Wind-Swept Sands

Written By: Anthony  DeFeo

I awoke one morning to a resounding rumble somewhere in the distance, somewhere down.

At first, it sounded familiar – a roiling wave pounding the shore along Dune Road. But when I got out of bed and walked to the window, I found myself looking in the direction of the sound – down – at a street twenty stories below. My hand against the pane, it came again:


I felt it resonate in the glass that ran from my toes to the ceiling. The origin of this roaring ruckus was the wind, sweeping across the Great Plains and into the heart of Chicago.

It was there I found myself staying for my first year of undergraduate school, far further from my hometown of East Moriches, Long Island than I had ever imagined I’d be. On a whim, I researched the exact distance between my apartment’s address and New York City; it came to be seven hundred seventy-seven miles. Perhaps by coincidence, that happened to be my building’s number: 777 South State Street.

I’m not one to put much stock in coincidences, and soon I came to suspect that the White City was actively reminding me of the distance between myself and my island. Some of its methods were obvious to the point of insult, while others remained more subtle.

For example, my day always felt like it began only as I left my apartment, yet the definition of “going outside” seemed to have altered. Instead of being greeted by a narrow, maple-lined road in the warmth of a morning sun, a dull grey canyon whose shadow wilted the potted shrubs that lined its base stretched out before me.

They aren’t always the most cheerful sight, but the few surviving trees serve to remind me of the wilder portions of my island home. How the endless rows of shop windows and revolving doors look so different from the bounteous and vibrant pines rising from our sandy soil.

Of course, without the trees, the air quality does require a somewhat more acquired palette. Even when rush hour traffic on the LIE halts one’s travel, there’s always an opportunity somewhere along to step outside and breathe in, catching the faint scent of ocean salt drifting in off the Atlantic. If you wait but a moment, it wafts around you in a happy, ingratiating cloud.

However, the only odor that greets me at street level is that of the garbage truck pulling out of the alley next door. While the vehicle itself wasn’t there every morning, it’s putrid aroma certainly was. Trying desperately to ignore it, I’d sometimes forget to swallow; the abrupt change in altitude that occurs in the elevator down always made my ears pop. Usually, I’d notice I’d forgotten by the relative lack of customary noise on the street.

Speaking of which, the wall of sound that follows knocks you off your feet almost in the same manner that the wind does. It’s the train rocketing by overhead, the car horns at every intersection, the construction on every street. Buildings rise and fall with the sun, it seems; one can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed.

As the ailing yet steadfast trees proved, there is a bright side: you learn to appreciate the little things about where you’re from. You miss the quaint, elegant streets of Westhampton Beach, where you can take in a movie at the duplex and get ice cream after. You long for the reeds that line the road to the Coast Guard station where you put in a kayak and paddle around Tuthill Point.

But it’s hard to imagine driving down Montauk Highway with Shinnecock Bay in view when you’re riding the subway through the meat-packing district.

The water is, above all else, the most drastic difference. Chicago has been graced with many nicknames, one of which is “The Third Coast.” Now, Lake Michigan may be “great,” but it pales in comparison to the Atlantic. To even draw such a parallel seems disrespectful.

It’s not the size of the lake, per se; it’s what happens when you get there. You walk down to the shore and take a seat on a bench under a crabapple tree. It’s lovely, for certain, but something is still missing.

Then you see it: the lake is still. It’s completely unmoving, not a ripple in the water for miles. You may not be able to spy land on the opposite side, but Chicago’s “Third Coast” is little more than the edge of a puddle. That is, until the wind picks up.

It comes from the lake on the east side, the plains on the west, and if you ask me, it’s far worse by the water. You’ll be watching the placidly stagnant lake and all of a sudden a coffee cup will fly past you at head height. You abruptly discover your hood’s wrapped around your throat and your umbrella completely reversed, if it remains in your hand at all.

By this time, most folks have had quite enough of the lake, myself among them, so I’ll head north to the Art Institute. Here one can find refuge from the noise and the dust that refuses to settle; it is a place of study and quiet contemplation that is all but prohibited on the street. Though I was too frequent a guest to keep count, one time in particular stands out most prominently in my memory:

I was wandering about on my own, as I often did, when I came to the American Impressionism gallery. As I walked in, I turned to my left and immediately saw a humble painting of sand dunes on the opposite side of the room.

Rushing over, I stopped to admire the artist’s work. Somehow, on a roughly four-by-four-foot stretch of canvas, he had recreated a scene from my home: the low-growing brush and reeds capping the dunes, the miniature cliffs carved out of the sand from the ebb and flow of the tide, the scattered scraps of detritus on the shore…

But what really caught my eye was the overcast sky. The grey blanket of cloud undulated and rippled, snatches of light peeking through here and there. On the distant horizon a patch of blue appeared where the sun had successfully broken through the ceiling of vapor.

I was in awe: I was looking through a window at what very well could have been my beloved Long Island shore. My heart ached as I stood there, silent, for as long as I could.

Eventually, I turned to the placard beside the painting and read the title: Wind-Swept Sands by William Merritt Chase. It was rather fitting; I read on. Chase was a prominent American Impressionist, creating what some consider the greatest landscapes of his genre while teaching at –

  The Shinnecock School.

I stepped back, dumbfounded, everything suddenly becoming clear. Of course this was a scene from Long Island – I don’t believe any other locale could have drawn me in so. I had never encountered a landscape that so deeply moved me before; that is, other than those back home. How could it have been anywhere else?

Unfortunately, the Art Institute can save you for only so long. I returned many times after that one fateful day, often going straight to Wind-Swept Sands and remaining there. I’d stand entranced by the rolling dunes and the gentle grey clouds that floated overhead. I followed their drifting migrations into daydreams of thunderstorms out over the inlet, lightning dancing across the Atlantic horizon.

But at some point, you have to wake up.

So you walk back to your apartment, the wind pushing you along, and you ask yourself how long it will be until you’re home again. How long until the breeze licks at your hair and carries with it the notes of live music at the bakery? How long until you drive down to the jetty and watch the sun set over Moriches Bay? How long until the fireflies flicker on the lawn in front of the church as bursts of color bloom behind the steeple on the Fourth of July?

As I rode the elevator up again, I reached the twelfth floor and swallowed hard. It wasn’t just to make my ears pop.

I finally laid down in bed, tired from a long day fighting the city and every bone in my body that told me to just get on a plane and get out. As I drifted off to sleep, the wind thundered up to my window again, taunting and persistent even into my slumber. If I don’t think about it, each roar is another wave, riding in off the distant ocean…

I’m home.