Baited—Hook, Line & Sinker

Written By: Briana Pagano

The East End has me baited—hook, line, and sinker.

Delivered by the tide and baptized by ocean spray, I am a North Forker through and through. From my freckled nose to my pruney swimmer’s toes, everything that makes me who I am is a product of where I come from. My love for this island is as constant as the Long Island Sound’s unceasing ebb and flow. My heart is, and forever will be, anchored to the North Fork.

While perched atop a lifeguard stand at daybreak or chasing the kaleidoscope sky a few shades before twilight, it’s impossible to imagine my life ever having existed elsewhere. Who would I be without salt-encrusted, sun-streaked hair and chronically bare feet? These things, no matter how small they may seem, are some of the biggest pieces of who I am. And yet, with a singular turn of events, they might never have been in the first place. Perhaps, if detached from my island upbringing, I would’ve wound up tamer, with permanently frizz-free locks and Manolo Blahniks—but honestly, where’s the fun in that?

During the summer of 2001, my family wormed our way out of the Big Apple and headed east toward the quietude of what our friends ever so affectionately dubbed “the boonies”—a faraway land of seaweed wars and seagull squawks, sailboats and sunset silhouettes. With a knowing wink of our taillights, we left the City That Never Sleeps in our rearview mirror and sped as far east as the island would take us, toward sleepy beach, farm, and wine country. Two hours later, we rolled down our windows and gasped as the salty maritime air filled our lungs.

So this was what it meant to really, truly—finally—breathe.

All my life, I’ve heard tourists exclaim, “You are so lucky to live here!” As a local, I’ve always shaken my head and laughed, watching their fanny-packed silhouettes sashay into the sunset. Tourists. However, the older I get and the further my life takes me away from the North Fork, the more I am stricken by the irrevocable truth of their words.

When I went off to college last fall, I befriended classmates from cities around the globe who provided a constant (and ever-amusing) stream of baffled questions about my hometown.

“The closest shopping mall is how far?”

“There’s an annual festival dedicated to…strawberries?”

“Your town’s Starbucks was run out of business?” (Cue one tall nonfat-iced-mocha-frappe-caramel-macchiato-soaked gasp—no foam.)

What to them was inconceivable to me makes my hometown the best place on Earth. Outsiders may wrinkle their noses in disgust at the smell of high tide or a freshly reeled in bass, but to me, this scent is home. Forget the frappes. Give me cotton candy clouds and sunrise picnics, Grady Whites and jingle shells. Give me reggae night in Mitchell Park and a cricket symphony by morning. Give me a starry night sky that Van Gogh himself would envy and crackling beach bonfires with a smattering of marshmallow fights. Give me Peekaboo with flounder and Tug-of-War with scheming gulls. Give me a sunset chase to the Coffeepot or a midday cruise past Bug Lighthouse. Give me family-run farm stands and slices of watermelon bigger than my face. Give me sunshine strolls down the causeway and firefly freeze-tag-wars at night’s end.  Give me all of these “little things,” because I don’t have to be on my rocker to realize that they were the big things, all along.

How funny it is to realize, after a childhood spent scrawling “X marks the spot” and toddling down shorelines with a cacophony of “Ahoy mateys,” that the true treasure had been in your very own backyard, all along.