A few years ago, on a wet Christmas Eve day, I ran into someone from one of my former lives. I was leaving Pier 1 Imports of all places, with a jute rug over my shoulder, and he called out my name. We talked for awhile that day, and a few weeks later I had him over for tea. He brought cookies. It was very quaint. We reminisced for about an hour and toward the end, in the midst of a conversation about where we were and hoped to be, he said mockingly about a few people he’d known, “… like the sort of people who live in lofts in Brooklyn, and smoke out the window with a fan.” I tried to conceal my reaction to his statement. He had so very disparagingly described a scenario I myself would enjoy, and in fact, longed for.
At the time, I lived in a town called Long Beach. My boyfriend and I rented a small remodeled bungalow sandwiched between other small bungalows, on a somewhat dilapidated street, in an overcrowded town filled with remodeled bungalows all smushed together. Long Beach is a narrow barrier island off the south shore of Long Island. It’s on the east side of the more famous Coney Island, and to the west of the string of barrier islands New Yorkers flock to in summer, Fire Island. Unless you have a cousin who once lived there, you haven’t heard of it. I lived in a house almost equidistant — about eleven houses — between the bay and the ocean.
I worked in the city the whole time I lived there. Each morning my routine was quiet chaos — a taxi to the commuter rail station (preceded by a fist-clenching wait for the taxi, and a teeth-grinding ride to the station wishing, hoping, willing the driver to go more quickly to catch the final morning train); followed by an hour-long train ride into the city (no doubt in the vicinity of a whiner on a cell phone); a subway down to 18th street, and a block or so walk around the corner to my office. Each evening, I did the same in reverse. I saw the same faces on the train each morning and evening. I’d ask, “How long have you been doing this commute?” Their answers terrified me. Nine years. Fourteen years. Twenty-two years. They all said the same horrible thing. “You get used to it.”
I didn’t want to get used to it. I didn’t want to become a gray-faced zombie, blind and deaf for an hour and forty-five minutes each way. I didn’t want to ever slip into that tunnel-vision place, burrowing my trail through the masses in Penn Station without seeing or hearing anyone. When the proper track was revealed on the big board, the throngs turned to run, like a school of motley fish evacuating a deadly chamber. They knocked one another over, elbowed, jumped in front of. Umbrellas were jabbed into ribcages, and seats were slipped into in a hurry — claimed greedily like lost property. I never wanted to get used to these things.
In the more peaceful mornings, the train started off very slowly each day. It tiptoed, it seemed, over the rickety bridge that crossed the bay onto the mainland. From that bridge, on most days, I could see a tiny silhouetted version of Manhattan far in the distance beyond bay and wetlands, about as big as the tip of my thumb. As the train reached the end of the bridge, it would accelerate. I’d be thrust backward in my seat, and we’d rush through the marshlands of tall grasses that lined the tracks; through suburbs where modest homes had postage stamp yards abutting the tracks; through increasingly urban vistas; and eventually through a tunnel into Manhattan. That inching out of Long Beach station, and the crawl over the bridge at the start of the ride always felt like an entr’acte to my day. A pause to say goodbye to home, and anticipate work; a little foreshadowing of the day to come.
Winter mornings were bad. Winter evenings were worse. Pitch dark when I left my office, it felt like midnight by the time I disembarked into the salty air for my taxi ride home. I’d try to stare out the train window, but with the darkness outside, I mostly stared back at my own reflection. When I finally walked into the house each night, I was too tired to make a real dinner; too depleted to do anything remotely enriching. The commute, I believe, was mostly to blame for the way I turned the town into a caricature of itself. Anything distasteful about the place – and those things were many – grew so large that the island caved in on itself in my mind.
Had I not been too worn out at the end of each day to want to do something lovely, it would have had to be something of my own creation. Long Beach is devoid of what people call “culture”. The closest book store was a twenty minute drive, and then it was just Barnes & Noble. Even the library was oddly short on books — lots of half-empty shelves. I once attended a “classic film” evening there, thinking I might meet some like-minded folks. I was the youngest participant by about fifty years….
Without an arts cinema, a privately owned bookstore, or a coffee shop with comfy seating where one could read and lounge about, I didn’t know how to go about meeting people I might be interested in. When I left my house, I didn’t relate to people I saw in the street or spoke to in the store. I looked. I was wide open, looking way past stereotype and manner to try to find people I could be friends with. I talked to people on the train, and people who I’d seen once or twice. I started a writer’s group, which met once and then pitifully disbanded. I once met a guy who worked at a Long Island environmental protection company. He was witty and interesting, and we definitely shared a point of view. He hated Long Beach as much as I did, which was disappointing. I’d wished he could have shown me what to love about it. He turned out to be a recluse who didn’t care to socialize much. (My boyfriend said he wanted to sleep with me, and after he realized that likely wouldn’t happen he dropped out of touch. I’m not sure I concur with the assessment.) After awhile I stopped looking, and found solace in solitude.
Weekends in Long Beach were disastrous. A Jersey Shore alternative for Long Island guidos, the streets were filled with spiked-hair boys in wife beater undershirts and too tan girls with lousy highlights. The majority were young and drank too much, and late at night there was lots of stumbling. Occasional vomiting. Frequent, but brief, brawls. Every bar and restaurant had a television. Some had fourteen of them, stapled to walls and ceilings, each on a different channel. The bars played their music too loudly, making conversation difficult if not impossible, which was just as well because there wasn’t anyone I wanted to talk to anyway.
Long Beach had the beach, and all the overarching beach-themes to go with it: Beach Liquor, Surf & Sand Drugstore, A Whale’s Tale Restaurant & Pub, Swingbelly’s Beachside BBQ. Some restaurants tried for an elegant decor, but ended up looking like they came from a kit — stiff and unnatural. Most of the places were adorned with surfboards, and grass skirts, and poorly rendered sea themed murals. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the vibe matched the motif, but the average Long Beacher (or Long Beach visitor) was crass, rude, too fucking loud and in a hurry.
There was the actual beach, but even that was overrun by assholes with competing radios, and the sand was studded with cigarette butts. The water was too warm from nearby pollutants, and so in peak season was filled with stinging jellyfish. There were only a few days a season, really, when beach and water could be fully enjoyed.
Before we moved there, prior or current residents of the town said over and over things like, “You’ll love it here!” so enthusiastically I actually believed them. I’d like to go back in time to shout, “You don’t know me, bitch!” and sock them square in their stupid faces
You get it. I didn’t love it.
When we first moved in, for weeks I said things aloud like, “I live here,” or, “This is my house” in an attempt to knock the reality of it into my brain. For the first year, I didn’t hang a single piece of art. It hadn’t yet felt like home.
After a few brunches on the porch, followed by lazy sea-breeze days reading the paper in the sunshine, it became clear (and slightly more tolerable) that it was, in fact, home, and I finally decorated. I planted flowers. I relished in an almost unknown New York phenomenon: the “extra” bedroom. I, for the first time in my whole life, enjoyed the luxury of a washer and dryer inside my home. I invited friends over in summer, and cooked too much food for them, and packed their beach chairs with suntan lotion, and filled coolers with water and beach-safe snacks. I bragged about the 24-hour bagel store on the corner, and gave them the tour of the neighborhood during daylight hours when it didn’t look so severe and stupid. I tried to appreciate the distance my new home gave me from the rest of the world, a space in which to enjoy my first year of cohabitation with my final lover.
Bit by bit, I let go of the reality of how deeply alienated I felt. I let it go, and enjoyed what was there. I hustled through Penn Station with the rest of the lemmings, and when I got off the train in the cold wet winter, I breathed deeply the sea air. I trained myself to find whatever joy there was for me to find in the broadness of the sky, and the quiet stillness of a beach town night in winter. I made my house extra cozy, and listened to the easterly wind rip and whistle through the alleyways. We had to be there, then. Without going into why, we had to live there. It might have been a mistake to go in the first place, but once we were there, we couldn’t leave for awhile. So I believe I did what they call making the best of it.
I even convinced myself that I was sick of the city. (Which, in a way, I am. Something’s happened to New York. Whether it was the clean-up crusade of Times Square and Chelsea Piers, or what Sex & the City did to Midwestern girls — namely made them think it their duty to move here, dress strangely, walk around too quickly and be rude like they own the place. The city has changed. It’s lost much of the gritty romance that made me so proud to live and grow up here.) With that assessment, I found relief in departing the city each evening, and in returning to a quieter, breezier place.
I spent New Year’s Eve of 2008 alone at home. The boyfriend was working. I could have gone out, done something. But I didn’t. I spent the night writing in the coveted spare bedroom, which I’d turned into my office. I opened the window around midnight and listened as parties on both sides of the street counted down to the New Year, staggered at different times. 2008 came a few moments late for one of them, or a few moments early for the other. I sipped water, and tossed a single streamer into the air, and I didn’t particularly mind about it.
One year became two, which became three. In the summers, things weren’t so bad. Our relationship felt less new, and more steady. We grew together in that house, in that silly uninsulated bungalow with loud upstairs neighbors. We lived there for three and a half years. My scorn for the town, and for my commute, had dimmed to general malaise and occasional hostility. One day, an apartment became available elsewhere. Things fell into place at the right times, and the universe presented us with the opportunity to move, which we did. Finally, we got the hell out of that bullshit town.
I live in Brooklyn now, in a building that used to be a luggage factory. We leave our front door open sometimes, and on occasion the neighbors’ dogs will run in to say hello. We keep jars of treats for them. Residents keep container vegetable gardens in the courtyard. I’ve met seven artists who live here, whose work I respect. I have dinner with friends in places with ambient lighting, and I never have to rush the check to catch a train. When I leave my home, whether I talk to passersby or not, I relate to the people I see. I’m in a place that makes some sense for me. I don’t observe the city from a far away distance any more. I see it, and the statue of liberty, brightly and crisply from my rooftop, just within reach.
I live in a loft in Brooklyn, and from time to time, I’ll sit in my favorite velvet chair, pull my knees up, and smoke out the window with a fan. So there.