“He wondered every once in a while what life would be like without a second story and how it was people managed to get along in ranch-style or split-level houses without running amok once a year or so.”
Thomas Pynchon, from Low-lands.
It would be foolish to believe that a single story could sum up the entire range of bizarre and sensational behavior that is Long Island Babylon. Particularly a story that doesn’t even mention Amy or Sol, Joey or “Joel the Ripper,” little Katie Beers or Howard Stern, much less the “Homeroom Hit Man,” the “Angel of Death” nurse, the Islip Garbage Barge or Geraldo Rivera.
Nonetheless, I feel that the story of the unprintable Satanist Ritual Killing Ground Photo comes close.
Some years ago in Northport—not far from the birthplace of Pynchon, who is, far more than the frequently invoked F. Scott Fitzgerald, the true literary avatar of the Long Island soul—two allegedly angel-dusting, devil-worshiping teenagers were branded as “ritual cult murderers” of another teenager in the Aztakea woods.
It was one of the first such episodes in what would become an overhyped national trendlet, and perhaps the first signal that something sinister was stirring out there behind the split-level shutters of Long Island’s suburbs. But this particular story about the unprintable photo, one I heard from a former Newsday editor who swears it’s true, isn’t about the killing itself; rather about something that happened the night after the death became public.
It seems the paper had dispatched a photographer to get a nighttime shot of the supposedly spooky, satanist ritual killing ground out there in the woods, something that would capture the diabolical horror of it all. But when certain pictures came out of the darkroom, they just weren’t … suitable. Unusable. Not because they were too terrifying (at least not terrifying in a Luciferian way). But because many photographs of the alleged cult coven’s killing circle prominently featured a large boulder, across the face of which was scrawled the following somewhat-less-than-terrifying cult slogan:
A check with the Newsday photo library disclosed that contact sheets of all unpublished photos had been discarded. Nonetheless, 10 years later, it can be said with confidence: Satin still lives on Long Island. No, Satin flourishes. Satin rules. Satin lives in Joey Buttafuoco’s auto body shop, Satin lives in Sol Wachtler’s Manhasset town house, Satin lives in the recurrent proof that even when we try our hardest to be sensationally bad, we often wind up just a little bit off—as much embarrassing as menacing.
I say “we” because, while I was born in Manhattan and have lived most of the latter half of my life here, I grew up on Long Island, and I’m resigned to the fact that in some essential, irrevocable way I’ll always be a Long Islander. Resigned to the fact that, whenever I tell someone my hometown was Bay Shore, I feel compelled to add, pre-emptively, “Yes, that’s right, that’s the home of Katie Beers’s dungeon.” Resigned to the fact that every mush-mouthed hayseed in America feels he has the right to say, condescendingly, “Oh, you’re from Long Island, you mean Lawn Guyland”—as if everyone there spoke that way and he was establishing a Henry Higgins-like sophistication by comparison.
Resigned to the fact that while people from New Jersey, the second most maligned and unfashionable place to come from in America, at least have native son Bruce Springsteen to transmute their state’s toxic wastelands into a kind of doomed romantic grandeur, those of us from Long Island have … Debbie Gibson and Billy Joel.
Resigned to the fact that while the image of Long Island was once merely unfashionable, uncool, the epitome of Plastic Suburbia, a Levittown of the Mind lampooned by ’60’s folkies for its cookie-cutter “Little boxes made of ticky tacky,” suddenly in the past few years the Guyland (as we expatriates like to call it) has turned into a veritable tabloid pandemonium, no longer just tacky, but spectacularly mortifying, ludicrously, demonically possessed—possessed by Satin.
Resigned, yes, but also lately, I must admit, perversely proud. Suddenly my background, my hometown has become tremendously exotic, the object of awe and wonder, not just snickering. Perversely proud but also profoundly puzzled. What the hell happened? What happened to the incredibly boring place I grew up in, where I swear nothing ever happened? What happened to turn it into this charnel house of sensational spouse slayings; fatally attracted judges posing as lowlife, blackmailing private eyes sending condoms to mistresses’ daughters; cold-blooded, steroid-juiced young killers; kidnappers with dungeons; horticultural serial killers? A veritable Babylon and not the colorless stop on the L.I.R.R. right after Amityville, Copiague and Lindenhurst, but a Babylon out of the Book of Revelation, the blood-drenched Mother of Abominations.
I was thinking about all this rather gloomily the other day. I believe it was the week after the story of the obsessed tennis coach and dungeon builder, Gary Wilensky (who wanted to make his teenage tennis student, Jennifer Rhodes, his Katie Beers) broke, and Newsday printed his high-school yearbook photo that revealed—wouldn’t you know it?—he came from Roslyn, L.I. About the same time, a local television station ran a scare story about a so-called Cannibal Killer, a former schoolteacher who had killed and eaten a student and who was about to be granted weekend furloughs from the psycho ward so he could return to his parents’ home in—you guessed it—Melville, L.I.
I found myself staring resentfully at a recent Dewar’s profile ad that featured a cheerful achiever whose hometown was Chicago. Under the rubric “Home: Chicago, Illinois,” the Dewar’s ad quoted her saying: “Toddlin’ Town? Up and running’s more like it!”
Bleakly, it occurred to me that just about every other place in America can find something to be perky and boosterish about. Death Valley, the Great Dismal Swamp, despite the names, are natural wonders. Feisty Cleveland, battling back from its toxic river-on-fire image, has the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame under construction at last.
But Long Island … what can you say these days?
Home: “Long Island. Plenty of sleazy spouse murders and more to come!”
Home: “Long Island. When better dungeons are built, our psychos will build them.”
Or perhaps something a bit more hopeful: “We’ve already been through our Satanist phase.” Or “When you get three TV movies of the week, then you can criticize.”
So what is it about the Guyland, anyway? Yes, I know there are sensational tabloid crimes everywhere and the closeness to the Manhattan media nexus tends to magnify everything. But even so, that was always true. There’s just no denying that something has changed in the past decade, that, as our bard Billy Joel sings on his new album, there’s “lots more to read about, Lolita and suburban lust.”
But why? Why is this Island different from all other islands? And why are so many Long Islanders suddenly running amok?
Nothing goes through Long Island to get to somewhere else.
The question of Long Island uniqueness was posed in a particularly acute way by one of the characters on one of those three Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco made-for-TV movies.
The scene: The interior of Joey’s Complete Auto Body Shop. One of Joey’s employees is theorizing about the deep, underlying source of the love triangle shooting. He’s obviously given some thought to the vexing question, attributing it to “Mid-Island Syndrome.”
“It’s the wires,” he declares. “The wires weren’t buried underground like in other parts of the country, so with all this electricity in the air, it fries some people’s brains.”
Now there are some practical objections to this theory. A Lilco spokeswoman, after checking with the Long Island power company’s electric service operations department, insisted that Long Island does not differ from the rest of the nation in the way it deploys its high-tension lines and that, in fact, more are buried than exposed. Still, the power line explanation at least attempts to offer a unified field theory of Long Island mania. And even the Lilco spokeswoman, perhaps attempting to divert attention from the power lines, offered an implicit endorsement of the quest for some explanation.
“Now the water—that’s another story,” she said.
But before we get deeper into a consideration of Long Island theories, we have to do some surgery. We have to define exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about the Guyland.
First, let’s slice off Brooklyn and Queens at the Nassau County line. Now let’s excise the Hamptons and Fire Island, which are really Manhattan transfers. I’m tempted to chop off Great Neck, a kind of transplanted Upper West Side, but if I did we’d lose one of the genuine culture heroes of the Guyland, the Great Neck native Andy Kaufman, the inspired madman comic recently memorialized anew by R.E.M.’s beautiful song, “Man on the Moon.”
Still, when we look at the results, we’re left with something, well, very cut off, all stump: the “Boxing Helena” of islands.
Which brings us to the first General Theory of Long Island I want to consider:
Gullah Theory—People who think of Long Island as mainly a bedroom suburb of New York City don’t grasp just how cut off much of the island really is, how isolated, how strange. Once you get out beyond Huntington on the North and Massapequa to the South, you’re not dealing with city commuter culture, you’re dealing with Long Island lifers, a different breed altogether.
“When people write about Long Island,” the novelist Richard Price once observed, “they write about Fitzgerald’s West Egg, but they don’t think about places like Freeport.” And the further out you go, the less has been written, the less is really known by most New Yorkers whose experience with this Long Island—the Guyland of Freeport and Hicksville and Wyandanch, of Brentwood and Farmingville and Nesconset—consists of a few conversations with locals in diners off the Long Island Expressway or the occasional trip to the supermarket in Bay Shore before catching the ferry to Fire Island.
As someone whose miserable summer job experience as a teenager consisted mainly of holding down positions in the supermarkets of Bay Shore (the low point was a hot-asphalt summer retrieving shopping carts on a vast King Kullen parking lot), I can assure you day-trippers, you sophisticated graduates of Riverdale and Stuyvesant, you street-smart urban boys and girls from the city hoods, you don’t realize what a different world you glide through in your air-cooled Jitneys.
You day-trippers and weekend Hamptonites tend to forget the islandness of the Guyland. But the fact is, the only link to the mainland of America from the 516 area code are the ferries to New London and Bridgeport: Nothing goes through Long Island to get to somewhere else.
That is very cut off. There are virtues to being so cut off—closeness, cohesiveness and a sense of commonality. But there are also problems—a kind of inbreeding, spiritual if not physical, and, frequently, the development of an idiosyncratic dialect that separates, even alienates, native speakers from mainstream culture. The classic instance is the “Gullah” spoken by the descendants of West Africans, who’ve lived for centuries on certain sea islands off the Georgia and Carolina coasts, almost completely in isolation from the mainland. The famed Guyland dialect, so alien and untuneful to outsiders is, in effect, our Gullah.
Being this cut off has made the Guyland a laboratory for more than just language, made it, in effect, a kind of Plum Island of culture. You recall Plum Island, don’t you—the little island off the tip of Long Island’s North Fork, the one marked on maps “Animal Disease Laboratory (Restricted)” because it’s the site of top-secret, heavy-security, infectious-disease research labs. Let’s not even get into the indignity of this situation: of all the pork barrel projects, boondoggles and Federal plums to be plucked, we get Plum Island.
Still, it makes one wonder: there’s been trouble at Plum Island lately. Recent power failures and evacuations raised questions about the possibility that the almost unbelievably virulent strains of microbes (like Rift Valley Fever) supposedly sealed up on the island, have escaped. Questions that were not put to rest by reports of jerry-built attempts to resterilize a sealed laboratory by vaporizing formaldehyde in 97 electric frying pans. Could it be that Mid-Island Fever is actually the result of the escape of an experimental behavioral virus from Plum Island? Is that what’s in the water?
Or if it’s not something in the water, could it be something in the blood? That’s the question posed by an ethnographic explanation we might call Amy Fisher-Billy Baldwin Matzoh-Pizza Theory.
In a recent interview, Baldwin, the star of Sliver, recalled that his hometown, Massapequa, used to be known on the South Shore by the derisive (or proud?) moniker Matzoh-Pizza, a nickname linking (a bit uneasily) the two ethnic groups that predominate in the town. But there may be more to the linkage than mozzarella and unleavened bread: Is it just an accident of fate that the two Long Islanders most well known to the rest of the nation for their outrageousness—Amy Fisher and Howard Stern—are both products of Matzoh-Pizza marriages between Italian and Jewish parents? Consider also that the most memorable—and scary—nonfiction account of growing up in the Mid-Island, Grown-Up-Fast by Betsy Israel, was written by the half-Jewish offspring of a Massapequa marriage.
(The great defining Massapequa moment, the Sistine-Chapel-ceiling Massapequa moment, came on that morning when Massapequa resident Joey Buttafuoco reached out and touch-toned Guyland-born Howard Stern on air—just a few days after Amy Fisher was arraigned for putting a bullet into Mary Jo’s head—to insist to a skeptical Howard that he’d never had an affair with the gun-toting teen-ager. Actually, the peak moment was Stern’s hilarious deadpan reaction to hearing Buttafuoco’s voice on the line: “Somehow, I knew you’d be a listener.”)
Of course, what may be at work here is not ethnic determinism but Massapequa determinism. And yet there is at least one famous Long Island personage who seems to endorse the theory that some personal-cultural critical mass is achieved by bringing together the highly fissionable Italian and Jewish temperaments in the same body: Amy Fisher herself. Or at least her “autobiography.” That book, My Story, is a more thought-provoking work than one might suppose, thanks mainly to Amy’s co-author, Sheila Weller, whose previous book was about Amagansett’s cross-dressing stockbroker spouse-slayer, Joseph Pikul. In chapters that alternate with Amy’s, Weller conscientiously seeks out sociologists and ethnologists in the hope of finding some explanation for Amy’s explosive psyche.
What she suggests is that Amy’s split-level ethnic identity was the source of the trouble: Amy was fleeing her Jewish side (or at least in flight from her Jewish father) and seeking danger—a walk on the wilder side of her Italian heritage—with rough-talking, gangster-moll-manqué Italian girlfriends and tough guy car culture.
Weller traces the roots of Long Island car kustomizing culture to the courtship rituals of the Sicilian ancestors of Guyland Italians who painted their wagons in gaudy colors to draw the attention of prospective brides. Weller’s appreciation of the central role of car culture in the Mid-Island does help to explain to outsiders something not well understood. Joey and his body shop are often discussed as if he and his profession were some down-market, unfashionable, grunge-work occupation, something low-rent like Wilson’s garage, the seed of the fatal love triangle in Gatsby.
Outsiders don’t realize that Complete Auto Body was a kind of Capital of Car Culture on the South Shore; Joey was a king, a magus of this world, a prince of the realm to Amy when she came to him for body work and customizing (he pin-striped her flashy white Dodge Daytona with the gentrified klassy version of her name: Aimee).
Still, I find theories about “something in the blood” just as unpersuasive as those about “something in the water.” They don’t approach the heart of the matter—that Long Island something in the soul. Which brings us to what might be called Great Chain of Wanna-Being Theory.
I had an epiphany on this subject in the aftermath of a fascinating conversation with Rob Weiss, the 26-year-old, first-time director of the recently released Amongst Friends, a sort of Five Towns Mean Streets. Weiss’s film is the first I know that actually dares to let Long Island be Long Island. Previous films like Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, praised by outsiders for its strong authentic Guyland flavor, actually seem, to this native son, to shy away from showing the Uncongenial Truth of the real thing, to attenuate raw Guyland vitality for fear perhaps it would overwhelm the uninitiated. (And nobody in Hartley’s film speaks with a real Long Island accent.)
Amongst Friends doesn’t shrink from strong Guyland flavors and accents. Weiss revels in them, wallows in them with, yes, a kind of perverse pride. Indeed, his film may represent the opening shot in a counteroffensive against the prevailing derisive suburb-from-hell light in which the Guyland has been seen lately. An up-front, in-your-face, yes, we’re-a-suburb-from-hell-and-we-like-it-like-that attitude. Long Island Pride at last.
And just in time. One gets tired of Long Island serving as a whipping boy, the archetype of uncool for the self-proclaimed hip. As in this recent exchange between the comedian Rosie O’Donnell (from Commack) and Madonna in this month’s Mademoiselle:
Madonna: You know, Ro, you’re the only person I know from Long Island who’s funny.
O’Donnell: Not true—Jerry Seinfeld.
Madonna: Well, I don’t think he’s funny.
While I agree with her about Seinfeld, it’s unfair to blame Long Island. Even if he is from Massapequa and acts like he’s from the Five Towns.
The Five Towns—those enclaves of wealth, notorious for nouveau riche attitude—are really a kind of test for the rest of us from Long Island, a challenge to the inclusiveness of Long Island Pride: Do we disown them or defend them? And which Five Towns are they? As long ago as 1963, in his first novel, V., Thomas Pynchon raised the question of the Phantom Fifth Town. One of his characters, Rachel Owlglass, a Bennington hipster chick, “came from the Five Towns on the South Shore of Long Island,” Pynchon wrote. “An area comprising Malverne, Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Hewlett and Woodmere, and sometimes Long Beach and Atlantic Beach, although no one has ever thought of calling it the Seven Towns.”
In fact, indignant Five Towners have told me Pynchon made an egregious error in this list: Inwood, not Malverne, they insist, belongs in the magic circle of the inner five. Perhaps, at last, here is the explanation for Pynchon’s legendary reclusiveness: for the last 30 years he has been so ashamed of this mistake he’s never dared show his face again. (Could it be that he’s hiding in Inwood, the town he erased from his list?)
Amused and a little bit bitter about the Five Towns the way most Long Islanders outside them are—the Five Towns are Long Island’s Long Island—Pynchon depicts them as a kind of fairy-tale kingdom of sheltered princesses, “like so many Rapunzels within the magic frontiers of a country where the elfin architecture of Chinese restaurants, seafood palaces and split-level synagogues is often enchanting as the sea .… Only the brave escape.”
Rob Weiss speaks as someone who’s looked at the Five Towns from both sides now. He grew up in middle-of-the-middle-class Baldwin, but his father made enough money (organizing gambling junkets to Atlantic City) to enable Weiss to transfer from Baldwin High to Woodmere Academy, the haute Five Towns private day school. Weiss told me that although he’d seen it from the outside, once inside the heart of the beast he still was shocked by the frenzied conspicuous-consumption culture among his Benz and Beamer-driving fellow students at Woodmere. In Baldwin (home of Joey Buttafuoco’s Complete Auto Body Shop), Weiss says, “you had an identity, you were a jock, you were a brain, whatever you were, you were. At Woodmere, it was what you had, what brand, it was a whole wannabe scene.”
The Phantom Shifting Fifth Town Problem seems to grow out of the wannabe syndrome. Weiss and I were talking about the difficulty—even natives have it—of recalling exactly which five towns were the Five Towns. How people who live near the Five Towns frequently seem to blur the boundaries by including their own little hamlet among the fab five. In the course of one of several exploratory trips to the Guyland recently, I found myself discussing the Five Towns with a waitress in a diner in Baldwin (the one where Joey Buttafuoco eats breakfast, she boasted). “I’m from the Five Towns,” she said. When I asked her which one, she said, “Oh, Lynbrook,” which is close geographically but not otherwise. In addition to Pynchon’s Phantom Fifth Town wannabes, Atlantic Beach and Long Beach, I’ve also heard residents of Oceanside and all the Hewlett clones—Hewlett Harbor, Hewlett Bay Park, Hewlett Neck—include themselves in. (There’s even a “Five Towns College” located in … Dix Hills.)
“Are you connected to the mob? I’m looking for someone to kill my husband.”
On the other hand, those actually in the Five Towns, if you believe Weiss’s film, all want to be somewhere else—or someone else. He gives us Jewish gangster wannabees, blunt-spoken, Blunt-smokin’ Bugsy Siegels “walking the killer streets of Hewlett Harbor,” as one character’s girlfriend sarcastically observes. He gives us “16-year-old Jewish kids thinking they were Flavor Flav” (the Public Enemy rap star who was in fact a Freeport native). Everyone else wants to be a player in Manhattan or Hollywood. Weiss, who just moved to Los Angeles himself, told me he’s “amazed at how much Hollywood is Five Towns” and cites players like Scott Rudin and Brandon Tartikoff as Five Towns transplants. (Tartikoff corrected the record, saying people “automatically assume I’m from Great Neck or one of the Five Towns, but I’m really from Freeport”; he credits his middle-of-the-middle-class Freeport roots for his legendary ability to feel the pulse of the suburban, baby boomer, TV generation. Rudin is actually from Baldwin.)
After talking with Weiss, I was left with this vision: everyone outside the Five Towns wanting to be inside and everyone inside wanting to be something, somewhere, someone else.
The intellectual historian Arthur O. Lovejoy characterized the pervasive hierarchical structure of Western thought as a “Great Chain of Being,” one that links the lower realms of imperfection and error upward to ever purer regions of divine perfection. What we have on the South Shore of Long Island is a Great Chain of Wanna-Being, a series of communities linked together by longing to be something else, something more. Indeed, suddenly the true meaning of the “Long” in Long Island, the secret hidden in the name itself, blazed forth: it stands for longing.
Longing. Amy longed. Sol longed desperately. Joel longed murderously. Walt Whitman longed lustfully. Walter Hudson, all 1,200 pounds of him, longed hungrily. It’s the soulful longing you hear in doo-wop songs, always and forever popular on Long Island. And the soulless, flat-affect longing you hear in David Byrne’s “Psycho Killer.”
The locus classicus of Long Island longing, of course, is that image of Gatsby, the eternal iconic wannabe, standing on the West Egg pier, yearning for the green light of East Egg—a cosmic longing that is both romantic and real estate-driven. One that unites him with the Roslyn resident longing to live in Roslyn Harbor and the Baldwin body shop owner longing for the forbidden Merrick princess.
But I prefer a more humble, more grungy than Gatsbyesque image of Long Island longing. Not someone stretching out his arms to a mansion across a moonlit channel, but the orphaned Islip garbage barge searching the oil-slicked waters of America’s coastline, forlornly longing for a place to unload its cargo, a home for the wretched refuse of Long Island’s shores.
As someone who grew up within the boundaries of Islip Township, watching weeks of coverage of this epic odyssey of humiliation and rejection, I found it hard not to identify with the brave little barge as it was turned away from landfill after landfill all down the Atlantic coast and across the Gulf of Mexico. North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas—all turned it away; then Mexico, Belize, the Bahamas: no one would take Long Island’s garbage! It was hard not to feel that what was being enacted was a metaphor, a dramatization of the disdain mainland culture had for Long Island itself.
I came to admire the plucky, never-say-die spirit of the barge. And felt a perverse kind of vindication that amazing week not long ago when three national television networks devoted their primest of prime time to the Amy and Joey story: at last Long Island trash had found a home.
A unified field theory of longing would go a long way toward explaining what sometimes seems like an epidemic of desperate—and often desperately incompetent—spouse-murder plots on the Guyland. Recently I immersed myself in some 10 years of tabloid clippings on sensational Long Island homicides and came away with two powerful impressions. First, that the most sensational ones were almost always intrafamily homicides or spouse slayings. Now it’s true that, cross-culturally, homicides among intimates occur more frequently than “stranger” homicides. But in another sense of the word, there’s no doubt Long Island has some of the stranger family homicides, stranger and more desperate. That was the second impression I had from study of the tabloid clips: the desperate longing to get the deed done—however bizarrely, incompetently or self-revealingly—often proved to be the undoing of the doer.
Consider this 1988 New York Post story, not one of the most sensational but representative of the broad midrange of Long Island spouse slayings. It appeared under the headline:
ACCUSED HUBBY-KILLER’S HUNT FOR HIT MAN
The trial testimony therein described a woman who might be called the Ancient Mariner of Spouse Slayers—she soliciteth one of three:
“A Long Island housewife on trial for arranging her husband’s murder openly sought a hit man several times, witnesses testified.”
The key word here is “openly.” She “tried to hire a fellow church member, a county official and an undercover cop to kill [her husband] prior to his November 1986 bludgeoning death.”
“Are you connected to the mob?” she asked a county official with an Italian surname shortly after meeting him. “I’m looking for someone to kill my husband.”
Yes, surely this goes on in the rest of America, but not, I feel, with the urgency Long Islanders bring to it. One gets the feeling reading the clip file that on any given night the landscape of Long Island is crowded with bars where husbands and wives are overtly, ineptly, longingly seeking someone to kill their spouses. Although it seems that husbands come more naturally to it, are more likely to employ a do-it-yourself approach than a hired gun.
Consider the recent case of Dr. Robert Reza, a distinguished Bayport pulmonary specialist who was having an affair with the organist at his church. (Hadn’t he ever heard of the Massapequa church secretary Jessica Hahn, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s nemesis?) So badly did the doctor long to kill his wife, he concocted a scheme to shoot and strangle her, then raced down to Washington to establish an alibi. Where he was shocked, shocked (he told police) when he learned his wife had been murdered by an “intruder” in his absence. All the while leaving a paper trail of travel times that succeeded in proving he and only he could have committed the crime.
The classic Guyland twist to this story is that when the doctor’s alibi began to crumble, he confessed—and switched to what might be called the Guyland Defense, which, as I recall from watching the trial on the Court TV channel, amounted to asking the jury to decide that living on Long Island itself was enough to engender a homicidal depression severe enough to be exculpatory. (The jury declined to accept this novel courtroom strategem.)
If we accept for the moment that it is not the power lines, not ethnic blending, not demonic possession (despite four sequels to The Amityville Horror, which as we all know was “based on fact,” I remain unpersuaded that the literal Gate to Hell is located a few blocks south of Montauk Highway; the Gate to Heck, maybe)—that it’s longing that makes Long Island Long Island, then what is the source of that force field of yearning that seethes beneath our stony topsoil? (Another injury to a Guylander’s self-esteem: to learn as early as ninth grade that Long Island is geologically “terminal moraine,” the refuse left behind by the melting of the last glacier—in effect, the dumping ground for the last garbage barge of the ice age.)
One cannot ignore the role of class and status in fueling the engine of longing. The fact is that almost all of Long Island—if one sets aside the old money Gold Coast on the North Shore and scattered enclaves of poverty—can be said to be middle class. Which only proves how little is said by saying “middle class.” Long Island is an elaborate, exquisitely hierarchical status structure within the middle class. The more fine the gradations, the more subtly demarked the differences, the more totemic power each gradation is invested with; the more fiercely each step up is coveted and flaunted. Perhaps beneath it all are the imperatives of real-estate rhetoric, designed to generate profits by creating largely metaphysical status distinctions among otherwise indistinguishable entities like Hewlett, Hewlett Harbor, Hewlett Neck and Hewlett Bay Park.
I know I was not immune to the pervasive inculcation of status distinctions. I recall in high school being made acutely aware of my family’s precise position on the Great Chain of Car Model Status. The fact that we owned a Chevrolet Bel Air, which in the early ’60’s was one painful step below the top-of-the-line Impala and one deeply relieved step above the bare-boned generic Biscayne, signified more than the ludicrously insignificant threefold variations in exterior chrome trim. They represented three distinct worlds.
Long Island, after all, was supposed to be the future before the future.
While I could see through the shallowness, the falseness of those distinctions, I can’t deny that, even so, they got to me: every once in a while I found myself, shamefully, wishing we had the damned Impala.
The obverse side of the longing for the status rung just out of reach is the fear of slipping down. Barbara Ehrenreich once made a pretty persuasive argument that the epidemic of spouse violence on Long Island, the number of orders of protection violated by homicidal husbands stalking their exes, might have at its source the desperation of the declassed: the men who, because of the long-stagnant economy, lash out in panic at the sight of the rungs ripping out of the ladder below them, a process made more painful by the hyperacute consciousness of class on the Guyland.
A shockingly different and rather more cold-blooded explanation for the spouse-murder syndrome comes not from sociology but sociobiology. Call it Selfish Gene Demolition Derby Theory.
A researcher brought to my attention a rather astonishing study that appeared in a 1988 issue of the respected journal Science. Entitled “Evolutionary Social Psychology and Family Homicide,” the study exhibits the remarkable cold-bloodedness of the sociobiological perspective that explains human behavior as a product of the drive by the “selfish gene” to maximize its posterity by any means necessary, however amoral. The authors refer to infanticide, for instance, as a strategy for maximizing the efficiency “of lifetime parental effort.”
And most cold-blooded of all, they argue on the basis of diverse cultural studies (ranging from the Ache Indians of Paraguay and tribal horticulturists to Australian baby batterings and North American spouse killers) that family homicides of the type Long Island has become famous for are adaptive. In other words, a neo-Darwinian rationale for intrafamily murder! Parents who kill unhealthy or maladaptive (or adoptive) children, men who kill unfaithful wives are driven to it by the deeply rooted longing of the selfish gene to triumph in the reproductive derby of evolution. By weeding out the weak links on its own genetic team and cutting down the competition, these murderers maximize the proliferation of their own genes.
Murdering a wife can be counterproductive for a husband’s short-term prospects in the reproductive derby, the authors concede, but this “hardly gainsays its candidate status as a masculine psychological adaptation.” By this logic, the more sensational, the more attention-getting the murder, the more it serves this loathsome “masculine psychological adaptation” by terrorizing women into remaining faithful.
While this thesis confirmed my skepticism about the value of sociobiological thinking, it had a deeply disheartening effect on me. The good news is that some scientists believe Long Island may be on the very cutting edge of the evolution of the species. The bad news is that it’s because of our penchant for killing those closest to us in attention-getting ways.
I couldn’t help it: something about the savage sociobiological vision of this “Devolution Derby” made me think of the Islip Speedway, a now-defunct motor racing arena in my home township, the one that gave birth to the Demolition Derby, perhaps the signature contribution of the Guyland to American popular culture.
Invented in 1958 by a flamboyant Long Island promoter named Larry Mendelsohn—who later went on to dream up the even more suicidal and still popular “Figure-Eight Racing” course (think about it)—the Demolition Derby cannot be topped as Long Island spectacle, and metaphor.
What you had in the Demolition Derby was a couple dozen standard American road-hog sedans that would, when the gun sounded, begin to ram into each other viciously, with intent to maim, cripple and destroy. Until, after hours of screeching, smoke-belching, metal-ripping collisions, the last carcarcass still moving … won.
Oh yes, there was one crucial twist that made the event even more bizarre and emblematic: strategic considerations caused the drivers to smash into each other in reverse. Which made the spectacle a kind of parable of Darwinian evolution by annihilation; post-industrial America on rewind to self-destruct; Gatsby’s boats beating backward against the tide of time.
The speedway is gone now, although the Demolition Derby as a concept has gone national, according to Marty Himes of the Himes Museum of Motor Racing Nostalgia, which is operated out of Himes’s house and grounds in my hometown, Bay Shore. Himes added a curious, chilling footnote to Speedway lore. After the death of the Demolition Derby inventor, Mendelsohn (suicide, says Himes), the new operators of the Speedway, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, moved into a house on the South Shore that they’d purchased from a savings bank. The Cromartys knew the house they were moving into had been the site of the bloody DeFeo slayings of 1974 (a son had slaughtered his parents, as well as his two sisters and two brothers). What the Cromartys didn’t know was that the previous owner of the Dutch Colonial house, George Lutz, was about to release a book, to be followed by a movie, that identified the Speedway operators’ new place as home to … the Amityville Horror!
There was something appropriate about this figure-eight convergence of Guyland myths that linked, however tenuously, the Demolition Derby to the Gate of Hell. And made me wonder: Why had this ritual, this spectacular enactment of the longing for self-destruction sprung up in my backyard, of all places? It was so boring and uneventful, so generic, when I was growing up. But maybe that was it—the generic rather than the genetic explanation.
The Guyland has long seemed to suffer from the curse of genericism. Consider the very name itself. Couldn’t they have taken a little more time, come up with something a little more colorful, expressive. Or was it just, “What shall we call this long island off the coast here?”
“Let’s call it Long Island.”
And so, rather than a name, it was a category, a generic creature from the word go.
Perhaps we can take some comfort in believing that we are the true originals from which generic American culture has been generated. I know my former employer, King Kullen, always boasted it was the first supermarket in America. We had the first Levittown. California may not have been far behind, but its suburbs, its split-levels and ranch houses, are indisputably modeled on ours.
There is a nice resonance to Pynchon’s line about ranch houses and split-levels lacking “a second story,” lacking, in other words, another dimension, lacking mystery, secrets. Driving some to inscribe secretive second stories on the landscape—or on their fellow citizens—in whatever sensational way they can. I know I can recall feeling the contraction of my horizons when my family moved from a big old three-story Bay Shore place my grandmother once operated as a boarding house and that housed three generations of our extended family to a brand new nuclear-family-only generic ranch house in neighboring Brightwaters, with its single inescapable story. It was a kind of sensory deprivation that, I’m sure, drove me to the sensation-seeking culture of journalism. I’m sure that his adolescence in nearby West Babylon helped make Geraldo Geraldo. (“Esthetically speaking, growing up on Long Island sucked,” Geraldo declared elegantly in his autobiography, “Exposing Myself.”)
It also explains the sensational effect Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, had on me when I discovered it in high school. I remember going around and inscribing on phone booths graffiti in the shape of the “muted post horn”—the novel’s symbol for a centuries-old, conspiratorial secret society operating even now in Pynchon’s tract-house suburbs. Here, at last, was the longed-for “second story” to suburban reality, however paranoid. And I remember thinking when I first read Pynchon’s description of the “ordered swirl” of suburban tract-house patterns seen from above as a kind of “printed circuit,” one that revealed “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning”—finally someone understands.
But I didn’t really understand until I’d spent some time in the ordered swirl of Levittown, researching a story about the Ur-burb’s creator, Bill Levitt. In order to see the fabled circuit board tracts from the inside, I’d posed as a prospective home buyer and let a gold-jacketed Century 21 realtor show me through Levittown homes for sale.
What I saw was a revelation. Most people’s image of Levittown has been formed by the famous photos taken immediately after it became notorious in the late ’40’s. Aerial photos showing an endless grid of treeless streets lined with bare, stencil-faced boxes, houses for pod people, breeders of conformity: soulless generic housing, social critics said, would produce soulless generic burb clones.
Seeing Levittown firsthand four decades later was something of a shock. The place has grown positively hairy with a veritable frenzy of individuation.
Each of the original cookie-cutter homes had sprouted dormers, add-ons, extensions, carapaces of nearly baroque, Dickensian singularity. The interiors I saw were virtual Old Curiosity Shops of built-ins, floor-to-ceiling trellises of shelves, knickknack-crammed nooks and crannies—a thousand different do-it-yourself fantasies. Levittown turned out to be not the epitome of suburban self-abnegation but a tribute to the ineradicable drive for self-expression. A drive that can sometimes turn weird: I think it’s no accident that Levittown gave birth to Bill Griffith, the talented creator of the subversive comic cult figure Zippy the Pinhead, an unshaven, befuddled and demented clown who wanders the suburban landscape issuing mutant aphorisms from a mall-damaged brain.
If there can be said to be a Long Island psyche, perhaps it has something of the contours of those Levittown houses, the product of that same intense longing to inscribe an individual identity on a generic one-story setting, something that has grown hairy, gnarly, idiosyncratic, eccentric and many-storied in reaction. Something like Joel Rifkin’s garden.
I believe Howard Stern was the first to take note of how truly strange Joel’s garden was; Howard called it “that Edward Scissorhands garden.” There have been conflicting reports about whether Joel or his mother designed the garden in front of the East Meadow house they shared, or whether it was a collaboration. And perhaps no one would have paid much attention to this horticultural extravaganza had it not sprouted, blossomed, in front of the home of a horticultural serial killer who had been planting bodies all over the landscape as well. But spooky television news clips of that garden at night made it seem as if it, too, was a product of that same desperate frenzy for individuation, here turned sinister.
Instead of the standard, featureless suburban lawn, one glimpsed a complicated jumble, if not jungle, of bushes and hedges; thorny, briary shapes that, in retrospect, can be seen as a self-portrait of his own state of mind. Joel Rifkin’s garden as the internal landscape of the Long Island psyche, barely kept in trim, only provisionally under control.
But wait. Let’s not end this in Joel Rifkin’s garden. Not without giving some thought to the positive redeeming qualities of Long Island. I could talk about the beaches. I could talk about the diners (I love the diners). I could talk about the peace of mind the lawns and trees brought to people like my father, who grew up in Brooklyn, lived through the Depression and the war and found the American dream on the same streets that became a nightmare of boredom to me.
But I believe the truly redemptive Long Island qualities can be found in some of the darkest, most unlikely places—for instance, Howard Stern’s sense of humor and Katie Beers’s dungeon.
What Howard Stern epitomizes at his best is Long Island’s militant irreverence. The way Guylanders (the lifers not the wannabees) refuse to be impressed by celebrities, dignitaries, airs and names of the sort so dear to New Yorkers, Manhattanites in particular.
We know them too well, is the Guyland attitude. We’ve witnessed their slavish, degrading status-crazed behavior in the Hamptons. We know they’re no different, certainly no better, than us. And they hate us for it. They hate us because they know we know. Which goes a long way to explain why Long Island’s crimes and misdemeanors have been so magnified by the media lens of nearby Manhattan to look even more monstrous than they are.
And what about Katie Beers’s dungeon? Reading over accounts of her imprisonment, watching news clips of her release, I found myself genuinely moved by the courage and spirit of the 10-year-old; by the matter-of-fact cheerfulness that carried her through her ordeal and saw her emerge from her dungeon smiling bravely—even willing, in that very moment, to make a gesture of comfort to the sobbing figure of her captor as he was led away to his dungeon.
Long Island is like that in this sense: Consigned in the mind of America to a dark place not unlike Katie Beers’s dungeon, locked up there by the media, the Guyland, like Little Katie, has learned to smile through the abuse and persevere. Perhaps because it knows a secret, a secret about the future.
The Spaceplex, St. James, L.I. This towering pinball inferno, this laser video-game pandemonium the size of a rocket hangar, this Gothic cathedral of a cyberpunk sensorium, is stuck out in the middle of the middle of the central-island midlands, somewhere between eerie Lake Ronkonkoma (the pervasive local folklore held that Ronkonkoma was “the only lake in the world with no bottom,” which gave rise to rumors of creatures haunting the bottomless nether regions) and the scarily generic Smithhaven Mall.
The Spaceplex was a favorite haunt of Katie Beers, who was something of a pinball wizard in her own right. The Spaceplex was where she could lose herself, or at least distract herself from the warring dysfunctional families who were pinballing her back and forth between them. The Spaceplex was where Katie thought she was going when she was kidnapped by her “family friend,” John Esposito, and where he told police she’d disappeared from, after he’d locked her into the dungeon he’d built beneath the floorboards of his Bay Shore home.
The Spaceplex is an awesome vision of a run-down-Blade-Runnerish future, unlike anything to be found anywhere else in America—yet. Entering the 30-foot-high, 45,000-square-foot rocket hangar is like going through the Gate of Heck. This is Satin’s realm: a long black strobe-lighted Techno-throbbing tunnel leads to a soaring, inky dark, cathedral-like cave, its hollows filled with the echoing caterwauling din of a million boops, beeps, boinks and bong-bong-bongs; its blackness flickering with the reflections of a million flashing sensors, registering a billion acts of virtual violence. The official name is the Spaceplex Family Fun Center. It is really Long Island as the virtual future.
Not that I didn’t have a great time there. I rediscovered the joy of pinball 10 generations more advanced than the games I played at Katie Beers’s age. Ten generations more violent and deranged: I played Blasteroids, Road Riot, Spy Killer, Cabal, Martial Combat, Time Killers, Laser Ghost, Robotron, Rampage, Line of Fire, Lethal Enforcers, Sky Shark and Black Knight (my favorite).
After a while, communing with the pinballs in the enveloping Spaceplex darkness, I felt a kind of mind meld with my Guyland past—the eternal search for distraction, the trench warfare against tedium. But there was something about the Spaceplex that reminded me of another place, another run-down future place: the Space Coast. That’s what Cocoa Beach and the other towns along the Canaveral coast of Florida took to calling themselves during the space boom, when we were still going to the moon, when it looked like the Space Coast might be the Homeport, the Spaceplex for a Trekkie-like Federation of the Planets in the not-unforeseeable future.
They were still calling it the Space Coast some years later when I spent some time down there covering a shuttle launch in the aftermath of the boom, after the Space Goldrush. When the only vibrant optimism about the power of space imagery was pretty much limited to a topless joint in a strip mall that advertised “topless space suit strippers.” When the Space Coast was on the verge of becoming the first Space Ghost Town.
There’s that same unmistakable sense of a lost future in the Long Island Spaceplex, a peeling-vinyl, soiled-Astroturf, diminished vision of the future that is so much less than the one we were promised, the one we longed for. A sense of the aimless derangement that disillusion over a lost future produces.
I think that’s why that beautiful, wistful R.E.M. tribute to Andy Kaufman should qualify as the true Long Island anthem. The song conjures up both the suburban rec-room-in-the-finished-basement past (“Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk ….”) and that sense of an abandoned future, too. I’d wondered at first what the meaning of the refrain “If you believe they put a man on the moon” meant, until I saw the Spaceplex and understood. The future as ghost town: the age of heroic futurist odysseys is so far past, it seems only a rumor they put a man on the moon. Laser Ghost and Blasteroids are the only legacy of the lost illusion.
Long Island, after all, was supposed to be the future before the future. We always had a head start on the life cycle of suburban baby-boom culture because we were the first-born burbs of the baby boom; a burbland created almost all at once, very fast and virtually ex nihilo, right after the war, a self-contained social organism. An organism whose sociobiological clock started ticking a little earlier than subsequent burbs, and whose shrill alarms now seem to signal that it has raced through its mature stage and is now rocketing headlong into the social-organism equivalent of senile dementia.
And so the America that laughs at Long Island’s nonstop Satinist Demolition Derby, the America that looks down on Long Island as something alien, some exotic, carnivalesque pageant separable from its mainstream because it’s separate from the mainland, may have to think again. May have to learn to say of this unruly island what Prospero said of the unruly Caliban at the close of The Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
Because when America laughs at Long Island, it’s laughing in the face of its own onrushing future.
[Photo Credit: Eric Baden/Harvard Art Museum]