April 4, 2008
My home town of is located on the south shore of Long Island, New York. The Merrick Indians named the area "Copiague" which literally means “sheltered harbor." Early settlers adopted the name for their village and today Copiague is a hamlet within the town of Babylon. South of Merrick Road, which severs Deauville Estates (where I was raised) from the rest of the town, is the Great South Bay. The homes down there sit along canals which lead to this majestic body of water, which afforded a living to generations of hardy baymen who harvested its depths for clams, crabs, eels, and other sea life. The dwindling bounty culled from the bay still feeds Long Island and New York City; but, that lifestyle is dying. So too are folks like me whose life is inexorably tied to the waters around Long Island
There is a saying: “You know you’re from Long Island when you’ve gone clamming at least once in your life.” That is certainly true for me. Many of my friends owned clam boats. These are long, flat vessels with a mini-cabin and ample space for a person to squeeze into and operate the steering wheel. Long clam rakes are tethered to the deck, and the bay becomes your home for a day. There’s something supernatural about breathing in sea air, sipping a can of Coca-Cola fished from the bottom of an ice-filled, Styrofoam cooler, and enjoying the view of the looming Robert Moses Causeway Bridge. A powerful spell cast by the briny bay water draws one back to its shores during the course of one’s life to relive those quiet memories.
From my childhood home, one can hear the braying of motorboats racing along the coastline during the summer. The salty bay breeze wafts gently into the neighborhood and teases the olfactory nerves of bored school children yearning for the beach. The beaches of Long Island, stretches of sandy Heaven along the south shore, remain burned, like sun on skin, with affection, in my memory. In my formative years, I was accustomed to this existence of carefree days swimming in the surf. My skin was tan, my hair bleach blond, and my muscles tone from swimming for day long stretches amongst the seaweed and horseshoe crabs.
My home now is on the opposite end of the Island’s spectrum. My children are being raised in a rocky, hilly, terrain alien from my oceanic origins on the south side. The Long Island Sound's whisper is too gentle to compel many more than a handful of seafarers to its banks in comparison to the mighty Atlantic; and, its beauty demands a harsher aesthetic adapted to stony ridges and sloping seaboards.
Long Island is, by geological definition, a terminal moraine; leftover scraps from a glacier in the shape of a fish. Topmost is the heavier portion, boulders and sloughed off bits of mountains. What’s left at the bottom is pulverized, softer earth and sand, pushed ahead as if swept by a broom. There is much more to the differences between the north and south shores of Long Island. There’s a class difference unique to the separate and unequal suburban towns on different sides of the Long Island Expressway.
The north is wealthier; the towns rich from higher taxes and a falsely perceived elite class of citizens. My original home on the south shore is composed of mostly blue collar working families; the school systems straining under the weight of too many students and not enough revenue. So many families, with the mother and father both working, have to rent rooms in their homes or create apartments within their dwellings to take on renters to help pay the mortgage and taxes. My roots are there. The return visits I make to my father’s home rile my senses and cause my skin to prickle with the residual anticipation of a return to the shoreline.
My wife grew up as I did. Summers at the seaside with her family provided her with parallel memories to mine. We often share stories driving around the omnipotent water towers both at Robert Moses State Park and Jones Beach, our respective awe at riding over the extended Robert Moses bridge, and the joy of body surfing in the foamy waves with sand in our bathing suits. Our own children are denied such a life. We bring them to the beach and their enjoyment is not the same. It’s as if we took them to an amusement park; its rides being the waves, the games being the sand and sea shells, and they lose luster and allure to abandoned video games and computers back at home.
There is no kinship between my children and the water. The Great South Bay and the sparkling Atlantic have no secrets to tell these outsiders. One has to reside along the edges, the sinewy strips of sand and shells, and listen from birth; there is a promise, a covenant between those who are enchanted and the ocean. It is a code, a lifestyle, and its bond exists forever.
Long Island Great South Bay bayman north shore south shore terminal moraine fish clams clam boat beach Robert Moses Copiague New York