SONG: The Downeaster 'Alexa' by Billy Joel
BODY OF WATER: Atlantic Ocean
The year I was born, a hurricane made landfall on Long Island that sent gray Atlantic waves gobbling up the sand and slamming against the building where my family lived. We had a third floor apartment that faced the sea, nothing but a strip of beach between us. When I got a little older, my father would take me onto our terrace during storms to see bolts of lightning slice the water, or watch as the ocean slowly swallowed the sun.
As south shore kids, we bragged about our wipe-outs, how strong waves sucked us into themselves and sent us somersaulting until we could only guess which way led back to breathing. Once, a friend collided with another child’s boogie board and emerged onto the sand slicked with blood running from his nose. When his mother saw him, she fled in the other direction. Once our parents spotted a baby, upside down, chubby legs churning in the air after it tipped into one of the buckets of water we dragged up to our piece of beach, where we laid out towels and vinyl chairs, where the adults sat under umbrellas reading or talking nonsense or doling out pieces of fruit, occasionally hauling themselves up to stand at the shore and watch over us. The danger was part of the appeal, as was the discomfort, the sunburn, the sand collecting inside the crotches of bathing suits, the stripes of zinc under our eyes, the heavy sensation in our lungs when we took deep breaths after swimming for hours. During the day, our beach was populated with gentle characters: the sand sculptor who with his hands shaped huge turtles, the bagpiper bleating at all hours, the martial artist up at dawn doing tai chi by the jetty. But at night, the boardwalk became dotted with shambling figures that required a wide berth; they were left over from the deinstitutionalization of the 1970s, when city mental institutions discharged their patients to ancient motels lining the Long Beach sand.
When I was seven, we moved a few miles inland, to a town that was wealthier and whiter. And greener: here was your classic suburb of split-levels, sycamores, and well-groomed lawns. My brother and I were forbidden from watching television when the sun was out, so we pulled the neighbor kids from their air conditioning and onto the streets, which we crosshatched with chalk drawings. My parents started calling our house Camp Schubach, and we quickly forgot that it ever hadn’t been ours.
But something must have remained off-kilter. Once, while riding bikes down one of the smooth avenues of our neighborhood, a friend shared with me her prophecy: “You’re going to leave and I’m going to stay here, and every now and then you’ll come back and visit and tell me about where you went.” And the idea, Stay here, suddenly struck me as impossible; it provoked a disgust I couldn’t explain.
Last summer some friends and I drove out from Queens to the island to spend a weekend at the beach. Before we headed back to the city, we stopped at a diner. It was packed for Sunday breakfast, and as we waited to be seated, carful after carful of Long Islanders piled in behind us, surveyed the crowds, and proclaimed to whomever would listen, “I’m not fucking waiting.”
The situation, we learned over and over again, was bullshit, this place was poorly run, if a table didn’t open right away they were leaving. The pitch of their anger seemed at odds with the well-lit, bustling circumstances of the little diner, almost to the point of the surreal. But in fact it was familiar, the impatience and the aggravation, the suspicion that, absent constant vigilance, you will get fucked. Many Long Islanders do not have deep roots in this country; growing up, most everyone’s grandparents, including my own, had foreign accents. Perhaps it’s how they had to fight for their little pockets of affluence after who knows what kind of nightmare stops along the way, a fight passed down the generations but now missing a reasonable target. The hostility was like a gene activated at the onset of puberty; I remember wondering a few days into middle school, the kind of place where reading Lord of the Flies would have been redundant, is this what it’s going to be like? Where were the friendly beach clans, the children whose brutishness ended at carving up jellyfish with plastic sand shovels? So I found a new clan—the Goths—and made it my business to loathe Long Island, to make my outsider orientation clear to everyone.
Long Island can be shockingly provincial, its proximity to one of the world’s greatest cultural centers seemingly not a factor at all; it’s among the most racially segregated areas in the country, and in 2014 the state had to order school districts to enroll undocumented immigrant children, after they claimed to have no room for them. My brother’s peewee baseball coach once told the players to run like a pack of people were chasing them, using a slur to describe said people that is not appropriate for children or for anyone, and when I had my Bat Mitzvah, another girl told me that her mother disapproved of the whole proceeding because the invitation cards had been “too casual.” Often, people’s approval and disapproval seemed misplaced; what stoked their outrage had little to do, I thought and continue to think, with what was actually wrong.
We Goths felt that we alone knew this. We were imbued with the righteous authority to identify poseurs, followers, and Jewish American Princesses, to forge our own paths. What you feel you discover as an adolescent about your culture, its pettiness and justifications, its encouragement of the forfeiture of dreams and values, is not actually wrong; you just gradually become acclimated until you fall victim yourself, like being sucked under a wave, only very, very slowly.
My affection for Long Island has not exactly grown. I jettisoned my accent in college because students from the New York suburbs were widely known to be brash, entitled, and oblivious, about as appealing as an eight a.m. class. But it’s started to come back. I’ve found it makes me sound tough, if only to myself, when I want to seem like I’m not nervous or self-conscious. That edge of hostility, unfounded though it may be, imbues us with power. Holding onto misplaced rage is a form of self-harm, like holding a hot coal in your hand, but we can always throw that coal at someone else.
Maybe what we’re all angry about is being from Long Island. But none of us control where we come from; place of origin is as arbitrary as it is formative. Which may be why it’s so appealing to overlay our homelands with an ambitious sweep—which in turn explains Billy Joel.
The homegrown troubadour unites nearly all Long Islanders, be they Goth or poseur—though of course even he sings mostly about the city. “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’,” though, evokes a dream-Long Island, gritty, romantic, and sea-swept; it’s the ballad of a down-on-his-luck fisherman from a vanishing community, struggling to make a living off the same waters that hemmed us all in, left us vulnerable, formed an incubator for the kind of insular, territorial island culture that has at some points in history bred cannibalism. In the music video, a solemn-faced Joel plays an accordion on a crumbling dock and then underneath a boardwalk, intercut with images of bearded men shaking out damp fishing nets on ship decks. The song is so epic that it includes a violin solo by Itzhak Perlman. Its seriousness can be a little tough to take.
But his brazen earnestness must be what people love about Billy Joel, why he is playing thirty consecutive shows at MSG this year. Long Islanders, too, often carry with them a touching streak of sincerity; my friend from Islip does an impression of a “classic Long Islander,” which is a middle-aged tough guy wandering nervously around a drugstore, looking for the tampon aisle because his girlfriend sent him out to get some.
“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” concludes with a nod to Long Island’s social divisions: “There ain't no island left for islanders like me,” Joel sings. The track is at its heart a folk ballad about a vanishing nautical community, but hearing Billy Joel intone the phrase “islanders like me” almost feels like tacit permission to be just a little proud of coming from Long Island. And you can’t sing about it without singing about the water; the whole region’s saving grace may be its vulnerability to the natural world, which periodically makes sure to remind us that the apartment towers, the motels, the baseball fields and shopping malls and wedding venues, can be taken by the waves, the pettiness and provincialism is nothing against the mouth of the ocean, which can swallow it all as easy as it swallowed the sun every night when I watched from the terrace.
Alanna Schubach is a teacher and freelance journalist living in Queens. Her fiction has previously appeared in Newtown Literary, Post Road, Prick of the Spindle, the Bellevue Literary Review, and more. She was named a 2015 Fellow in Fiction with the New York Foundation for the Arts.