Long Island Longing
“My parents moved the family to Staten Island just a month after I was born,” my co-worker Frank was telling me one evening long ago, at our lower Manhattan office night job. He was in his mid-fifties, and I had barely entered my twenties. I’m a decade older today than he was then, but I still remember the story vividly.
“I’ve lived my whole life on Staten Island. Grade school, high school, college, marriage, children, home ownership, grandfatherhood. Civics, volunteer work, scouting, religion, everything.” I didn’t have a clue where he was going, but I could usually depend on him for a punchline. And so his dry delivery, arched eyebrow, and mischievous crooked smile led me on.
“I’ll tell you something about how closed people can be, at least on Staten Island, where I live. When I die, my tombstone’ll say,
HERE LIES FRANK P_____
BORN IN BROOKLYN”
Like all good, wry jokes, that one had a little pearl of truth inside the oyster of its absurdity. It said a lot about the resolute isolation of an isolated island’s islanders. But, four decades later, does a whiff of that sentiment also persist on the eastern quarter of far larger and more variegated Long Island? Hardly, I should think. Because to these so-called “forks,” these prongs, these eastern extremities, these split caudal fins of the ever-west-swimming-but-never-getting-there fish called Paumanok, comes a global convergence of glitterati, day-trippers, sightseers, ordinary vacationers, international tourists, lifers, lately-locals, retirees, relos, and recluses. And to whose provenance no one pays too much attention.
When you head for the East End, your origins are less important than your destination. Because wherever you may have started out, the here you arrived at, so many inveterate East Enders feel, is more beautiful, more relaxing, more stimulating, and has better seafood, than the there where you began. And so if you take up residence, don’t worry about the tombstone.
You can live your whole life on Long Island — if home is in the fat middle part of the fish — and never truly sense that you’re in some unique agricultural maritimes. You know it from the map, but Suburbia’s concrete can squeeze the awareness of the water out of your consciousness. You know it from the ocean beaches, but there the water’s only in front of you. You get a taste of it on Fire Island, but it has are no farm stands. It’s only on the forks — just venture anywhere east of Riverhead, North fork or South — where you can’t help but understand that these tenuous, verdant, bountiful, magically intriguing spits of land are crooked intruders into the North Atlantic ocean, and are ruled at least as much by the forces of water as of earth. Travel eastward, and you’ll come to more than one narrow neck of land where vast stretches of water nearly touch both sides of the road. Both forks have such passes. At moments like that, and at such spots, you can imagine you’re skimming the Long Island Keys, or the Paumanok Archipelago. And if you don’t know the forks well — or, as might have been said of my friend Frank, you’re not from around here — it’s a liberating exhilaration.
Not long ago, in incidents just days apart, two younger women appeared and spoke to me out of nowhere — one at a park’s marshy trail, one at a North Fork farm stand — and asked if they could take my picture. One was an artiste, the other a photojournalist. Because I’m bearded and floppy-hatted and getting on, I guess maybe I’ve come to look like a rustic or a rube or a rascal, or part of the aged, hoary scenery itself. In any case, out of some hurried instinctive amalgam of shyness, suspicion, and surprise, I said thanks but no thanks. But I’m not that shy, and I’m not that suspicious, and I wasn’t that surprised. So, for days afterwards, I asked myself: why?
And I found the answer: because here, on the forks/fishtail, I’m not searching for the human, nor do I want to be depicted in my human guise. I pursue a personal notion of my ideal East End experience, as nearly everyone probably comes to do. I’ve been-there-done-that, for the most part, with nightlife and restaurants and the crush of humanity. I’m after something different now: I’m here to do more than just “get away from it all.” My vision is distinctly nature-centric: birds, shells, berries, grapes, beach; sun and sky; the arc of the season. For an afternoon, I’m looking to jettison from my consciousness not just the work on my desk, but also something of existential homo sapiens-ness itself, and inhale, absorb, embrace, and thrill with preternatural depth to the apperception of the cosmos. I can grasp it there — from my particular private spot on an unspecified beach, both of which shall remain unspecified and nameless — better than from anywhere else.
When I’m at that spot, I can feel the actual fire of the sun. I see every photon of every dazzling spark of sunfire glinting off the waves. I see countless rounded pebbles, every one a tiny rocky world, with its own sea-abraded story, and I take in at once the meaning of millions. I sense the curve, and feel the impossible mass of the very earth itself, and the sphericality of the risen evening moon. Or in a late-afternoon lowering storm, I fly, via a sense beyond the senses, fueled by the sky’s vivid tableaux and augmented by imagination. I fly high above the screaming shore birds, deadly feathered hook-beaked diving predators intending imminent certain death to some hapless mollusc. I fly into the miles-high cumulonimbus thunderheads, all turquoise and tuna-steak pink, lit chiaroscuro by the slanting crepuscular sunlight. I swoop back again, ahead of the breaking storm, its lightning moving closer, through the dark-blue cool gusts which precede heavy weather even in hottest August, and return to the bepebbled beach.
If the astronomers are right — and the world really is 4.6 billion years old — then there have been more than a trillion-and-a-half sunsets since the beginning of earth-time. When I’m watching the latest one from my cosmic perch — at my east-end somewhere — it’s more than just a sunset. It’s the feeling that the colossal round blue marble I’m standing is turning me smoothly backwards, away from that frightful blinding ball of thermonuclear fury: burning, burning forever, just burning and burning for billions of years, and slated to burn for billions of years more. I’m almost singed by the thought of all that all-consuming intolerable heat, and the hugeness of all that cosmic burning and turning. The timelessness of endless repetition, the daily display of solar refulgence, the dazzling concept of the nearly-forever: one-point-six trillion sunsets down, and who knows how many to come, and there’s something of all of them in this one.
Long Island is only the world’s 149th-largest island. There are plenty of other islands; there are other beaches; there are other lighthouses, piers, docks, harbors, marinas, fishing fleets, whale watches, boat tours, seafood joints, bars, and jetties. I’ve been to many of them, in Maine and Jersey and Virginia and Florida and California and Italy and Mexico and more. The sand, the rocks, the clubs, the waves, the fishing: I’ve heard it before, I get it. All with their own enticements, but none quite like Paumanok. Yogi Berra is once said to have said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” He was right. North Fork or South: there aren’t two more like them, anywhere.