“It’s forty-six percent Jewish,” I always start out by saying. Makes my hometown sound unique. Not just another white-upper-middle-class-bedroom-community forty minutes from New York City. That could be anywhere: Manhasset, Tenafly, Scarsdale, one million Scarsdales. No, Livingston is different.
The funny thing is that those other places are pretty Jewish too, so there’s nothing unique about my hometown. The other funny thing is that I never liked Livingston very much, so I can’t understand why I try to make it seem like somewhere special. Maybe because it feels wrong to not say something nice about a place I called home for fourteen years. Maybe I don’t want to sound unappreciative for what my parents put in to raise me there. Maybe, perhaps most likely, because my friends and classmates at college always seem so proud of where they came from. Their pride stupefies me; after hearing them celebrate their hometowns, I often end up spending hours scrolling through Wikipedia pages and Google Street View panoramas, trying to understand what about those places garnered so much love. But it’s not the unfathomable Mexico City or Beirut or Whitefish, Montana that so ties me up—it’s Basking Ridge (13 miles from Livingston), Montclair (8 miles), Scarsdale…Scarsdale. It’s the places closest and most similar to home that leave me wondering if I would also be celebrating my hometown had I just grown up somewhere else, somewhere just as privileged and just as perfectly suburban—the droves of young families who move in year after year don’t lie—but somewhere not Livingston.
Maybe not. Maybe I also wouldn’t have loved Scarsdale or Montclair or Basking Ridge. But I can’t help but think that maybe there was something anomalous about Livingston, because my negative sentiments toward the town are not just my own. Or, at least, nowadays my negative sentiments aren’t just my own. I say “nowadays” because before we graduated, I and most of my high school classmates took Livingston’s faults as inevitable side effects of its financial privilege and suburban character: we complained at times, certainly—about our don’t-give-any-fucks high school administrators, about the constant conspicuous consumption, about not having some kind of Main Street like in the next town over—but in general we were appreciative of what we had. Around the time of graduation, however, feelings turned more bitter.
What changed? What happened? I’m not sure, though I can’t say it was completely unexpected. When applying for college, I once asked a notoriously frank English teacher at my high school to look over my application essay, in which I wrote about Livingston. After reading it, the first thing she did was ask me if I really thought I was original in hating my hometown. I remember wanting to argue that I barely wrote anything negative about Livingston, but instead being stunned by what she said next: that a lot of people hate their hometowns, that most people probably hate their hometowns.
At the time, I thought her comment was utterly misplaced, but I entertained the idea that maybe she knew what she was talking about, that maybe she had talked to enough students in years prior to get a grasp on how sentiment towards Livingston would change. Of course, what she said did become true. But only to some extent—the thing is, “hate” is too unconditional and too uninvolving a word to describe sentiment towards my hometown. How could it? It’s not like we just disregarded and discarded the only place most of us ever knew. We look back at the town and express disgust and sadness and frustration, but we haven’t forgotten what the town and its good schools and our hardworking parents gave us. And if nothing else, time and memory retain some meaning. So we outwardly hate Livingston, but maybe we resort to the convenient “Fuck that place” and “What a shithole” to avoid having to figure out what exactly the place meant to us. To avoid having to figure out why we still care enough about the town to brag at college about it being forty-six percent Jewish.
What’s more, I know that many of my high school classmates who say they hate Livingston are probably faking it entirely. Many of my high school classmates can’t help but follow along with what’s popular—growing up in a place like Livingston does that to you—and these days what’s popular is holding contempt for the town. So while many of my classmates profess hate towards the town now, a few years down the road they’ll return to Livingston and start families, sending their kids to the same preschools and soccer teams as the children of high school friends who will have also returned to Livingston. Just like their parents and grandparents did decades ago.
A few weeks ago, one of these probably-faking-it people and I arranged to get brunch on one of the few occasions we were both back in town. The morning of, she told me to meet her at Sweet Basil’s Café at 10:30, but quickly remembered that I never learned to drive—one of my few successful acts of resistance against Livingston—and said never mind she’d pick me up. The drive from my house to Sweet Basil’s is only five minutes, but as soon as I stepped into her car I wanted it to last hours. There’s something so comforting about driving around Livingston, in spite of my disdain for both the town and the planet-killing automobiles in which we cruise down its streets. Maybe because in a car I finally start feeling like everyone else. Like I belong. Normal.
When we passed by our high school—where I almost learned that getting good grades doesn’t say much about you as a person, where lunch tables almost crossed racial and socioeconomic lines, where I almost didn’t quit playing the sports and musical instruments I once loved—I glared out the window at the building, said out loud What a place. My brunch companion turned to look before quickly snapping her head back towards the road, as if embarrassed to be caught checking out something so openly disgusted by so many. She rolled her eyes and began to voice her grievances, so eloquently that I wondered how many times she’d practiced—or given—this speech in the year since we left. So many things wrong with this town, she said, the need to show off, the constant reminders that you mean nothing to others, the pressure of having to act like school and money and people outside of your group don’t matter.
What I wanted to do was ask her if she knew how good she had it: white and pretty and well-to-do and having friends made by her parents from the very beginning. Ask her if she really did hate it or if she’s only saying that now, ready to move back in her thirties and raise kids here just like the rest of them. But I kept my mouth shut, the one thing Livingston taught me to do better than anything else. I reminded myself that she probably didn’t have it so easy either, growing up girl in a place where looks were everything and being yourself was the most dangerous thing of all—this town wasn’t just my tragedy. And it’s not like I, or any of us, was innocent…wasn’t a part of this town’s making. Then I responded to her by nodding my head yes, saying yes, yes it was conforming and superficial and competitive so fucking competitive and isolating and mediocre. And ours, it was ours—this place, its faults, its agony, and maybe one day its undoing…all ours.