This is my hometown

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some moment in my adult life, I stopped saying that I was from New York. Technically, I am a New Yorker. I grew up there – specifically, on Long Island – but then I moved to Boston to go to college, and stayed for a long time. When I traveled, if I was asked where I was from, I would say Boston. Through years, jobs, networks, marriage, home ownership, and friendships, Boston had become home.

But New York is, well, New York. And while I don’t always claim it as “home”, I admit to the occasional flash of pride or identification when faced with some of New York’s better-known traits: tell-it-like-it-is honesty, seen-it-all-before worldliness, or don’t-get-me-started frustration. New Yorkers are fun and surprising and resilient as hell. They are the descendants – or at least the inheritors – of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan: the adventurous pirates and practical merchants who brought trade, religious freedom, and representative government to the “New World”.

It was with all this in mind that I returned to New York for a solo vacation. I spent a little more than a week between Long Island and New York City, catching up with family and friends, and rediscovering spots I used to know. I was explaining to a friend one evening that whenever I’m on Long Island, I have a sense of what I call my “ghost life”…a life I could have had, had I chosen to stay there.  In a favorite poem of mine, Thomas Transtromer writes, “Without really knowing, we divine; our life has a sister ship, following quite another route”. My sister ship may well be sailing somewhere in the Long Island Sound, but (happily), that is not the ship I am on.


Central Park. (Not a “hidden gem”, I know.)

While I could never live on Long Island, it can be a great place to visit. Manhattan, too, offers so much to the visitor that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m always thankful for my guides: friends who have lived in NYC for years and have built up a stable of favorite places and neighborhood gems that I’d never find on my own.

There were two big “events” around which my vacation was centered. At the end of the week, I had a cousin’s wedding – the first in many years. I’m one of twenty grandchildren on my father’s side (good Irish-American Catholics), and when the whole family is together, it is something to see. Growing up, I was a shy child and my family overwhelmed me; they were loud, argumentative, overly affectionate, physically imposing (very tall), and there were just so damn many of them. As an adult, though, I’ve come to love my big, crazy family. And if nothing else, we are really, really good at weddings. It was great to see my cousins and get caught up on their lives.

Kempton family

My cousins, aunts, and uncles. Yeah, there’s a lot of us.

Mostly, though, we danced, following the example we inherited from our parents and all those family parties at the Knights of Columbus Hall, where the grown-ups did the Stroll and the Mashed Potato while we kids goofed around at the edges of the dance floor or hung out in the coat room. A DJ and a few cases of beer and a couple of 6-foot subs were all that was needed for a good time.


The other big event of my trip was almost like family, at least to me. Several months ago, my friend Ellen had finally gotten us tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway. Ellen is a true fan, and we’ve now seen Bruce together on several occasions and in multiple countries. I’ve written before about my love of Bruce, about which I am unapologetic. I love the man and his music, and it’s been the longest love affair of my life so far…over 30 years.


A little blurry, but definitely The Boss.

What else is there to say? I can say that the intimacy of a 900-seat theater can’t compare to Bruce’s big stadium shows, even when I was up close to the stage in the Pit. And to be clear, this is not a concert. It is a performance; a beautiful blending of story and song meant to chart a life, a journey. It is funny and touching and poignant and, at moments, heartbreaking. It is, as a good friend and serious Bruce fan noted, a recognition that while we continue this journey together, there is more road behind us than there is in front.  As Bruce himself said, “I hope that along the way, I’ve provided you with some measure of joy”.  No amount of applause could convey just how much joy this man and his music have given me. And alongside the joy, in equal measure, there’s been comfort, solace, energy, retreat, nostalgia, longing, hope, and celebration. So thanks, Bruce, for a great night at the theater and for a life-long journey that continues on, as long as you’re here, and as long as we’re here.

See you further on up the road.




Bruuuuuce comes to town

It was the perfect illustration of how fast time is passing: I bought the concert tickets on a grey morning in February and suddenly, in an instant, I was standing on the grassy field at Malieveld in The Hague on a cool, dry June evening. With about 65,000 Dutch fans and at least 2 other Americans (my friends who flew in from Boston), we were there to see The Boss. But after all our time together, I just call him Bruce.

People often laugh when I talk about my relationship (purely one-sided) with Bruce Springsteen. It began when I was 10 years old and under the influence of my then-best friend Traci. Traci and her Italian-American family were so unlike my own. Her parents seemed so young and cool. Her dad owned an auto repair shop named for his wife and daughters. All of their names were painted, graffiti-like, on the garage’s tow truck. He drove a 1978 Silver Anniversary Corvette. He listened to Springsteen. (I mean, of course he did. Could Bruce himself have created a more perfect fan?) Anyway, thanks to her dad, Traci listened to Springsteen. And, thus, so did I.

When Born In the U.S.A. was released, I had my mom take me to the mall and I bought the album on cassette. Traci told me that when the tour came around that summer, she and her dad would get a ticket for me, too.


Brothers in arms – Bruce and Little Steven

It was not to be. Traci left our little Catholic school at the end of the term and would be transferring to the local public school. By the time Springsteen came to New Jersey in August for a 10-show stand, Traci had started making friends from her soon-to-be new school, and she left me out of the ticket count. (In truth, I have no idea if my parents would have allowed me to go.)

That summer I may have lost a friend, as often happens to girls at that age, but I gained a life-long obsession. Part of the appeal of Bruce was that everyone else in my family hated him. For a shy, goody two-shoes kid like me, listening to Springsteen was a small act of rebellion. I was too young to understand the nuance of his music, the ache that it carried. I liked the anthems and the up-beat tracks. I liked the idea of liking something that was unpopular in my home, even though, in 1984, Born In the U.S.A. was one of the most popular things in the world.

I hung in there with Bruce over the years that followed. I received Tunnel of Love as a Christmas gift in 1988. I listened to it almost as soon as I opened it, sitting alone in my grandmother’s sewing room where the turntable and cassette player were kept. I’ll never forget the adolescent shock of hearing the opening lines to “Spare Parts”: “Bobby said he’d pull out, but Bobby stayed in…”. In retrospect I don’t know what shocked me more: the lyrics or the fact that I understood them.

My love of Bruce intensified alongside my first real relationship – my high school boyfriend was a serious Springsteen fan and introduced me to the music that came before Born In the U.S.A., which is, I know now, the really good stuff. Springsteen was ever-present; if the boyfriend and I were together, Bruce was there, too. We would drive back from the beach on a summer night in his crappy Mustang and sing the last verse of the crazy, stream-of-consciousness “For You”, loud and off-key. We saw Bruce for the first time together, making the drive to Jersey, tailgating in the parking lot at the Meadowlands. (After so many years of living with Bruce-haters, being in an arena with thousands of fans was a revelation: I was not alone.)


The boyfriend bought me Springsteen albums on vinyl. When we broke up I listened to “Trapped” over and over again. And when I found out, years later, that he had gotten married, I closed my bedroom door, put on my favorite acoustic version of “Thunder Road” and had a good cry. Not for the final, irreversible loss of the boyfriend, but for the final, irretrievable loss of one life I might have chosen.

What the people who don’t “get” my love of Bruce aren’t getting is what has kept me close to his music for more than 30 years (yikes!). It is his ability to capture the emotions at the core of life’s transitions. These are hard things, and we don’t always handle them well. We have doubts, we feel alone, and so we make mistakes and are left to live with our regrets. But we can do better. There is hope. There is friendship and joy and love, and if we’re lucky, there may be a shot at redemption.

And in between, there is escape, even just for a little while. There is a girl and a fast car and a long road and one last chance to make it real. Just enough promise to get you through.

After all these years, I still don’t know what I’m saying when I sing about “a ’69 Chevy with a 396, Fulie heads and a Hurst on the floor”. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s not just a song about a car.  (It’s never just a song about a car.) It’s a song about life wearing you down, about the need to do and feel something big in the face of that weariness, to remind yourself what it means to be alive. So I really shouldn’t have marveled when, standing on that grassy field on a summer night, those 65,000 Dutch people joined Bruce in singing those mysterious words. They may not know what the hell Fulie heads are, but like everyone else on earth, they know about loss, disappointment, and loneliness. And still, they – we – come together to sing, dance, throw our hands in the air and be led through a 3 1/2 hour revival celebration to remind us of a great truth: it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

To Bruce (and to my friend Ellen and her Bruce for making the journey): thanks for another great night. See you further on up the road…