Clarey sends Postcard from Long Island

by Brian Clarey

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a trip to the family homestead on Long Island, although my parents sold the house years ago and now live in an apartment on Nassau Boulevard across the street from a bar that was once known as Paddy’s Inn (and Whiskey Red’s before that) where I’ve been drinking since I was about 14 years old.

Paddy, by the way, now lives in Greensboro, and I’ll occasionally bump into him at a bar or a blues show or something and we’ll talk about the old days and that guy named Paulie who used to hang out in the bathroom.

And it wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t spend some time traveling the roads and byways of my largely misspent youth here on the island, letting the memories rise to the surface of my psyche and then wash over me in a soothing balm.

You want me to set the scene? I’ll set the scene. I’m sitting in a Panera near the corner of Jericho Turnpike and Herricks Road during the lunch rush surrounded by people with hard accents dressed in black. Traffic flows like a rushing river outside in the near-freezing rain and the parking lot is a snarling tangle of angry SUV drivers giving each other the finger and a taste of the horn. There are stores and restaurants as far as the eye can see, and naked black trees, their branches like streaks of India ink against the thickly clouded sky.

My high school is a mile down the road, and I can see the pizza joint where my friends and I ate lunch nearly every day of our senior year. Were I to head east for five minutes I would come upon the mall where I worked during my teens, and just across the street from it once stood a restaurant where I tended bar for a couple years after college when I was trying to figure out just what the hell I wanted to do with my life.

If I wanted to, I could head over to 7th Street in Garden City and stand on the corner and within a couple hours see 15 people I grew up with.

What is it about this place, as hard and cold as it is, that makes me feel so warm inside?

For me Long Island is the ultimate known quantity, even though so much has changed in the 20 years I’ve been gone.

And, of course, much is still the same. The way people drive, for instance, is shameful, and if we drove a crappier car we’d ram into some of these maniacs just on principle.

I am of this place. I understand its rhythms and the motivations of its people – not always so noble, but certainly well defined. I know where to get a good ham, egg and cheese and that a regular coffee will contain milk and sugar. The accent, which after a couple days here is starting to sneak back into my voice, sounds like a kind of music to me. And while in North Carolina I sometimes feel like an exotic and misunderstood animal, here on Long Island there are a million Irish guys with flat asses and big, red noses who truly believe the Giants can win the Super Bowl this year.

I mean, they’re 10-5 as of this dispatch. That’s pretty damn good.

My children have been luxuriating in the presence of their doting grandparents and my far-flung sisters who think it’s hysterical when my little girl stamps her foot and tells me “No!”

My wife, who has been getting her New York on in a big way, is out making deals and lining up business, which around here is a form of entertainment and one of the things that people really respect.

And I’m just soaking it all in, wondering if I could ever live up here again while knowing in both my heart and mind that I can’t.

Tonight we’ll see Dr. Lawyer and his lovely wife Dr. Doctor; there’ll be wine and song, laughter and tears as our children tumble around on the floor just like me and the doctor did not so long ago. Tomorrow will be spent with one of the Mikes – like half of my New York friends are named Mike – and his wife Mrs. Mike, and maybe the Dicks will drive in from their new home in Harlem, the purchase of which has inspired me to call him the anti-George Jefferson.

Because he sold his de-luxe apartment in the sky to live in Harlem, you see.

And on Saturday we’ll get up before sunrise and hit the road, hoping to cross Staten Island before the heavy traffic sets in. We’ll bring bagels big as a baby’s head, eat them on the road and remember our trip. And before dinner we should be back in Carolina, except for the pieces of us we left behind.

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