Through travel, I found that when people thought “Long Island”, the pictures they envisioned didn’t look like the place that I called home. “Do you have pigeons in your yard?” I was asked, more than once. I bet to this day an informal poll would reveal that a majority of Americans think that pigeons are Long Island’s only, and most prized bird. At first perplexed, I realized many people only live what they see and many people, having never seen Long Island, thought of it as small and city-like. But the area I grew up in was far from city-like.
The neighborhood I grew up in was lined with trees and telephone poles. Wooded areas were scattered between lots. Hidden places: a wood with weeping willows and a rusted-out hot rod (I had to inquire with my mother the meaning of “hot rod”, which she responded to only after asking “Why?”). I never concluded how the “hot rod” came to be in the middle of that wood, but the fact of its hotness was announced after my friend poked around the ignition area, assessing wires. The acre-shy plot of trees beside our home I saw as a veritable Narnia, as Middle Earth.
Back then, I didn’t yet realize that every species of tree had already been classified, field-guided. To me, when I took the time to put a name to a plant or tree or bug--I was the first: my seeing it allowed it to be. Katherine spies a “buttercup”…and so, let there be buttercups. Living on the water, we’d take a rowboat out to “Treasure Island”, which was just our neighbor’s yard, abutting the creek and thick with brush, it’s main “treasure” being deer ticks and a rash, maybe a spotting of Tom Sawyer.
It was safe where I grew up, and knowing nothing else, I assumed everywhere was safe. I thought everyone left the doors unlocked--why not? People stopped two blocks from home to buy a cup of lemonade, often leaving a tip, usually not even thirsty. I had an implicit trust in adults, particularly those who wore uniforms. I gauged the importance of adults by their uniforms--I figured postal workers must rank close to King. Yet as smart as adults seemed to know themselves to be, I was confused by their pain and drama, which they seemed to invent out thin air, unnecessarily.
“Play-dates” were never made with phones, pens and calendars or Blackberries but with bikes dropped in front yards beside banged-on doors, with shouts at second-floors: “You finish your homework yet?” In my tiny town things hummed along, like the occasional tractor on the road tying up traffic. The noises you heard were from nature, neighborhood kids, or the occasional loud car. In the summertime the sound of crickets chirping the night away was my constant torture “creak, creak, creak” 10:15, turning over.…“creak, creak, creak” 11, let me count to ten and back again…..“creak, creak, creak”, pillow over the head, desperate at midnight. “creak, creak, creak”, nonstop. Crickets were my only enemy back then.
When you took a walk people smiled and said “Hello“, or stopped to say they liked haircut or your new bike rack, or “My, how you‘ve grown” or “How‘s your mother?” There weren‘t yet cell phones to distract a simple evening stroll, so people did still stroll and they soaked it all in.
There were mainly families in my hood, all single-family homes and none of them yet McMansions. One of our neighbors owned the best ice cream shop in town, which made him like a celebrity in my book and I considered myself lucky. There was a marina, which if you crossed through it, made the trip to the beach quicker, and added a hint of mischief--this area, probably five acres, seemed at the time to be in another State entirely, and I was always unsure the navigation aspects (some things never change).
The road I lived on was paved smooth, perfect for bike rides. And the road was a big circle, which was somehow far superior to go round and round, versus up and down. The road lacked sidewalks, but there was no need--cars could wind around. There was the “Flashlight Nazi“ who would walk his dog like clockwork every night, his path blazed by the world’s biggest flashlight. So he was sure you saw him, he would shine that monster beam directly at your car. Once, I stopped to point out to him that blinding people while they were driving might not cause the best outcome. He persisted.
Everyone knew everyone’s name, and as I got older I realized that some people could even double as PI’s pointlessly chronicling their neighbors’ lives: when they left home, with whom, and “What do you think about that?”: a suburban sport more popular than mahjong