I have a theory which almost works. It’s an attempt to explain the unexpected excitement I felt the first time I arrived in Long Island.
Long Island wasn’t anywhere I’d ever dreamed of going. It has no famous surf spots and the water’s cold. It’s neither remote, nor undiscovered. And, unlike Coney Island, I’d never sung along to songs about it. It was simply the place Bill and I were going to meet up with a friend whom we planned to drive to Mexico with.
But right from the first strutting flag and the first giant car I was taken. As the Long Island Expressway swept us into the heart of it all I babbled like a Valley Girl.
“My god, this road’s like 10 lanes wide or something”.
“Housing project! Ouuu that looks nasty”.
“Ha! the school bus, the school bus! it’s painted yellow like the ones on the Simpsons!”
I was practically hyperventilating by the time we got to Islip and the flat where our friend Scott lived.
There’s a whole other story to be told about the characters we met in our first night there (a woman who extolled the benefits of drinking one’s own urine, a man who had to be reassured that London was indeed in England…) but that’ll have to keep. I still need to tell you about my theory.
According to it, the excitement I felt on arriving in Long Island was a spiritual homecoming of sorts. The same thing Muslims feel in Mecca or Christians in Jerusalem. Or that a member of the Irish diaspora experiences on arriving in Dublin.
Of course, I’m not religious, or Irish, but I was raised in suburbia. My parents never instilled in me any identity as such and so I grew up the consummate suburbanite. And on arriving in Long Island, without intending to, I found myself in uber-suburbia. The streets were wider, the used car dealers more frequent, and the shopping malls both more grotty and more colossal. The makeup was thicker and the hairspray more aggressive. This, was home – home on steroids. And, so the theory goes, it resonated. Which is what made me excited.
As far as theories go it does almost work but it’s still, of course, utter bunk. I may be a suburbanite but I have no spiritual umbilical connection with the suburbs. I was simply excited because I was somewhere new. And, the fact I wasn’t expecting to be excited just meant that I was all the more so. So my theory doesn’t work but I thought I’d at least try it out for size.
The next morning Bill and I tried Long Island on for size. One of our friend’s roommates took Bill and I out to buy bagels for breakfast. The Bagel store was a franchise joint at the edge of the local mall but as we trundled there in his pickup truck we were assured that that wouldn’t stop the bagels from being good.
“There’s no bad bagels in New York, guy.”
The length of the line outside the store was further evidence that these bagels were going to be ok. It snaked out from the store and into the car park.
It was a long line but it wasn’t messing about, and before we knew it we were at the counter – Bill in front of me.
“Whaddya want!” There’s no such thing as a small New Yorker and the guy behind the counter was no exception. Tall with a barrel chest that was beginning to sag, he had a boxer’s nose and a head topped with pissed-off looking hair.
“Uh, er, I’ll have a bagel please”. Compared to the New Yorker’s brogue, Bill’s mild Welsh accent sounded like Oxbridge English.
“Whatkinda bagel!” The bagel guy frowned in a manner that suggested the last thing he needed this morning was a cretin at the front of his queue.
“Well, ah, what have you got exactly?”
“Buddy, wegot fiftykindsof bagels! Wegot, cinamon! wegot Rye! wegot fivegrain! wegot plain salted…”
Behind us the queue was growing restless.
“Hey, you guys gonna order somethin’?” “Focking morons.” That chatter behind us took on the warning menace of a rattlesnake’s shaking tail.
Sensing trouble Bill interrupted the bagel-listing.
“I’ll have one of those please.”
“And?” Bill voice began to tremble, just a little.
“Whatdoyawant on it!”
“Oh, ah, well, ah, what do you have to put on it?”
“Guy, we’ve got 24 different toppings! Wegot penutbutternjelly. Wegot creamcheese. Wegot creamcheesewithbacon…”
“I’llhavethat!” fear was helping Bill master the language.
“Creamcheese with bacon?”
“Great! and whattabout you littleguy?”
“I’ll-have-the-same-as-him!” I had no plans of messing round.
And so it was. Bagels in hand we fled the store and out into the car park, where we had our first taste. They were good. Franchise or not. The first real bagel I’d ever eaten. (We did have things called bagels in New Zealand back then but they weren’t. They were donut shaped bread. No New Yorker could have eaten them and not felt grief.)
Anyhow, over the next 3 years I spent quite a lot of time in Long Island in separate stints – nearly 9 months all up. And the obvious way to end this post would be with me telling you that as time went on I adapted and adopted, and mastered the art of buying bagels from the store in the mall. Rattling off my order in a rapid-fire Kiwi-Long Island criole.
That would be a nice ending, but it wouldn’t be true. What actually happened is that I found a little family deli round the corner from the place I stayed and got my bagels there. Biking down under the quiet far-too-wide street and ordering my meal at my own uncertain pace.