There were North Fork girls, and there were Hamptons girls. I’ve always been a North Fork girl.
Perhaps I just like to be contrary. Maybe I simply like quieter pursuits. In any case, when all my friends were Hamptons-bound, I found myself heading east on Route 25A. It’s called Northern Boulevard as it runs through Queens. And run it does, just as everything and everyone within the borders of New York City is in constant motion. Then and now, the sidewalks are packed with streams of people plowing their way in all seasons, heads down, in a rush and frowning. I had learned to drive on Northern Boulevard with its unending gauntlet of people, busses, cars and sanitation trucks.
There were brief glimpses of green as I drove east. I recall an ancient tree in Douglaston that spread its boughs across Northern Boulevard before the street was widened. There was the rolling green of the Munsey Park school playground, far from the eight-laned street I knew in Rego Park. My blood would begin to thrum as I crossed the Roslyn Viaduct. With the glint of Long Island Sound on my left I felt almost weightless, flying over the gorge like a bird. Each mile took me further from red brick apartment houses with water towers and television aerials, through suburbia, past the Gold Coast estates, until finally the road catapulted me into open space.
At Wading River the road forks. I always took the left fork. Sound Avenue. It doesn’t look like much at this point. Just a two-lane blacktop road with a forgettable gas station and what passes for an industrial lot at its mouth. The lot is stacked with what looks like weathered telephone poles. I am grateful that they’re rather unattractive. They were my private sentries and they jealously guarded my secrets.
I drove with my windows open, soundlessly. No music, not even for a teenager with a full tank of gas and an 8-track player. Freedom wasn’t about finding out how high I could crank up the volume. No, freedom was the flat velvet of sod farms, the distant hiss of block-long irrigation pipes, the huge embracing sky full of summer clouds. I even loved the sharp smell of ripening cabbage. It strikes me as ridiculous to like that. But it wasn’t the stovetop smell of smashed-together cabbages and onions that permeated the apartment hallways in Queens. This was a smell of waking earth and growing things, and I loved it. The further east I drove, the better I felt.
The sight of Briermere Farms would be another grin-maker. Back then, Sound Avenue had fewer farmstands, but the smell the fresh baked pies and fragrant bread never failed to flag me down. I could always afford a bag of Hermit cookies, and the chewy nut-filled goodness would keep me smiling all the way to Greenport.
Once upon a time, Greenport was a sleepy village of fishing boats and marine shops. Of course, there was Claudio’s. And the Rhumb Line. And a little snack bar run by a retired cop who grilled his hot dogs in butter. I would drive to Greenport on a whim just for the feel of Sound Avenue and that hot dog. Then I would mosey over to the Shelter Island Ferry dock just to watch the small boats go in and out. Sometimes I would take my bicycle across to Shelter Island just so I could ride on a country road and have a beach picnic without risking being hit in traffic. By the time I headed back to Queens it would be late at night. It was a young, city girl’s vacation – my mini-version of a two week Mediterranean cruise. For the price of a tank of gas and a ferry ticket I would come back to the city relaxed and tanned.
Today, more and more of the land once dedicated to potato and cabbage farming is being turned over to grapes. When the Hargraves planted their first vines in Cutchogue over forty years ago, I celebrated that open land could remain open land. There is something magical about the way dirt, sweat and willpower can produce such abundance. Lest we forget, they can also provide an oasis of calm in a New York life filled with deadlines and crowds.
As more vineyards were planted, I was grateful that the North Fork was spared from suburban sprawl. What worries me now is sprawl of a different sort as agri-tourism encourages city people to bring the city out with them. I was an outlander once too, and it doesn’t have to be like that. There is room on the North Fork for vineyards and farms and city people if we make intelligent decisions.
Every so often, I dream of Sound Avenue. There is something about that road that takes me out of my Now. It’s not just the farms and the old Victorian houses that watch over the fields. And it’s not as if it takes me to the past, even my own past. Sound Avenue is my own personal time machine, where time slows down as I traverse its length and breadth. I notice things. I can still see the red barn, half collapsed like an arthritic man leaning against a copse of trees. The small bucket of cut flowers at the edge of a driveway, or the way a sheer white curtain waves in an open window – these are touchstone images for me.
City people practice yoga, or meditate, or jog to find that inner stillness that vibrates so fast that time stops. Sound Avenue does that for me.