Strong Island

(Part Eight in my series on my six years in New York)

There are a variety of New Yorkers out there:

* The ones who are from Long Island (who are then divided into North/South Shore people);

* The ones who go out to East Hampton, Amagansett each summer but delicately call it “Long Island,” as if those towns are the whole of the island;

* The ones who go out to some nondescript Long Island locale called “the Hamptons” each summer and remind you every ten seconds about their super sick summer share;

* Locals; townies; natives;

* New York transplants who can’t find Long Island on a map;

* People from Queens who desperately want Flushing, Kew Gardens to be “Long Island.”

(Of those people, some say “on Long Island” and some say “in Long Island.”  I am convinced that the proper preposition is “on.”)

I’ve spent quite a bit of time out on Long Island, from Montauk to the Rockaways; I’ve sunned myself on beaches from Jones Beach to Amagansett; spent Christmases at my quirky (but wonderful) ex-Aunt-in-law’s house near Manhassett with the funky technicolor tree that was a shade too large for the living room. 

And despite my time there, I feel like I cannot form any kind of cohesive picture of what the place is about, despite the fact that there are a lot of Manhattanites that are native Long Islanders, and that there is a certain Manhattan rite of passage that involves the trek to Long Island.  My collection of experiences “on the Island” have been a mishmosh of strange and unsettling — so lacking the ability to put the patchwork of people, places, and things into a narrative that smooths the corners of my own, I don’t know what to say about it except…??

Also…they have a lot of weird stuff out there.

For instance, in Central Islip, there is an outpost of the Eastern District of New York — where I once had to deal with a non-compete matter.  Nestled among the verdant flatlands and the sandy beaches is a multi-million dollar federal courthouse complex that looks better suited to conducting alien autopsies than adjudicating motions for summary judgment.  The inside of the building is futuristic, except for the monitors that direct litigants to their courtrooms — I think they ran out of money — the building uses fuzzy black & white Zeniths circa 1985.

Closer in, Roosevelt Field rises out of the tangled morass of Expressways, like a rhinocerous snoozing on a vine-covered riverbank.  Each time I pass that mall, it elicits the same “What the HELL?” response; each time I shop there, I leave feeling like I am not sure I understand the layout, or the draw of the anchor stores (i.e., a Nieman Marcus, a Dick’s Sporting Goods, a Michael’s Crafts, among others…).  These stores do not seem to go together, yet seem strangely apt for how I see Long Island in my mind.

This lack of fluidity does nothing to sand out my fractured tale of Long Island being the place where my husband cracked up; where my relationship with my best friend split at the seams; where I was when things failed. 

And adding insult to injury, I can’t pronounce the names of the cities and towns — from Massapequa to Ronkonkoma.  I fail at driving the roads that lead to nowhere; I spend hours circling Sag Harbor, East Hampton, even Riverhead.  There is no GPS signal; there is no mobile phone service; there is only me screaming obscenities; me almost driving first into a wedding party and then into a ditch.

There were nights, I remember, “on Long Island,” when I was trying to get from Point A to Point B — a benefit to an after-party — and it was just like Manhattan, but worse, because I was driving.  So it was buzzbuzz (So nice to see you! Nice to see me, you’re meeting me for the first time!) and the buzzbuzz rooms, but there were no taxis, just me and my Jag ferrying the buzzing lot back to the hive.

(Great party; terrible driving…)

And then there were other nights, quiet nights — nights of lighthouse gazing, and measuring what I’d lost in nautical miles.  And those weren’t all that great, either.

(Beautiful girls; horrible weekend…)

This is all to say that my aversion to Long Island isn’t particularly strong; nor is the appeal.  Perhaps this is because I do not fully comprehend east coast beaches — I am awestruck but dumbfounded by the places where the maple trees rise out of the rocky northern cliffs, and by where the natural sand dunes give way to waves that are smaller, strangely warmer than the Pacific’s gaping maw. 

Maybe, too, this is because it took me years to reorient my directionality…(and I have an eerily good sense of direction!).  A golden, sunny California friend who moved to a landlocked state a few years ago recently said in a wide-eyed tone, I stopped having dreams about surfing.  And while I have said ad nauseam that I am not a California girl, when I gave up orienting the ocean as west…there was a part of me that changed, too.

I remember being 14, having snuck out of the house to spend the night on the beach with friends and watch the sunrise.  The sunrise on the Pacific is nothing special.  After spending the night on the beach at Zuma, simply to say we’d done so, we drove home.  Along PCH, the seaweed in the water glowed — phosphorescent; luminscent with the strange early summer tide.  It stuck with me, that dark, slow sunrise.

Then, half a lifetime and a continent later, I ran along the shore on Long Island one morning, watching the sun emerge as a fiery ball of wonder from the ocean, low-flying planes overhead, roaring into JFK, bellies full of passengers coming home; commencing adventures.  I stopped, dumbfounded by the beauty of it all. 

And maybe that’s all it is that unsettles me: Long Island is a place where, yes, things happened over which I had no control, and yet it is where I’ve reoriented myself to the ocean in the east; where I take off or land at JFK at dawn — the sky glowing purple and red with the light of possibility.

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  1. I’m from the South Shore. (Baldwin via Brooklyn.) Roosevelt Field was my first introduction to a mall. We belonged to a beach club at Point Lookout. I also lived in Huntington Beach, CA for a couple of years. I love the beach, east or west, and loved my childhood ON Long Island. 😉

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