I grew up on Long Island, New York. A place that’s seen as some kind of joke, now that we have things like Jersey Shore and the Long Island Medium. And yes, it was like that in many ways. There was the constant obsession with appearance. People spoke with the loud crassness that is always trying to hide insecurity. We are stuck between the beach and the city, with the idle boredness that seeps into everything in the in-between places. It’s a small place and a strange place. People keep who they really are close to chest, because for all of it's liberal bravado, Long Island is a place where being different is the only crime. There is a very specific conformity required and an unwillingness to understand. An island of islands.
But Long Island is also beautiful. It’s where I’m from, and no matter what this says about me, I have always loved it, as much as I have loved to disparage it. We do that to things we have loved for so long that we know they can't leave us. Love makes you careless that way and I grew up there, at least physically. It is where my teenage memories live, and all of the beauty and the pain that those bring.
You see, to me, Long Island was cheap booze out of the bottle at the top of a lifeguard stand and sharing my last cigarette with a boy, self-consciously trying to look like James Dean. It is the song she wrote on a napkin, two months before she broke my heart. And, it was the ocean crashing through everything, so steady it makes you want to scream and surrender and just break apart. It was the drum beat from the VFW down the street and driving down the highway at 95 mph, just to feel alive. It was sand in your shoes and ink in your skin and every damn feeling you never thought anyone else could feel. Long Island is everything that no one ever sees, you have to look at it closely.
But none of this was particularly important to me then. It was a part of me before I knew it and no one ever thinks of those things. It is only later, when we start to decide who we want to be that we think about the parts of us we cannot change.
I fell in love there. And I fell in love with booze there. With the romance of both and the way that they intertwined with what I thought they said about me. The way that they both exposed and hid me away all at once. I learned very early that you can cover yourself in the wants of other people, and no one will even notice when you aren't there any more.
I learned about the ocean there. Growing up by the beach, you take that water for granted. Your childhood is a mess of sand-grained sandwiches and salt-dried hair. You forget about the specialness. But still, I always came back to it when I was sad or alone and that rolling vastness seemed like it came from inside me. Walking through the surf in the fall, when the cold started to bite reminded me what being in my body felt like. That smell is in every poem I ever scribbled on a boardwalk bench. That wind has held me when the pain made me scream.
Long Island is also a lesson in stubborn resilience. No matter how many times the ocean and the snow and the storms threatened to swallow it whole, it has managed to claw its' way back out of a dark ocean. Tarnished maybe, but stronger, always. Long Island is a place where your neighbor will gossip about you in the grocery line, but give you their last dollar, all in one day. It is a place full of people who know what starting over means. After Hurricane Sandy, I saw people pile the soggy remains of a life, their life, out on the curb, then head to a friend's house to help them do the same. And there is a beauty to a people willing to start building a new life from the ashes. A people who know that when everything falls away, a community of strangers will be there to catch them. In times of tragedy, all of the artifice falls away. On that tiny island, you could always count on humanity.
When you get a little older, and people start to be fooled into thinking you're an adult, you're supposed to pretend that you aren't phased by things. That you are self-possessed enough to not be precious or defensive about things you love. But I unapologetically love that island, with it's Italian ices and its' highways to nowhere. The resigned fierceness of its' people and all of its' countless faults. I love it's pothole-ridden roads, and even the old trains you sometimes must ride in the dark. I love the harshness and the vulnerable softness that the harshness tries to hide. All of the ways that it made me, and all of the ways that it broke me. All of it.