Memories of Concrete and Asphalt

8088965584_cef7870c35Back in October, my parents came down from Long island to take my son to Kings Dominion, an amusement park just outside of Richmond.  Being that he’s only five years old, he was interested in the animatronic dinosaurs and kiddie rides, one of which was the Peanuts tie-in called “Joe Cool’s Driving School.”  He sat in a little car and drove around a mock streetscape that came complete with traffic lights, road signs, and street lamps, one of which looks exactly like the crooked-style street lamp that I remember being attached to jersey barriers on the Wantagh Parkway.

In case you are unfamiliar with the Wantagh Parkway or any of the other parkways on Long Island, this is one of a network of roads that shuttles passengers around Long Island, especially to and from New York City.  I won’t name and describe all of them, but will say that the two most well-known are the Southern State and Northern State, which run on the south and north shores, respectively, with parkways like the Meadowbrook, Wantagh, and Sagtikos connecting them from north to south.  The parkways were designed in the earlier decades of the 20th Century by Robert Moses (who was parks commissioner at the time and has a state park and causeway named after him) and are passenger car-only roadways with stone-façade bridges, and even some hiking and walking trails.

A satellite view of the Wantagh Parkway, courtesy of Google Maps.

A satellite view of the Wantagh Parkway, courtesy of Google Maps.

But important to me and my childhood on Long Island, these parkways were the way my family traveled from our house in Sayville to my grandmother’s house in New Hyde Park.  She and my grandfather (who passed away when I was in high school) lived in a  typical post-war suburban home that they had moved into back in the late 1940s or early 1950s when my grandfather had returned from the Second World War, living in Brooklyn became tougher, and these homes were becoming more readily available.  My family drove this route more times than I can count, and it wasn’t until I attended Joe Cool’s Driving School that I realized that every trip to my grandmother’s was a history lesson.  I honestly don’t know what prompted it—probably because I have always associated Peanuts with the suburban 1960s of its television specials—and I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before.  After all, I have always been interested in the modern history of my homeland (although I have only read Robert Caro’s infamous New Yorker article on Robert Moses and not The Power Broker, which I swear I will one day pick up and read) so you think I would have realized that Long Island has an element of “living history” to it.

Exit W3 in 2009 with the parkway's crooked lamp posts, courtesy of street view on Google Maps ...

Exit W3 in 2009 with the parkway’s crooked lamp posts, courtesy of street view on Google Maps …

Then again, you rarely notice these things when you live among them and the history of suburban Long Island is not designated with historical markers the way the Revolutionary and Civil War landmarks are near my current home in Virginia.  It’s more geologic, in a sense.  When you look at a rock formation or a canyon, you see striations in the rocks and any geologist can tell you how that determines the age as well as what can clue you into that area’s history (for example, the presence of certain elements can suggest that, say, an asteroid hit the Earth at some point).  When you look at the suburbs of Long island, you see that their history is layered.  Sure, Levitt bulldozed farmland and build houses at one point and Moses did the same for the parkways, but that was more than half a century ago and since then, one thing has been built on top of one another, or the old has been repurposed, perhaps several times over.

... and the same exit taken in 2011, accessed on Google Maps.

… and the same exit taken in 2011, accessed on Google Maps.

Starting my trip in my parents’ house in Sayville is perfect for this sort of examination.  My hometown is a good 200 years old and while it has had its fair share of changes over the years (read: something was knocked down in order to put up another bank), there are still vestiges of its former life as a seaside gateway for the turn-of-the-century upper class as well as century-old main street buildings that are more suited to its life a s pre-suburban small town, as are the towns of West Sayville and Oakdale, which we would snake through on our way to the three parkways that would eventually take us to New Hyde Park.

Each seems to have its own personality.  The Southern State, which when I was a little kid still had a few timber post street lamps lining its shoulders, has the feel of what I can imagine was truly considered a “parkway”—a sprawling, twisting, turning road with stone-façade bridges that reminds you that you are, in fact, driving along the south shore.  Even when it becomes the Belt Parkway (the bane of any New York-area traveler), you still feel like you are on a coastal highway.  Contrast that with the Northern State, witch seems to choke its way along the north shore before it becomes the Grand Central Parkway and heads straight for Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes, and you have a look at various shades of the past.  On approach to New Hyde Park via the Northern State, there are the North Shore Towers, which is a high rise luxury condo but always seemed like a reminder that we were near New York City.

But not the New York City of the time; a New York City of another era, or the type of city I remembered from years of educational films.  And the Wantagh provided the transition between the more open, even rural Suffolk County and the increasingly urban Nassau County.  Whereas the Southern and Northern States both saw their looks change from years past—lanes were expanded and timber post lights were modernized—for years, the Wantagh still had the same crooked lamp post that were installed in the 1970s and it skirted by towns that at a glance looked like they hadn’t changed in years.  It’s not an extraordinary stretch of road by any means and we were only on the parkway for a few miles, but between those towns and those lights, I always felt as if I were going back in time.

Another shot of Exit W3, with a clearer view of the houses along the side of the parkway

Another shot of Exit W3, with a clearer view of the houses along the side of the parkway

The Wantagh cuts right through Levittown, the original ‘burb, a place of cookie-cutter homes whose influence I saw in the northern half of Sayville throughout my childhood.  The exit for Hempstead Turnpike provided a glimpse of that era, a land of small places that GIs bought almost as a thank-you for their service, places that would be scoffed at by today’s home buyers for their lack of amenities.  My grandparents’ house, which was several miles away, was one such house and well, its lifetime in our family is worthy of another essay in its own right, so I will just say that since we went there for just about every holiday as kids, and it rarely changed—the color scheme, the carpet, the location of the candy dish were always the same and that made it a constant, even a comfort.

My grandmother sold the house in 1999 and died a few years ago at the age of 86.  My wife and I went to the funeral, but it didn’t register with me how significant the trip was until a few weeks later.

I mean, I know what it meant.  We had flown to Long Island to pay our respects, but at the time, getting in the car to go to the funeral was just the means by which to say farewell to the family matriarch, a word which makes us sound like the Kennedys or the Rockefellers, even if that’s the right usage.  We’re a middle-class family, but a close one, where cousins seem more like an extra set of siblings and where not seeing someone for a long time seems to be erased by just a few moments of hanging out together.

I saw that right away at the funeral parlor before the service and at lunch afterwards when I caught up with people I hadn’t seen for at least a year prior.  The whole experience was what I expected from one of my family’s funerals—they tend to be oddly fun.  Which is the wrong way of putting it, yes, but when you are mourning someone who lived a long time and who enjoyed having her family around, you want to celebrate that person.  And my grandmother had spent most of her last year in pain, so a lot of the grieving process for my family had already started or maybe even completed.  The mass, the ride out to the cemetery in Calverton, and the burial were all closure.  And in all honesty, I don’t think I gave it much thought beyond that.

But there are things that pop back into your life every once in a while that remind you of people or times in your life.  My son’s driving around a fake road featuring cartoon characters had me in the car on the Wantagh for the same trip.  I could see the exit to the Northern State, the hairpin-turn exit for New Hyde Park Road, the North Shore Towers, the office buildings, the tennis courts, the PathMark, the Annie Sez, and the bank.  From my childhood when my sister and I bickered with one another while my parents subjected us to 106.7 Lite FM to that day of the funeral, that drive never changed, except that that day was the last time we’d ever do it.

We hadn’t done that for a number of years anyway, but the drive up and then the drive by her house was as symbolic as any of the rituals that were performed at the funeral mass.  And I know this seems narcissistic or something, but at least a few times during the day, I couldn’t help but think about how small and quiet death seems.  You came into the world with such fanfare and noise and there are moments in your life that are celebrated just as loudly.  But along with the quiet respect that comes with your leaving is a general quiet among those who are there.

The quiet won’t last long, though.  It may have been the last trip out there but the rest of us are still here, and although we are not always all together at the same time, I’m sure that there will be more family gatherings, holidays, and definitely more noise.  A legacy, I’m sure anyone would be proud to have.

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