I’m researching two potential writing projects at the moment, one of which would be set in the Long Island town where my mother grew up. In order to view the research archive concerning this town, it was necessary for me to travel to the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra University. Which is why I traveled there this past Thursday, three days after it played host to the raucous first presidential debate of 2016 – and close to a year since I thought I’d left Long Island for good.
I have deeply ambivalent feelings towards the place where I grew up. My family is from there, of course, as are friends and plenty of decent people, so I can’t condemn the place outright. It nevertheless never felt like a decent place while I was growing up there in the 70s and 80s. It seemed vulgar, ugly, and obnoxious, a world where I never felt at place. My feelings were confirmed when I left home for college and graduate school in the late 80s and early 90s – the height of the Buttafuoco saga, and a time when every big-haired, loud-mouthed caricature of Long Islanders seemed freshest in the public mind. I couldn’t tell people where I was from without them looking askance at me, and why not? Hofstra’s impressive library and our lovely beaches aside, it was clearly a terrible place, and the rest of America seemed happy to let me know it, and I spent much of my young life looking around me wishing I were someplace better than this.
With changing demographics and the steady progress of time, though, the Long Island of the popular imagination is gradually ceasing to exist. While I was out there this past week, it struck me as remarkable how quiet the place was. No rudeness, no Lawn Guyland squawking, none of the loud vulgarity with which I’d always associated the place. Granted, I was reverse-commuting early in the morning and spent most of the day in a library basement room reading microfilm, so that’s not the best sample size. Nevertheless, the place where I grew up is changing, and to my mind, indisputably for the better.
But a curious thing has been happening over the past few years; since the debut of Fox News in 1996, ultimately, but intensifying with the election of President Obama in 2008. Even as Long Island itself has become a more muted, tolerant place, its most unpleasant stereotypes have been embraced as no-nonsense truth telling by the rest of the country. Bill O’Reilly (pride of Levittown) and Sean Hannity (hometown Franklin Square) have positioned themselves, if not as the voice of America, then as the voice of a significant fraction of it. And if we extend Long Island’s cultural borders past its usual definition of Nassau and Suffolk County, into such Queens enclaves as Jamaica Estates (there’s not that much difference, really), you find the birthplace of the political candidate they’ve sought to champion this year, whose blustery style and xenophobic approach reeks of that world where I grew up. And the very people who used to recoil from this sort of behavior, who let me know in a thousand subtle ways that it was beneath the dignity of this nation, have now embraced it and claimed it to be the nation’s only hope.
Well, this border area between eastern Queens and western Nassau is where I grew up. I was educated in its schools, played on its playgrounds, learned to drive on its roads. I’ve listened to the opinions of its voluble loudmouths on more LIRR train rides than I care to remember. I know it cold. So please, America, believe me when I say:
You had it right the first time.
Again, there are good people to be found there, and things are changing all the time, but at its heart, Long Island is an awful, awful place. And it’s not awful because of problems like its many cancer clusters or its high tax rate (though those aren’t fun), and it’s not awful because of cosmetic details like our notorious accents (you folks talk funny yourselves, each in your own way). No, the awfulness has deeper roots than that, by far:
One – white flight. At heart, this is the whole reason the place exists – people who viewed New York City as so irredeemably awful that it was better to flee from it, and set up enclaves to protect against its encroachments. And viewing the city as that awful, let’s face it, has nothing to do with poor subway service or high prices at the bodegas – it’s about who your neighbors are. It’s been like that even before the post World War II-housing boom, as the 20s and 30s era articles I was reading can attest. And the problem isn’t so much that this is Long Island’s past, but that its residents can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that this is the past. (Sound familiar?) You can’t move forward if you refuse to admit where it is you’ve been.
Two – as the cost of my round-trip train ticket can attest, it’s hard for Long Islanders to access the culture and resources of New York City. It’s there, dominating our culture, providing our incomes, but unless we work there and commute on a daily basis we really don’t have the means to access it. A fantasy of power and success that we claim as our geographic birthright, without properly understanding it. The warped perception that tends to take root in my people leads us to believe that all you need to enjoy the fruits of the city, to achieve whatever your dreams of wealth and accomplishment may be, is to have an ego large enough to claim it. To be more blustery, more obnoxious, than the next person.
Finally – because the amount of land on that island is finite, because there’s such a tribal mentality in these enclaves designed to keep the rest of the world at bay, it’s easy to develop a zero-sum mentality to life. That somebody else’s success can only come at your expense. That efforts to improve conditions somewhere else are an elaborate scheme to steal from you, and nothing more. Granted, the taxes are extremely high and it can be hard to make ends meet even with a good salary – but there’s more than that going on if you truly believe that the people around you, other than your own friends and family and “tribe,” are potential adversaries and nothing more.
People can’t live like this. Not well, anyway. And not with anything resembling dignity.
I couldn’t live in a place like that growing up. I don’t want to live in a place like that now. I want to see that mindset gradually fade away, not spread across the nation. So please, America, if you’re reading this, please consider these things, from someone who knows.
Life is not a zero sum game.
It takes more than bluster and hostility to live it well.
The people around you are not automatically your enemies just because they’re different from you.
Their efforts to safeguard their lives and dignity are not an attack upon you.
Come on, guys. You’re America. The country that beat the Nazis, that gave us Tennessee Williams and Aaron Copland and Steven Spielberg, that invented wi-fi and post-it notes. The shining city on the hill.
You. Are. Better. Than. This.