opportunity, my daughter never runs out of things to do, see or take part in. Her city-based childhood is as eclectic and engaging as my own village-based one was generic and dull. And that’s exactly what I always wanted for her.
But maybe I’ve got it all wrong?
I can’t help but wonder if there is actually a rather big downside to a childhood filled with adventure and stimulation. Sometimes I feel there is.
For example, the other day, my wife and I were considering a weekend trip to Paris in the spring and when I told my daughter about it, she wasn’t particularly interested or excited.
A. Trip. To. Paris. And all she said was: “Does this mean I will miss school?”
I don’t want to imply that my child or other city-raised children are spoiled. I don’t think that’s the issue. It’s just your frames of reference are very different when you are raised somewhere like London, New York or any other big cosmopolitan city. When I was a child, a trip to Paris would have felt like some impossible and magical voyage ripped from a Jules Verne novel. But to my daughter, it’s just a fairly standard weekend away. She’s been there two or three times already, and it’s just a two-hour train ride away — the same distance as from my hometown of Catskill to New York City.
It’s not just her. The world is smaller now. You don’t need to drive down to see the glories of Main Street when you’ve got Uber and Amazon. I remember listening to an AM radio for hours in the hopes of experiencing the fleeting joy of a song I liked being played by a DJ. Nowadays you can hear whatever you want immediately and on-demand on YouTube or Spotify. I believe that everyone’s sense of wonder has been diminished in the past couple of decades and that this is massively amplified if you live in a place like London, with that smaller world is entirely at your fingertips.
That is the country mouse dilemma. Rejecting your country mouse-ness and choosing to raise your child as a city mouse means he or she gets so much more out of life, but it also means they won’t necessarily care any deeper about any of it. Apparently, there’s only so much enthusiasm a kid can hold in their small frames. The amount of boredom stays the same. When you can easily have access to special things, then special things just aren’t as special.
Our daily walk to school takes me and my daughter past Piccadilly Circus, through Leicester Square and into Covent Garden. I regularly remark how impressive it all is. My daughter usually just shrugs in response.
Just this week, I asked her why she wasn’t as amazed as I was, passing these world-famous icons, travelling down historical streets, some of which are still lit by the same gas lamps they had in Victorian times.
“So kid, do you think that being raised in a city instead of a small town makes you kind of harder to be impressed by things?”
“I think probably, yes.” She said.
“Do you feel that if you had been raised in the country, that you would be more fascinated and impressed by some of the things in your life, like all the things we see in this amazing city, since you’d have less of this exciting and sophisticated stuff going on?
She paused, rolled her eyes and said:
“I know the story: you grew up in a small town where there was one lift. And when you were a child you used to think that lift was the most amazing thing in the world.
Yes, I think I’m too sophisticated for this conversation.”
Damn city mouse kid.