I grew up on Long Island.
That never seemed particularly formative, probably because I didn’t have any worthwhile frame of reference with which to examine it. But the older I get, the more I believe growing up on Long Island shaped who I am in ways I never even fathomed. What are most interesting to me aren’t the specifics of my LI childhood, but rather the similarities that it seems to share with so many American suburban upbringings. Growing up on Long Island was remarkably unique, and yet the overlap between that particular experience and the suburban experience in general can be, well, remarkable.
Let’s start with those specifics, beginning with some LI etymology – I began by saying I grew up “on Long Island,” because you can never get inside. There is no “in” Long Island; you can try to find a hidden door but you’ll never get there. I’m fairly certain you can vacation in Puerto Rico, and go swimming in the Bahamas, but my childhood wasn’t “in” anywhere, it took place on top. Going one step further, I could most likely leave out the word “long” altogether and just say that I grew up “on the Island” because you see, there’s only one island in most contexts. The first context implies that “the Island” is the center of the Universe, the mecca where bagels and cannoli intersect, that holy land of diners and TCBY. The second, and perhaps even more important context is that it’s “the Island” because its owner, the center of the universe, doesn’t own more than one…that owner being New York City.
I think most suburbs somewhat loom in the shadow of their parent city, and while my friends and I didn’t go to “the City” (there we go again) very often, I think we were always subconsciously aware of it. How could we not be? Forty-five minutes away by train was the motherland: the headquarters of every company we’d ever heard of, the United Nations that we were learning about in school, the setting of every superhero movie we watched, BROADWAY for crying out loud – and yet that forty-five minute ride was a world away. That dichotomy can be so striking for many people who grow up outside of New York and then visit or move there. There’s an idealized vision of NYC from media, movies, etc. – one of skyscrapers and nightlife and taxis – until you arrive, get to know the place for yourself, and see it through your own lens.
Coming of age in a suburb of New York is slightly different. On one hand, my relationship to the city felt very distant. After all, I didn’t spend much time there, and the limited trips that school groups or my parents would take me on were themselves pseudo-tourist trips: a show, a quick meal, back to the car. And yet, it felt too close for real abstraction; my sheer daily proximity to both the place and idea of New York somehow gave me and my friends a sense of ownership. When we left the metro area, we were “NEW YORKERS” – state, city, didn’t matter. New York was the name of the place I was from. Family friends who always wanted to see the Statue of Liberty? Psh, done that years ago. Always dreamt of seeing a Broadway show? Ha! I’d seen four by age eight! Growing up in a suburb of New York was like claiming to be “good friends” with that person you met at that party a couple of times – I mean I guess they would recognize me the next time that I saw them, but I’m not sure they’d remember my name.
Then there’s the geography, which in some ways impacted my brain more than anything. Long Island is, well, duh, an island; we’ve got water on all four sides, baby, and that means there’s no “natural” way out – or off I should say, because we all live on top, remember? Sure, you could take the Midtown Tunnel to Manhattan, or the Frogs Neck Bridge (as I called it) to the Bronx, and if you’re feeling like a real island dweller you could take the ferry to Connecticut, but you need a bridge or a tunnel or a boat to get to the mainland, and I think I was always very subconsciously aware of that. Besides the ferry (which I think I took once my entire childhood), you had to go through New York City to get anywhere else in America. When I was learning to drive on the highway for the first time, I remember something clicking in me that I couldn’t really get lost because if I drove in one direction long enough, I would hit water! North/South would be really clear, and I could drive from one side of the island to the other in less than an hour. East/West would take longer, but it held true: I could never accidentally find myself far from home.
The interesting exception to this rule was Brooklyn and Queens – those strange, elusive neighbors. There is a barely perceptible moment driving on the expressway when Nassau gives way to Queens, when the ‘burbs subtly shift to concrete. Of course, a carefully placed sign alerts you to the transition, but the real shift is much quieter. In a manner of speaking, I could drive off the island without knowing it and find myself in a foreign land – a completely different world, yet sharing our island. I fully understand that Kings and Queens aren’t considered part of Long Island as a cultural entity, and they couldn’t be more different, yet even to this day living in Brooklyn, I always feel like I have one foot “on the island” when I am in my apartment.
[I will pause for a quick note about the Hamptons: That too felt like a world away, but one that was so far out that it wasn’t even on my radar as a teenager. I was aware that it was a thing, I was aware that famous people went there, and beyond that I forgot they had anything to do with where I was.]
Empty Lot on Long Island
As a Long Island kid, I inherited a culture. I played piano and wanted to be a songwriter. So of course, to my fellow Islanders, I wanted to be Billy Joel. Billy Joel was ours. I guarantee that if you talk to any local and even casually mention Billy Joel, you will get a story of a friend whose mother’s friend’s sister knows a guy who lived next door to Billy Joel. New York has a lease on him, Long Islanders own him. Fitting then, that Billy so often was associated with our major shared architectural institution: Nassau Coliseum, or following our native nomenclature, simply “The Colosseum” (Rome’s got nothin’ on us). It always felt like The Colosseum was where America at large would come to greet us, not the city, but us. There’s only one arena of that size on Long Island, and because of that, I feel like the institution is our most communal. Like any culture, there are known divisions among us, most notably the great North Shore, South Shore rift. As a North Shore kid, the distant land of the South Shore with its nicer beaches and more fun nightlife and boardwalks felt different and exciting. And despite what they may claim, we certainly have better bagels – but at the end of the day, we are one Island, divided only by the LIE.
But the secret is, I didn’t like growing up on Long Island.
I loved it.
I loved: hanging out at the Walt Whitman Mall on a Friday night, not to shop, but to buy Auntie Anne’s pretzels, see everyone from school, and dick around in the Apple store, knowing every cashier at the Farmingdale Multiplex, my public school friends and teachers, the Cheesecake Factory, the network of Long Island community theatre kids, bike riding between my house and my friends houses as a kid, cruising back and forth, back and forth on The Parkway going from house to strip mall to someone else’s house as a teenager, having my first kiss in an SUV, the rotunda on Ocean Parkway when you’re driving to Jones Beach in the summer, getting frozen yogurt at night, the random town fairs from the Oyster Bay Oyster Festival to the Huntington Tulip Festival (where I could get a fried Oreo and go on a Ferris wheel that felt like it might collapse at any minute). I loved: going to Bagel Boss at 3 AM, Ralph’s Italian Ices, my summer camps, being so bored with my friends on the weekend that we would just go from house to house trying to entertain ourselves, knowing I was so close to the City.
When it was all said and done, I loved feeling a little trapped – a little close and a little far away from it all, the age old suburban condition.
Not everyone shared those feelings. I knew many a friend and classmate who couldn’t stand where we were, who were filled with sheer angst and counted down the days when they could do a prison break from the Island and never look back. Eventually high school was over, I left and went to college in the City, and I felt myself split in two: my “city me”, and my “island me.” Two Rolodexes of friends and acquaintances, two home bases, two separate existences. And as I met more people from different suburbs around the county, I began to realize that, yes, there were so many wonderful specifics about my Long Island upbringing, all the ones I’ve mentioned here. But there were also so many aspects of it that fell into the larger suburban experience: the endless strip malls, the highways to get around, the Starbucks and TJ Maxx and small businesses giving way to chains. The houses separated by fences and the boredom and the weird freedom that comes from it. Long Island was unique, but the suburban condition belongs to America.
I still visit Long Island fairly often; my parents are still there and a good chunk of my best friends are too. Many have taken the plunge across the East River to the City, others have gone further. But I increasingly feel that growing up Long Island made me feel like “Following my dreams” wasn’t an abstract idea, but a tangible one. My dreams all took place on the other side of that river…and even though I now spend most of my time off the Island, all it takes is a tunnel and a highway to get back on home.
Food Counter on Long Island