Unfolding the Map
Slipping into the stream of traffic, we zip by names of towns that that evoke images, memories and imagination. All this happens on Long Island, which we are soon to leave as we enter briefly into the boroughs of New York City itself. To the right is a flag of the proposed state of Long Island, and the Independent Long Island Micronation. The image is from Wikimedia Commons. To find yourself on our journey, steer yourself to the map.
"The side road ended, and I got pulled onto an expressway as if I were part of a train. I buckled the seatbelt, popped in a piece of bubblegum, put on my twelve-o'clock-high sunglasses, and got ready for the city. You'd have thought I was going to run the Gaza Strip. But it was Islip, Babylon, Amityville, Merrick, Oceanside. The Belt Roadway showed the backsides of suburbs and miles of carpet sample, unclaimed freight, factory outlet, and furniture warehouse stores - half of them gone under, the others with windows blocked by giant prices."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7
Blue Highways: Islip, Babylon, Amityville, Merrick, and Oceanside
I was agonizing about what I would write for this post. After all, LHM doesn't give me too much in the quote. He just "girds his loins," so to speak, with seatbelt, bubblegum and sunglasses and zips past five communities on his way through small Long Island communities into New York City. You can tell this is the early eighties, as nowadays you won't find too many people who don't have their seatbelt on already. But writing about seatbelts doesn't really make for an exciting post. Aren't you glad, Littourati, that I'm not boring you with that? Don't get me wrong, seatbelts are important, and one should wear them at all times in a vehicle, but I don't think that I could get many words out of that.
Instead, what this passage brings to my mind is the process of imagination, especially while driving. Like LHM, I've been in those situation where, like a leave that falls into a small stream and gets swept down channels into a larger stream, I've found myself channeled by onramps into flowing traffic where I have gotten caught up in getting where I'm supposed to be going. Exits, signs, and buildings blur past, creating a kaleidoscope of images that make small impression on my mind and then are gone, whisked into the past in both time and distance by the movement of my vehicle. Names of towns appear and then fly by but, as my mind registers them, often something about the names causes me to think of some past event or piece of knowledge or image that swims to the foreground of my awareness and allows me to reflect on it before the next town name brings something new to the surface.
As I read Blue Highways, I too am driving on the Belt Parkway with LHM. So what do these town names bring forth for me? Do they touch anything? Let's take an inventory of the memories and images that come up for me just from the names flashing by.
Islip. Beyond the trivial - I slip and I fall - the only association that I have with Islip is Southwest Airlines. Years ago, Southwest announced that they were starting flights into the New York City area. They couldn't get gate privileges at LaGuardia, Kennedy or even Newark, New Jersey so they began flights into Islip. At the time, Southwest was almost always the cheapest airline to take anywhere. They had pre-purchased their fuel when prices were low, and were able to pass that savings onto the customer. At the time, I was making three trips a year to New York City, and briefly considered Islip as a destination until I realized that getting from there into the city would entail more expense on a shuttle, a rental car or a limousine service. In the end I opted for higher prices to fly into Newark or LaGuardia. Now, Southwest has gates at all three airports and their prices have risen as their store of pre-purchased fuel ran out. But then, I would briefly and longingly look at the price to Islip, and then choose another airline.
Babylon. Just the name Babylon takes this early world history geek into interesting realms of the past. The original Babylon, as you may remember from your world civilization class, was a very important city that figured into Middle Eastern history as a part of, and prize for, several empires. It was a large city and, due to its geographical position, home to many different and diverse peoples. It was the subject of one of the first tales in the Bible as the place where the Tower of Babel was built as a statement of unity of peoples and in defiance of God. Babylon is also associated with eastern religious gods and their mysteries. While little is left of the original city today, which is situated in modern-day Iraq, in the early 1900s German archeologists unearthed and deconstructed the Ishtar Gate, a major entrance into Babylon, and installed it in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. This is where I touched Babylon, on a trip to Germany about 10 years ago.
Amityville. The only thing that comes to my imagination is The Amityville Horror, a book and movie that I have never seen. I've never been much of a fan of the horror genre, either in literature or movies. If you grew up in the 70s, however, you know something about the story: A house in Amityville was very haunted, at least in the minds of a couple that bought the house after a man murdered six members of his family there, and eventually the things that they heard and saw drove them away from their new home. I have always wanted to experience the paranormal in some way, and have even gone so far as to visit some places that have been supposedly haunted. Either there is no paranormal activity, or I'm just not sensitive to otherworldly activities. So far, I have been disappointed in this quest. For a while, I thought that Amityville might also be the place where Jaws was set, but after reading a little further found it was set on fictional Amity Island.
Merrick. Nothing much for my imagination here that is easily relatable. The only association I can make with Merrick is a complex character named Ronald Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown trilogy of books about the violent transformation of India from a colony to an independent country. If you haven't read these books, or seen the BBC adaptation, they are a real treat but also very dense and full of historical events that many of us are only dimly aware of.
Oceanside. This name only brings an image and the image is not of the town, to which I've never been, but of my own home town, which sits on the ocean. As I have mentioned in past posts, the coast is a place that I almost consider a temple - a place where I can spend some time and do some spiritual healing. I hope that Oceanside and its environs have elements of that feel, as close as it is to New York City.
Thus concludes my flight into imagination as I take an imaginary trip with LHM in Blue Highways down the Belt Parkway into New York City.
We're leaving Long Island, so here is a triple shot of Long Island artists that have some meaning for me. The first song is Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, by Long Island native Billy Joel. I used to own albums by him when I was in high school, and he was a constant fixture on the radio when I was becoming aware of music.
The last one is by Pat Benatar, who was not born on Long Island but grew up there. I had her first two albums when I was in high school, and thought she was great. Smart, strong and sexy (just the thing a high school boy could fantasize about). She also had this song, Hell is for Children, which resonated with me because as I've made clear in these posts previously, I lived with sexual abuse.
If you want to know more about Islip, Babylon, Amityville, Merrick and Oceanside
Amityville Record (newspaper)
Babylon Beacon (newspaper)
If You're Thinking of Living in Merrick (NY Times article)
Islip Chamber of Commerce
Long Island Herald (news)
Oceanside Chamber of Commerce
Oceanside: Our Little Town
Town of Babylon
Town of Islip
Village of Amityville
Village of Babylon
Wikipedia: Babylon (village)
Wikipedia: Babylon (town)
Next up: Brooklyn, New York