Last week I joined with some baseball pals for a day trip to Cooperstown. I had driven there easily a hundred times over the past three decades, most often for research or business, but also just for fun: a weekend with the family, or a solo getaway, or an excursion with a new friend whose response to this serene village would serve as something of a litmus test. Yes, the cheesy memorabilia and souvenir bat shops have proliferated; Smalley’s theater, where once I took my now oldest two sons to see their first movie after sundown (Ghostbusters), was now a trading card and knick-knack emporium; and the venerable Shortstop Restaurant, where proprietor Sam Sapienza would sit by the window and greet me by name, was no more. But still I loved the place.
While strolling down Main Street or along Lake Otsego I have invariably reflected, This feels like home ... whatever that might mean to one whose residential résumé rivals that of a hermit crab. Though I have never lived there I call Cooperstown my second home because it feels so familiar, so comfortable, so strangely mine — in a way even more proprietary than my first home in America, New York City, where in my regular visits I still stride the sidewalks with the confidence of a native.
Ulster County, where I have lived for 30 years, is now booming with New York City house buyers for whom a weekend getaway or garden spot may one day become, as it did for me, home. And their feelings for their home away from home may well become more intense, as mine did, for their having chosen it rather than being born into it. The real estate folk know that these wandering Gothamites will buy a house that bodes to fulfill their inchoate expectations of “home,” a word which potently bundles refuge, safety, and nurturing with the seat of domestic life. City people may be counted upon to pay handsomely for “charm” in their home away from home because they are purchasing not merely a physical place but a state of being. “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” wrote John Payne in 1822, and he knew what he was singing about.
Homelessness and statelessness are tragic conditions for all but the Lapps and Bedouins and artistic itinerants, nomadic peoples who define home as where they happen to be. We all know such citizens of the world, seemingly unafflicted by geographical longing. Realizing early on that they would never quite fit in, they made their permanent home between their ears, and carried their nautilus shells with them. Feeling expelled, they made a virtue of their gypsy souls and become not gatherers but hunters: the explorer, the warrior, the stranger.
When the vagabond becomes weary of travel and wishes to return home, he may find that he cannot — it and he have moved on. Home is so rich in alternate meanings that it may be both a place of origin and one of ending. Our aged population is herded into “homes,” another semantic trampling that recalls the title of madam Polly Adler’s memoir, A House Is Not a Home. In this prep school for the old, where dogs do not bark and children do not laugh, our parents ponder their next home. That ultimate journey at least is not a real-estate or medical-industry euphemism. In 1303 the Oxford English Dictionary records “To thy long home shalt thou wend” (To *y long home shalt *ou wende).
If a house is temporary but home is forever, then the concept of a second home is, if not an outright oxymoron, then at least a troubling concept. As a home from home, as the British would put it, it is a place where “one feels at one's ease, in one's element, as if in one's own home, unconstrained, unembarrassed” (OED) ... as if one had returned to Eden. As a construct of the fancy, the second home is a place to which one may indeed return, unlike the Garden from which man was expelled or the place Thomas Wolfe said you couldn’t go again. A first home (a womb) and a last one (a grave) are locales to which and from which return is not possible.
So, the question arises: Which feels more like “home” — the second or the first? The second, and not only because it is selected to conform with an individual or collective ideal. There is also the matter of home ownership, or real estate. Man’s “real estate” may be in heaven, but on this earth, the house which he has purchased bodes to be his home.
For this wandering Jew, Cooperstown, where I have never lived and never will, makes an ideal — in both senses of the word — second home. For all you New York City newcomers to Woodstock and environs, welcome home.