Henry Hudson is sailing into NY Harbor when he looks over to his left. There’s a bit of early morning mist, and he’s trying to make out what he thinks is land, so he turns to his First Mate and says, “Is ‘stat an island?”.
If you’ve ever lived on Staten Island, you already know that joke about how the place got its name by heart, and have already figured out what this post is going to be about. From 1966-1992, I grew up on this unfortunate piece of rock that lies between Brooklyn and New Jersey, never quite having an identity of being either a true New Yorker (Staten Island is technically one of the 5 boroughs that make up NYC) or something else. Just what that something else was, I really wouldn’t find out until I left that veil of tears in 1992 for the Jersey Shore, where I spent many a summer and a happy day in my youth, teens, and 20’s. All of my side of the family has moved to the somewhat better pastures of the Garden State, but my in-laws still reside there. Undoubtedly, the place has changed for the worse, which is probably why I have such a deep hatred for it now. I consider my time spent there an accident of life; but as in all misfortunes, we learn from them…if you allow yourself to.
I was born in Brooklyn, and that is my Hometown; it always has been and always will be despite the fact I only lived there for 5 years. I have many great memories of that place: riding the Els and the subways to Downtown Brooklyn to go shopping at A&S department store; the A&P around the corner where I would drive the counter person nuts while our coffee was being ground because I would constantly be ringing the little bell on the counter; my mother dragging me out all over Brooklyn in all kinds of weather to visit her friends and their kids. I did not by any means lead a sheltered existence. We lived in a nice sized apartment in a small building one block away from the El and down the street from a bowling alley. The building had a small yard that would be open to tennents, and on the 4th of July there would always be a BBQ. I had my first taste of hamburgers on the grill at these events, likewise I had my first taste of pizza at a whole bunch of places throughout the Borough. I always went to Coney Island or Manhattan Beach to swim in the summer, and occasionally my Dad would take me to Sheepshead Bay to watch the boats and for some food at Lundy’s. All of this was packed into the first five years of my life, and more. Every day there was always something to do, always an adventure as I would be whisked away all over Brooklyn and occasionally into Manhattan to visit my Dad’s office or go to the Christmas Show at Radio City.
In May of 1966, we moved to the then up-and coming borough of Staten Island. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge had just be opened in 1964, and easy access to the rest of the city had become possible. We moved to a new development of duplex-style two story homes in mid-Island, and at the time we moved there, only a school across the street and the 5 duplex homes on our street and the 10 down another were the only ones around. Surrounding us was nothing but woods. Nothing. Cue up the sound of chirping crickets now, please. While I surely had many new areas to explore as a youngster (along with the other kids my age on the block who also moved from Brooklyn or other parts of NYC), it was a VAST change of pace from what I was used to. Public transportation was also at a premium: there was one rail line that ran the entire length of the borough (we had a train station just a few blocks away from us) and buses traversed every corner. There was just one little problem: not enough roads for the buses to run on, at least in our neck of the woods. So I learned to WALK, and so did my mother. One mile walks to stores were not unheard of in all kinds of weather. Of course, that is until she learned to drive…oh boy.
My mother is not the greatest driver in the world, to be frank; I’ve told her this on a number of occasions where I’ve been met with the “I’m a good driver! I know what I’m doing!” responses. She is the only person from Brooklyn who doesn’t drive like one; nor is she a person who drives like she is Staten Island despite having learned there. Those people would cut off their own mothers in a toll both line if a new one opened up, or simply swerve in front of you because they could…and got a kick out of doing so. When you learned to drive in either place, you became the Incredible Hulk the minute you turned on the ignition; my mother became Gracie Allen. She is NOT an aggressive driver, and most time she has a bird’s eye view…as in other people flipping her the bird. Still, it was important for her to learn how to drive on SI because without a car, you were up the proverbial creek without the paddle. At least the walks in the snow with us dragging the old portable shopping cart behind us were over.
I later found things to keep myself occupied as I grew up: as the new houses were springing up all over the neighborhood, we would ask the builders if they had any spare wood so we could make a tree house or club house in the rapidly vanishing woods. Many times, they complied; other times, they pretty much told us where to go. That’s when they received a visit from a bunch of 10 year old Sorpranos who decided that they would take what was rightfully theirs anyway; and if the builder found out the next morning, the older brothers of a few of us would “negotiate” with said builder…usually by mentioning certain relatives in either the Bronx or Brooklyn who they might know. The situation was always resolved by peaceful means, and we could go on building our clubhouses…and they were truly a thing of beauty.
One clubhouse we built had three floors, and we had a sawed off ladder from a firetruck that ran through all three floors; it had a top hatch with a sun deck that led to a bridge to a tree-house lookout. It took us weeks to build that, and we hung out in it just to…well, hang out. The older brothers of some of the guys (the ones who protected us from big nasty Mister Builder) used it to drink beer and smoke weed in (as their fee for “protection”)…which wound up being the eventual cause of the fire that burned it down to the ground. Yeah, like all kids in NYC, despite our relatively bucolic settings, we were exposed to drugs…a lot of them. Panama Red, Mexican, Acapulco Gold, Thai Stick, LSD, Mescaline (those incredible brown capsules)…I did them all. As a matter of fact, there were plenty of places to do them that were probably better than in any other part of the City: the woods (which were rapidly disappearing because of development), or the beach or sometimes even in a friend’s basement if their parents were cool…I mean, this WAS the 70’s. People were smoking pot and swapping wives for Christ’s sake…and it happened in our little corner of the world too. The best times I remember were keg parties or clam bakes down on the beach where bonfires would roar until dawn built out of wood that had floated ashore from the polluted water covered in oil and kerosene. Occasionally the fire would blow up, but you’d duck and just continue partying. It was a heady time…and all around us, change was happening.
The borough that was once the quiet forgotten one began to become more populated. The roads became so overcrowded that it takes almost an hour to drive the 12 mile length of the Island on several of the main roads; it was one particular day where because of a special event, my wife and I could literally not even get off the island for over two hours. It was that day, I swore that the buildings, the roads, the people who were moving to the Island (all the lowlifes from the other boroughs…and by that I just mean people who had no class, or thought they did) would no longer constrain me. I convinced my wife (then my fiancée) that the time had come to leave this all behind and go to the Garden State. I figured, it took me 90 minutes to commute from that rock; I might as well use that as my radius for finding us a nice place to live when we were married. We both loved the beach, so that seemed like a great place to start.
Within a few months, we landed an apartment with a terrace overlooking the ocean (and I mean we were right ON the ocean) in Long Branch, NJ. We were three blocks from both the Hospital where she got a job, and the train station where I would commute to my job in Manhattan. The complex had a beautiful pool in addition to the beach, great restaurants and bars and nightlife all within walking distance for us (no DWIs, thank you). For me, I had just gone to heaven; I had always wanted to live on the ocean (I grew up very close to the ocean and bays on SI) on the Jersey Shore, and now I had my wish. One day, I will return to an apartment on the ocean somewhere when I am much older and ready to go to that vast sea of the Universe myself; but back in my 30’s, that was pure delight…and I was off that rock, that unfortunate geographical mistake of my life called Staten island.
It’s not so much I hated living there all the time, I didn’t; it’s just that every time I came home from college or wound up visiting friends and family when we moved to NJ…something from my youth would disappear. A restaurant; a street off the ocean where there was nothing had condos squeezed in; a bakery that had been in the same family for 50 years had a new owner…and every single inch of space that could be used to put some type of domicile was used. What was once a pretty nice place to live had all of the worst elements of suburbia, Brooklyn, and Queens all packed into it…literally packed. The people were nasty and unfriendly, classless jerks who had the IQ hovering somewhere above a slightly educated dolt. It no longer was what it was…it became an aberration of everything that was bad in society and over-development.
So yeah, I’m now a Jersey Guy and proud of it. I’m also from Brooklyn, and when I get angry, my accent suddenly changes and you can hear the Midwood in me coming out in all its glory. At least I can say one thing about where I am now and Brooklyn…at least they are honest places; places with character and a tradition and a history that is not compromised, unlike that rock…that veil of tears…
Good riddance, and may it never darken my life again.
“When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood” – Sam Ewing