The Summer People Are Coming

 

IT’S FRIDAY AND you can feel it in the air: the Summer People are coming. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, they start streaming up route 87 from New York City at the start of every weekend. They are coming up to where I live, in the Catskills and the Hudson Valley, north of the city. They come because it’s beautiful here, a respite from the noise and stink and congestion of urban life. We have mountains, streams, bucolic country roads, and real live locals who have lived here all their lives.

I cannot in any way make fun of the Summer People because I used to be a Summer Person myself. Back in the flush, double-income-no-kids days, my husband and I rented an apartment in the city and also rented a place in the country for a couple of summers. Then we technically became weekenders. We kept the apartment in the city, bought an old house upstate, and started spending most weekends there.  But soon enough the money began to drain as we tried to pay for both places. Also, we had a mean, mentally unstable cat who couldn’t tolerate the cramped confines of our tiny apartment in the city. Sooner or later he was going to kill us. So it was really the cat more than anything that made us move upstate.

There are differences between the ex-city, now-full-time people and the Summer People, although on the surface, judging by their glasses and hair and clothes, they might look very much the same. But the Summer People bring with them a certain excitement that they exude wherever they go. They are away from their lives when they’re here, whereas we full-timers are just here—here like we always are, in the middle of our lives and all this goddamned beauty. The Summer People bring the city electricity with them, which sometimes makes me feel nice in proximity to them, like I haven’t totally lost my old electricity, the electricity I once had in the city. I love living in the country but sometimes I could swear my wattage has dimmed just a little.

In the supermarket down the road from where I live you can tell when someone is a Summer Person because they actually look excited to be buying food in the supermarket. They’re going to grill stuff and make nice salads, and they have not yet realized that this particular supermarket is crappy and overpriced. It’s still fun for them to be there, and they are buying up a storm. After the supermarket, they’ll make a stop at the farmstand that they didn’t realize was just a bit further down the road. Now they have found a real country thing—fresh produce grown in the beautiful fields they passed on their way upstate. What they don’t realize is that at this particular farmstand, the owner has been seen taking large crates of fruits and vegetables that come from some supplier—probably the same one who supplies the crappy supermarket down the road—and breaking them up into smaller packages that look more authentically farmstandy. A lot of the produce they’re buying isn’t local at all, but I don’t have the heart to tell them. If they traveled the smaller back roads they’d find houses where locals have set out tomatoes and eggs and maple syrup that you can buy right from their yard. The Summer People need to find all this on their own. It’s the beauty of discovery.

Another way you can tell that someone is a Summer Person is when you see them wandering around trying to get a signal on their cell phone in a place where everyone—the full-timers anyway—knows there is no cell service. They go around and around in circles, trying to find just the right spot, pulling the phone away from their ear to see how many bars are there, then shouting for a moment into the phone, as though that will help. If they went a little further down the road and walked up into the local cemetery and stood at the highest point, they could get a perfectly good signal. But I haven’t mentioned this to them.

I should note that Summer People who have become year-round weekenders are somewhat more invested in the area and know more of its subtleties. They experience the area when it’s less perfect than it is in its summer aspect, like in the gray hollow of winter, or the nondescript days of April and November. Some weekenders are actually in the process of transitioning to being full-timers but they don’t know this yet. Maybe someone is about to lose a job and a big city salary, or their kid is going to start tanking in school and need a fresh start. Some weekenders willingly say they’re considering a full-time move upstate, but after so many of these conversations at parties I’ve begun to discriminate between the ones who will really do it and the ones who won’t. The ones who won’t have a look of fear in their eyes that says, There is not a Whole Foods close enough to make me actually do this thing.

Occasionally a Summer Person who also happens to be a model will appear in the supermarket or the local bakery or general store. This is technically known as a Summer Model. The model is extremely tall and skinny and displays an unbelievable convergence of good physical features, and is often accompanied by someone who looks to be her fashion-photographer boyfriend or husband, or he might be a musician, it’s hard to tell. Suddenly the energy in the room completely changes and everyone tries to ignore the fact that a model is in their midst. Everyone glances then looks away, glances then looks away. It’s possible that the model is actually not a model but is in some other line of work and just happens to be extremely tall, skinny, and almost freakishly good-looking, but this is not likely.

Sometimes Summer People who don’t know the area very well stumble into places that they didn’t mean to go. You know that their expectations have been dashed and you feel bad for them, but there’s nothing you can do—it’s a learning experience. I saw this happen once last year. I took my daughter to a county fair that I had also misjudged. I had thought it would be charming and more authentic than the usual fairs we’d already been to, but this one was downright unnerving. It had a dark side. The rides looked sinister and like they might malfunction at any second. The people working there were unfriendly, and you felt like someone was going to try to draft you into the Tea Party around every bend. In fact, there actually was a booth representing the Tea Party crammed into the middle of the fair. While we were wandering around, I spotted a Summer Couple with their child who looked extremely lost and unhappy. I watched them for a while and thought about explaining to them that they went to the wrong fair and that the area wasn’t quite as scary as they might be thinking. But soon enough I lost them in the crowd. I hope they made it out okay.

I remember a few summers ago, by then several years into my upstate life, I was driving in the area and missed a yield sign and accidentally cut off the driver merging next to me. She screamed at me from her car, “Go back to Manhattan!” I was secretly pleased, not only because I had annoyed someone obnoxious enough to scream out her car window at me, but also because I had clearly passed for a Summer Person. Apparently I hadn’t lost all the old electricity yet.

Janet Steen

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of Editrixie.com, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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