By Joshua McCuen
PortJeffersoncan neither be defined asEastern Long Islandnor a commuter town toManhattan. Somewhat lost, it lays halfway between Orient Point andNew York Cityon the north shore. PortJeffersonis where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. The town itself is situated like a bowl tipped to the harbor; to leave means taking a boat or climbing one of the hills surrounding the town. At the southern edge,Main Streetruns down the hill like a river, finding the lowest point and flowing to the harbor, where it forks its path before the open mouth of theBridgeportferry. The side streets flow intoMainlike estuaries, and it is on one of those side streets where I grew up. Just a few steps from downtown, just high enough on the hill to see the harbor water mixing with the Sound, the house was set perfectly for someone who wished to explore by foot.
Like anyone who has spent a great deal of time in one place, the lay of the land became imprinted deep inside me. From year to year, the landscape of the town, from rusty fire hydrant to cracked slabs of cement, became richer in specifics. Street names acted as talismans, a gentle reminder of how far I was from home. There were the dead ends along the hills overlooking the harbor, the widow walks lost amongst the trees. There was the basketball court, just a stone’s throw from Village Hall, right past the creek that could be leapt across at low tide. Put upon the grid of the town is memory: conversations on benches, practical jokes played at work, a meal in the backyard with family. So attached to place, it is only natural that a walk through Port Jefferson as an adult brings these memories to the forefront. Diminutive and grand, they fight for space with each step, overlapping, erasing, blurring, aggrandizing and belittling each recollection until everything becomes a walking kaleidoscope of back, middle and foreground.
PortJeffersonbecame a palimpsest, memory upon memory overlaid and crisscrossed, the same pages written over again and again to where memories both big and small fight for my attention. As I walk the same streets today, I wonder how something so inconsequential could jump to the forefront, and how another thing so important could be practically forgotten. How is it that the weight of memory changes? How can a leaf falling off a tree in a friend’s backyard eclipse seeing a man crash a motorcycle along High Street? These recollections shift not by reason but by whimsy.
When a child, my family every-so-often decided to head “out east.” Definitively a nebulous term, I always had a great love for its meaning. It didn’t denote a destination. Rather, it was simply a direction we chose to take, the stopping point of the trip never decided upon until reached. I think if my parents ever suggested a set place to go, I wouldn’t have been so keen for the drive out there. The destination would limit what we could see and where we could go. As in my youthful walks in Port Jefferson, I’d rather let the road, and chance, dictate where I went. I preferred “out east” for its lack of limits; to use the term meant that the possibilities were endless.
As an adult, going east with my parents still allows for escape. Away from Manhattan, my present, and further away from Port Jefferson, my past, the open spaces out east afford me a respite. Though, of course, on the drive out a memory or two is still ingrained upon me. The first isDavis’ Peach Farm, which once stood on the southern side of Route 25A. I still remember the neat rows of trees along the side of the road. A faded white sign was propped up on the roof of the building past the trees, the ‘Open’ flag waving from a pole dwarfed by a street. In my mind, we pass it and I can see each row, each individual tree, but as I turn my head to look back and read the sign, the past is erased by the present: the farm was replaced long ago by tract housing. All signs of the farm have been written over. Memory and reality do battle, and I wonder how much longer the past stays with me before being waylaid by the present. Might the memory of the trees all in a row be one day usurped by the image of duplicate houses aligned in almost the same manner? Or will I always see double when we pass this stretch of road?