I’m Not From Texas
As a good Long Island girl, I am bound to always listen to two mostly infallible Long Island natives: Billy Joel and my mother. A few weeks ago, she told me she’d read about Dan’s Papers’ Literary Prize for Nonfiction and, she had decided, I would enter and win it. I went to school for writing, and I’m a born and bred East Ender who left the Island two years ago. This, it seemed, was my opportunity to explore what it means to leave Long Island, how to maintain a connection to the place that you’re from, and to relive some of my experiences growing up on Long Island that, I have no doubt, led me to love the place and, ultimately, to leave it. It was time, I decided, to sort through what made Long Island so special and complicated and unique. Plus, my mom told me to enter the contest, so I really had very little choice in the matter.
I started the essay during my last week at work before my long-awaited trip home to the East End. I moved to the south two years ago for graduate school, and now I work at Texas A&M University in College Station. As I’ve gotten to know people in the deep south, I’ve had a lot of conversations about my home—with friends, co-workers, even the cashier at the grocery store who checks my ID when I buy wine. I’ve found that people respond to the news that I’m from Long Island in a surprisingly finite number of ways. Mostly, people from Texas tell me they’re surprised I don’t have an accent. As much as I love Saturday Night Fever, I tell them, I’m not from Bayridge, and with the exception of a few words (water, dog, and a few added vowels at the ends of certain words when I’ve had a few and just really want to get my point across), most people who grew up where I did sound more like me than Snooki or Jwoww. Other people tell me all about their one sight-seeing trip to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty, to eat authentic pizza at “this great little place called Famous Ray’s,” and to catch a matinee of Rent or Cats. Others, and this is probably the majority, ask, emphatically, why I now live in Texas when I could, they assume, be living in New York like the cast of Friends or Seinfeld. (I don’t bother to tell them Jerry spends his summers where I live rather than across the hall from Kramer).
While lying awake just before my alarm goes off on the day I’m meant fly home to Long Island for my two week vacation, I cycle through all the people I have to visit with, all the trips to the beach I want to take, all the things I want to eat. Later that day, I board my flight in Houston bound for JFK and crack open my Macbook, ready, after an unproductive week trying to write at my day job, to work on my Dan’s Papers entry. Going home, I’ve decided, will be the perfect opportunity to gain a little perspective for my Long Island essay. Up at 30,000 feet, the cursor on my blank Word Document blinks menacingly, waiting for some insightful perspective on what it means to be from Long Island, to grow up in a place that houses some of the wealthiest people in the world in the summers, and everyone else all year long. I wrack my brain, searching, at the very least, for clever anecdotes from my childhood. A zany story about spending my childhood summers at Shinnecock Inlet with my family and my cousins, about learning how to drive on Sound Avenue in my dad’s 1988 Isuzu Trooper that leaned like a skateboard on the curves, about waiting on some of the richest people in the world at Friar’s Head golf course during summer breaks. Something, I’m sure, will come to me. I tell myself it doesn’t have to be written in one plane ride, and that 80% of a writer’s work is done in her head, sifting for gold through the mental muck. I have plenty of time. It’s one week before the Dan’s deadline.
As soon as I arrive home, my vacation becomes a mad rush to check off items on my East End to-do list: I shiver through a trip to Ponquogue beach on a day when, despite some breaks in the clouds back home in Riverhead, the barrier beaches on Dune Road are hidden behind fog so thick it swallows Ponquogue bridge halfway over Shinnecock Bay; I visit the Yellow Book Barn at the Riverhead Free Library and buy 15 used books at twenty five cents a piece, the whole time neglecting to consider how I’ll fit them in my carry-on when I fly home; I eat so much pizza and bagels in such a short amount of time that I consider quitting my job and entering the competitive eating circuit; both of my younger sisters are waitressing this summer, as I did every summer before I moved away, so I have dinner at each of their restaurants–at Margarita Grille in Westhampton Beach I watch, from the covered patio, convinced that I might’ve had one too many margaritas, as a young deer eats a hydrangea bush across the street in the bank parking lot at 8PM on a bustling, July Friday night, seemingly unnoticed and unbothered by the crowds; the next night, my other sister serves me at Meetinghouse Creek Inn at the end of Peconic Bay Boulevard in Aquebogue (prix fixe clam bake with a 1 ¼ pound lobster). I spend a sunnier day on the bay at South Jamesport beach. I browse the antique shops in Greenport and have a drink at Claudio’s. All of this must be done at a breakneck pace. It occurs to me, almost too late, that I’ve been so looking forward to my trip home, and so focused on finding something to say about what it means to be from this place, that I’ve forgotten what it is that I love about Long Island: that it’s my home.
On the day before I’m set to leave, which is also the day before the Dan’s deadline, I decide to spend the day at home. It’s a Sunday, and my Nanny—my mom’s mom who grew up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn—comes to sit with us on our back deck in the afternoon for a while. Miraculously, neither of my sisters have to waitress, so we swim in our above ground pool and take turns flipping each other off of inflatable floats like we’re all thirteen again. My mom picks up dinner at the farm stand, and stops for lunch in the form of sandwiches from Duffy’s Deli. My whole family laughs at me as I complain, between bites of my American hero, how utterly impossible it is to find a decent deli in East Texas.
That evening, my dad turns on his outdoor speakers and fires up the grill. A guy with a self-professed eclectic taste in music, he always picks out a few special songs for each visit home. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Heart in New York” is our official coming home song. When I used to come home for visits while enrolled in graduate school at Louisiana State University, my dad kept “Louisiana Lady” by New Riders of the Purple Sage in his rotation. This trip, he keeps playing “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” by Lyle Lovett. “So won’t you let me help you, Mister? Just pull your hat down the way I do,” Lovett’s voice fills the backyard I grew up in, the backyard that used to be a potato farm on the border of Riverhead and Aquebogue, then a muddy subdivision full of cookie-cutter, three bedroom homes on half acre lots. My backyard is now full of twenty-year-old weeping willows and sugar, swamp, and white maples taller than our house. These trees used to be no bigger than Charlie Brown twigs; some of them even came sealed in envelopes, delivered to the same white mailbox with the red flag that still stands at the end of our driveway. Others used to be Christmas trees that, thought they now rival the ones in Rockefeller Center, started out in our living room with big, wet, burlap balls of roots hidden in a plastic red-and-green planter waiting to be sunk into the frozen January earth of our front yard. “And next time somebody laughs at you/You just tell ’em you’re not from Texas.” My dad opens the lid of his grill to reveal Rottkamp corn roasting in green husks and tangled in singed silk next to littleneck clams and Bluepoint oysters just beginning to yawn open, revealing the sweet and salty mollusks that live inside. “That’s right,” Lovett tells us, “You’re not from Texas.”