No Place Like Home?

Going east straightens one couple's compass back west


It was a bright, calm weekend morning in the heart of Manhattan. We had been away from Sonoma County for nine nights and days, the most in eight years. “JFK,” I said as my wife, Candi, and I hopped into a cab. We had just an hour to get to check-in.

We dove into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, emerged and climbed onto the Long Island Expressway. The cabbie put on some reggae. I leaned back and thought about our venture into Westchester County a few days before. We had wanted to compare a local living site to our ideal future: a house with carless access both to San Francisco and the North Bay.

A swerve. The cab slowed and crossed three lanes. The driver spat some unintelligible expletive. Near a barrier on the right freeway shoulder, we stopped. “Flat tire?” Candi asked.

“This is six o’clock traffic,” he replied. “This traffic is one hour to JFK.” I saw some backed-up cars maybe a quarter of a mile ahead. Rapidly, making for an onramp from another freeway perhaps 300 yards gone by, our driver began to back up.

A few days before, I had found on the web a house for sale a mile and a half outside the “village” of Mt. Kisco, an hour north of Manhattan’s Grand Central. Unlike today’s North Bay, it is an hour north of its city by rail. At 11:48am, we boarded a clean, uncrowded electric train, one of about 40 that run each way between mid-Westchester and Manhattan on weekdays. Fewer but still plentiful trains run on weekends. Fares are $9 to $12 each way, with discounted monthly passes.

Upon arriving in the city, the first thing we noticed were four taxis waiting near the station. Two hours later, there were still several cabs. This was highly significant. We want to live in a town where we can garden, walk to shops, see a movie or a play, or go to bars or restaurants without ever getting into our own car. We also want to make public-transit day trips for a city’s variety and return easily whether exhausted, sober or not.

In Mt. Kisco, we cruised the eateries: Chinese, Indian, Irish and an upscale bar-restaurant, all an easy walk from the station. After lunch, we began our trek to the house for sale: an upgraded ’60s rancher in our price range, reduced $50k to about $360 per square foot, on an acre of green. We saw few other pedestrians once we left the central town. I counted signs announcing five security firms along the way.

We wouldn’t want to walk that far into a town, but there were places for sale much closer. However, with cabs apparently no problem, we could live out there and do Manhattan as we later did from our hotel: jazz at Zinc Bar (three sets every night); God of Carnage (three Tony awards, including Best Play, and starring James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini); the gorgeous Frick House and Collection; the Whitney Museum; and the tiny, fascinating and free Transit Museum Annex right in Grand Central. Then dinner, maybe a bar, and home without worries. Hello, North Bay?

“People don’t know how to drive!” Our driver backed along the edge of the roaring 495 to the onramp where multiple cars tried to circumvent him until he plugged it up. He waved imperiously at them. Gradually, the backup behind us increased as more vehicles stopped dead. Then, incredibly, they began to do the only thing they could do: retreat. Still lambasting their bad driving habits, our driver backed them down the ramp past its branch from the freeway he wanted to get to. With traffic in that fast lane whizzing by, he jerked the cab right and gunned it. I closed my eyes.

A few minutes later, we were cruising along Queens Boulevard with timed street lights. One turned red; he actually stopped. Our trip covered 16 and 3-4 miles and took 36 minutes. At JFK, I tipped a little extra to help with a term life policy. We are back, looking for the possible, and looking for it here.

George Benton lives in Sonoma County where he has spent too much time driving on Highway 101, but has managed to teach, write, practice law and get an MA in English from SSU.

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