I've lived in more than 20 places in 35 years. Half of those places were homeless shelters, halfway houses, or welfare hotels, so I'm not sure if I can call them homes. Still, when people ask me, "Where is home?" I think of all of these places. Then, I pause, suspicious in a way that most people aren't.
My mother and I were evicted from subsidized housing so often in the 1980s and 1990s that I just picked the borough where we lived for the longest stretch — the Bronx — and claimed it as home. I knew it most intimately: the underdog sidewalks, the distant disregard for its Grand Concourse and patches of beauty. People think first of Manhattan when they think of The City; but my Boogie Down is the only borough on New York state's mainland, and I love that it is tethered to the state. I envy that.
I began thinking about the comfort innately at the heart of what we think of at home when my mother died in 2012. Her death made me reconsider the world around me and forced me to clarify for myself where I belonged in it without her. Grief is a nomad's emotional territory, a place where solace is fleeting. It felt like any home I had laid claim to had died with my mom. I felt uprooted and anonymous, a new member of the league of adult orphans.
You earn anonymity when you move all the time. No one asks you questions about your address or your zip code because no one sees you long enough on a regular basis to get curious. But maybe the saddest, hardest thing is that I don't connect to the feeling of home that most people seem to have — the nostalgia, the steady comfort the word alone evokes.
I think home can be the place you're born and raised. Home can be the place you've lived the longest or the place you live now. Home can be any of these things or none of them.
I thought I had settled this question in 2006 when I bought an actual house in Austin, Texas, but Luther Vandross said it best: A house is not a home. But it seemed close enough. So, I tried. I painted the bathroom a safe chocolate brown color to match the shower curtain. I planted collard greens and spinach, broccoli, and lilies. It took five years for me to park the car, turn off the engine, and walk calmly to the front door without fear that one of the eviction notices from my childhood would stare back at me in fluorescent orange. When I was over all that, I adopted a hound dog.
I was still unsettled. This house was so much smaller than the one where I had spent the first five years of my life, living in a tiny blue house in Chester, Penn. To the common question, "Where are you from?" Philly was my first answer.
But after the evictions, there were so many others, depending on when you asked. We were from Catherine Street Shelter in Manhattan, or a halfway house for victims of domestic violence in Jamaica, Queens. We were from the family shelter in Brooklyn, once, and the Carter Hotel near Times Square.
Most of the time, we were from the Bronx, in apartments for the poor sprinkled from the South Bronx to the North. We always seemed to be on the fifth floor. What they all had in common were fire escapes I liked to sit on so I could stare at the sky, window guards that made bedrooms feel like prison cells, and radiators that squealed like erupting tea kettles. As foreign as all that was, a waft of arroz con pollo, the sound of Hector Lavoe or Biggie Smalls or Shabba Ranks — was familiar. It still is.
But is that really what home is — the memory of feeling safe around the familiar?
Most people don't ask about what home is. They want to know where. Location trumps all.
"Where is home?"
"I physically reside in Austin, where I've lived for eight years, but I grew up in the Bronx." That is my truest answer now, even though it feels incomplete. Immigrants must know this dilemma well. At a recent conference, a Boulder, Colo., professor from Canada with dual citizenship jokes that she'll need to perfect her one sentence. Until then, her answer is a sweet paragraph about rural British Columbia, where she grew up hiking with her dad. A woman with residences in India, Vermont, and Colorado says she flies so much that her home is at 35,000 feet.
I start to think that maybe my handicap as a formerly homeless girl is not the shelter cots at all but that I can't fit home into one place. I hope I can make home anywhere, but I wonder. That aspiration is bigger than me.
In 2008, 10 million people moved from one U.S. county to another. In 2012, an estimated 36.5 million people moved from one city to another. The nomads behind these numbers are my kindred spirits. They know how home shifts, the same way it always did for me.
As a kid, I thought of home as people who made me feel like I thought a nice place with clean sheets and a pretty pink bed might. Home was my mother and my sister, my first crush, the school where I could at least have two meals.
It's in the writer 101 handbook that you should never define things by what they are not — but I didn't read that section until after I went to Emma Willard, an all-girl's prep school on scholarship in Troy, N.Y. I found sanity, routine, and safety at that beautiful place, but not home. When I was living further south in the Hudson Valley, at Vassar, Mom was evicted from her Bronx apartment and moved up to Poughkeepsie, complicating the notion of home even further.
She reminded me that sometimes the people we love, like the places we're from, bring us more toxins than safe harbors. If I could not find a home of my own at school or with my mother, maybe I could find it outside of New York. After college, I earned a journalism fellowship. I moved every six months for two years. Houston and Beaumont, Texas, were first, because I needed to learn how to drive. Once I got the hang of this New Yorker's nightmare, I couldn't conceive of putting my car on a boat to ship it, so I drove to Seattle from East Texas, shocking 98% of my friends and family. I was hired in San Francisco and lived there for six months before I moved to the warmer side of the bay in Oakland.
I was in one of America's most beautiful regions and I missed New York so much that I cried. I didn't have the kind of life in New York anyone would want to go back to, but it was the familiar that I craved — the brilliant display of changing leaves each fall, the smelly crush of humanity on the subway. New Yorkers are crazy, yes, and I was homesick for that, particularly after Sept. 11. What the world saw as the rare resilience and heart of Gotham was part of my DNA. The way a lover who was too young to appreciate you for what you offered once always has a sliver of a chance to win back your heart, New York kept calling me back.
That was home.
New York vs. Texas vs. the West Coast
It was still part of me, the New York thing. In the crushing heat and humidity of Houston, I mostly learned how to drive in the midst of the vast sprawl, the international flavor and look of the place. Even as a newbie and timid driver, I utilized full New York swagger when I leaned on my horn when some jerk cut me off. Wide-eyed, a co-worker looked at me and said, "Don't use that thing unless you want to get shot at. Texans do not honk."
Cajuns don't, either. Beaumont is best known for being close to Port Arthur, home of Janis Joplin. It's down the road from Jasper, known for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. who was killed by white supremacists.
Texas was not a place I ever planned to claim until the hate had been fumigated out of it — a fact that seemed unlikely in my lifetime. But Texans are like New Yorkers — Lone Star State meet Empire State — Go big or go home. I was excited to leave and I never planned to return.
Seattle was more enchanting, but like the rest of the West Coast, its physical beauty was the most charming aspect of the town. Endless winter fog left behind emerald green grass and misty saltwater breezes. The sun's gentle light on commas of waves rippling through Elliott Bay and Mount Rainier framed like a painting at the far end of the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer newsroom made it feel like I was living in a Jack London novel.
I had to leave New York to see that people were just like the weather wherever I lived. In Texas, what you saw was what you got. If it was 114 degrees, the steam rose from the pavement and everyone around was sweating. Ditto for New York. In Seattle, people mimicked that fog: reserved, dreary, and withdrawn with a 10% chance of sunny friendliness every now and then.
In San Francisco and Oakland, I discovered once and for all that I couldn't just make home anywhere the way I had been trying to. It was a place of cliques, maybe like all other cities, but it took a while to understand that when people said, "We should get together sometime," it was filler and not a genuine invitation. All the black people in the city seemed to live in Bayview Hunters Point; I was living on Portrero Hill, not far away. My colleagues warned me not to go to Bayview after dark.
"What will happen to me there that wouldn't happen in the Bronx?" I wondered aloud, and they fell silent. When I moved to Oakland, I learned that many of them had lived in California their whole lives and never crossed the Bay Bridge.
During a San Francisco summer, you'll look out of your window and see the gorgeous golden sun shining against a Victorian house and think you can just saunter outside in flip-flops and shorts. But when you step outside, it's 50 degrees, and the wind from the Bay could knock you on your ass. The beauty of that place is lethal.
That was when people started to ask me where I was from, where was home.
I kept saying New York, a noncommittal player adding geographical notches to my belt until I could propose to my true love.
I moved back to Texas as a kind of compromise for graduate school in 2005: Austin, the San Francisco of the South. I was part of a wave of Californians and East Coasters who would make Austin one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, with its low cost of living, 300+ days of sunshine, and blend of a fit, grungy, tech-savvy hippie and creative class.
Eventually, I found home in my colleagues at the Austin American-Statesman, the most hospitable Southerners I'd met. On the stretch of Lady Bird Lake, if I closed my eyes and inhaled, I could smell Central Park. The potlucks, the karaoke, and the perennial feel of spring break — it was the beginning of healing a wound that had festered since Philadelphia for me. The rest of it I had to do on my own.
A 2010 American Community Survey brief showed that 59% of Americans are living where they were born in numbers that vary from region to region. In Louisiana, 79% of natives have stayed put. In Nevada, that number is 24%. I envy those who have grown up where they remain. My heart is still back East, even though I have stayed in Austin much longer than I expected.
Daily, I meditate on home as the location of our memories, the embodiment of our common nostalgia. Whether you are a nomad or someone who has lived in the same place for decades, where you find home is a defining feature of your personality. I wish I could say simply that we choose home as much as it chooses us, but I think it's more complicated than that, whether or not you've ever been homeless. Home is probably more than one place. Maybe we all have several: the place where we live now, the place where we grew up, and the place we dream of returning to.
If we are lucky, maybe we find all of these somewhere on a map.
If we are lucky, maybe we learn that home is another thing.
I also agree with Maya Angelou, who told The Paris Review, "I never agreed, even as a young person, with the Thomas Wolfe title, You Can't Go Home Again ... The truth is, you can never leave home. You take it with you; it's in your fingernails; it's in the hair follicles; it's in the way you smile ... it's all there, no matter where you go."