Where Does Upstate Begin If You Are Traveling at the Speed of Light?
"Upstate" depends on who's asking the question.
11:00 AM EDT on June 18, 2022
For years, the question has vexed New Yorkers of all fractional latitudes. What is "upstate" and how does one define it? Of course, the correct answer—that "upstate" is much more of a vibe than an actual definable line—is far too boring to admit. And while it's fun to argue where in the sleepy turns of the Saw Mill Parkway one begins to see the vaguest outlines of a giant Hollywood-style sign that says "UPSTATE," it really never amounts to much beyond good debate fodder, either online or gubernatorial.
What's far more interesting is the question of "who the question matters to" and that often has to do with who is asking the question.
For people from New York City, the answer about where upstate New York is is simple—it's anywhere north of the city, it's the land of lakes and rivers and bears and mountains. However, if they're being asked this by someone from their extremely generalized version of "upstate," they're most likely giving this answer to be annoying or arrogantly display their ignorance. Either way, the question asked, by those from "upstate," is a trap, poised to ensnare the rodent-like New York City resident, who will nimbly chew off their own arm and gleefully sprint to the nearest trash bag, because honestly, they don't care where "upstate" is. Thanks for asking. Is that near Canada?
For people from Westchester and surrounding suburban counties, once again, this is a question worthy of deception. If they're being asked where they're from by someone from outside of New York state, they'll simply say "New York City," whilst the question-asker is none-the-wiser for the fool they've just been played for. Cool and confident having certified their bonafides as a legit New Yorker, they'll talk about playing stickball with Mayor Adams and their best friend, a car that has been illegally double-parked for 13 years. But, if they're asked by a New York City resident where they're from, they'll revert back to "upstate New York," knowing full-well that a New Yorker considers that anywhere beyond Van Cortlandt Park, even if it's still well-within a thirty-minute train ride from Grand Central. "Oh cool, Rye Brook, is that near Canada?" they'll ask.
For people from the Hudson Valley, the question is a tricky one. Again, to their friends they just left behind in Brooklyn three years ago, whose soot-covered faces they can only dimly remember, they're most definitely living "upstate." However, to those from the neighboring Capital Region (we'll get there soon, I promise), they're not actually upstate—they're on a long weekend jaunt to an expensive mental health spa playing "farmer" and "artist." They are impervious to the cold of the winter, gluttons in the bashful blooming summers. They are not "upstate," they're just visiting. Their friends back in NYC visited them last weekend, and they won't stop raving about "upstate"—which is right by Canada.
For people from the Capital Region, you must come prepared for both mental and physical battle. Both in love and repulsed by the liminal homeland, they can claim to be neither north nor south, east nor west, simply "there," besides Vermont, and yes, on the way to Canada. They, dutifully, will answer to all that they are indeed from "Upstate" New York, and even if they're closer to Utica than the "Egg," they will still respond that they're right by "Albany." Yes, the New York City folk will nod sagely, knowing that Albany is part of "Upstate" (close to Canada), and yes, those from the western half of the state will agree, knowing that relatively, they are closer to Albany than Buffalonians are. They are from near Albany and Albany is "upstate." But does this bring those from the Capital Region joy, knowing that in being nowhere, they have found themselves "upstate"? No, of course not, it brings them only pain and frustration, many of them demonstrating this by diving wretchedly into yet another round of "where is upstate." The questioner must take heed in these moments—it's best to let them answer "near Albany" and leave it at that…Before long, they'll be speaking about the mythical "other" Kosciusko bridge, certainly one they've made up.
For people from the North Country/Adirondack region, ent-like folks entrusted with the majesty of a bucolic arboreal paradise (ideal for mining and lumber!), they'll respond to the questioner with a quiet resolve. If the person who's asking is from New York City, they'll politely respond, "upstate, near Canada." If the questioner is from the Capital Region, they'll respond, like a distant, visiting cousin, not looking to offend anyone and make the lightest impact during a weighted Thanksgiving, "near Canada," and if the questioner is from Western New York, they'll tell them their exact town and home address, ("ah yes, I know it well!"), discarding the very idea of "upstate," because we have now reached exit velocity on this debate.
For people from Western and Central New York, the person from New York City asking this question has completely missed the point. "Upstate" denotes an orientation of a city 500 miles away from them. They take out a map and begin to open up your world, pointing out large metropolitan areas at an equal distance or even closer than the country's most populous city. We are north, but not "up," they'll explain. We eat different food, pray to different gods, and our hot dogs, though they may be stranger, are not lesser. "Upstate?" they will say, swirling in the air like a many-eyed, many-winged quantum-folded projection. "New York possesses higher dimensions far beyond this limited vector you employ. Unbounded realms of vibration. 'Finger Lakes.' 'Southern Tier.'" At this, the city-dweller's mind, un-evolved for such perceptual leaps, will shut down entirely, and the Western apparition will vanish into silence.
Which brings us to the most loathsome of the askers. The most deceitful of the questioners. Those from Long Island. "Where is upstate?" they'll ask, gleefully, menacingly, as if their own home isn't a geological accident, residue of the literal waste deposited by a mighty glacier. "I guess I'm upstate, yuk-yuk," they'll say on a hillside in Stony Brook, flashing double birds across the sound, at what they believe is upstate, but actually Connecticut. "Upstate, yeah I went upstate once," they'll recall. "I visited my sister in the Bronx." They’ll laugh, oh how they'll laugh. But in response, remind them of where the fresh water resides, and how the anorthosite dome of the Adirondacks used to be the most robust mountains on the globe. Time will come for them sooner than for us. The sea is rising and they are low. "Oh, the Upper West Side," they'll laugh and laugh and laugh. "Is that near Canada?"
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