On Long Island

Or, on being a writer from a scorned place.

Whenever St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, I start to feel nostalgic for something I never really had, but that because of my last name, I feel inextricably tied to: Irish-American identity. It’s, as I’ve written before, the ethnicity I most closely identify with because of its lack of demands, its focal point being the pub—any pub—as well as its history of resistance against imperial power. I’ve written pieces for the holiday before, and for those, I sat on various stools in Manhattan, ordered a whiskey soda or a pint, and simply thought. These have been some of the best moments of my life, alone and thinking with a drink in a jovial and welcoming atmosphere. These have also been some of the worst, like when I blacked out the first St. Patrick’s Day after my brother passed away. He loved the holiday, in his way, so I followed in his footsteps for that one.

I think of Ed Burns’s first indie classic, The Brothers McMullen, when I think about who I am. I’m not a man, but I’m from Long Island, and I knew that to be who I needed to be, I needed to get the fuck away from Long Island. It took me a long time, though, because I was scared and didn’t know whether I could really hack it. Being bridge and tunnel is a stain on the soul, and for some reason, transplants to New York City from farther away don’t carry it. Maybe they carry something else (the scorn of those of us who are bridge and tunnel, perhaps). There was a great line in Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless about this—I seem to have misplaced the book—about someone she was dating from Staten Island. About how when you grew up with the city so close, it can feel harder to go near. No one nailed it quite like that for me before. Being mixed, being from Long Island—these are similar liminal spaces to me. I never get to have everything at once; there’s always an asterisk on my life.

In The Brothers McMullen, Burns’s character, Barry, tells his editor he’s living back at home. The editor says, “Writers live in Manhattan, Barry. Joey Buttafuocos live on Long Island.” This is still the perspective, and it’s a fair one, if a classist one. Suffolk County voted for Trump; it’s an epicenter of New York’s opioid crisis, which killed my brother. The town where I come from, Patchogue, is most famous for a hate crime perpetrated by teenage boys brought up in an environment where referring to brown people as “illegal” was a matter of course. Maybe the bridge and tunnel stain could be called the Buttafuoco stain, which suggests a lack of morals, a blue-collar brutishness.

Whether I did indeed have to leave Long Island to be a writer is up for debate. Maybe I just internalized the hate. It reminds me of Chris Kraus asking in I Love Dick whether there’s a way to be a proud heterosexual woman when it is generally a condition of debasement. Can I be a proud Long Islander? The mere phrase signifies conservatism, parochial perspectives, and banality. The phrase just sounds racist. Yet I pursue it, my version of it, because it’s all I’ve got. It’s my cultural background; it’s my identity.

To be a writer, I had to get away from where I grew up but I also had to own my voice. I had to understand the Buttafuoco stain and mold it to my needs. I had to not pretend I was anything but someone from the south shore of Long Island. I went to a nice Catholic high school, a nice Jesuit college (that I’m still paying for), but when you leave the cradle of Strong Island, these markers are actually used to suggest someone lower class. I was fancy for Patchogue; I wasn’t so fancy for Manhattan and the media work I was pursuing where people seemed to have a grip on an elite class language I hadn’t realized even existed. (As Daisy Alioto, at Dirt, writes, “To be suburban is to always be on the wrong side of the politics of taste.”)

My nice Catholic high school, run by Franciscan monks in brown habits, wasn’t like a fancy private school that costs tens of thousands per year. On Law & Order: SVU and in the novel Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart, a Fordham education is noted as something nice for the working class—the mark of a striver. The idea that the trappings of my life are character notes for major TV shows and novels is another way that being bridge and tunnel means being so close, yet so far. They know who we are; they choose to use our lives as signifiers.

Look at Sex and the City: What does a New York or outerborough accent suggest there? It’s only voiced by cat-calling construction workers, by Steve the Irish bartender, by girls in crude outfits who want to fight. Am I more Carrie or crude girl? Do you know how quickly I give someone the finger if they fuck with me in some way? Can a writer do that?

My model as a writer when I entered adolescence was Rene Ricard as played by Michael Wincott in Basquiat, which at this point I’ve seen well over a hundred times, memorizing Benicio as Benny explaining what it means to be famous. (The film’s politics on the whole leave quite a bit to be desired, I would realize when I got older.) We first meet Ricard scribbling away in Tompkins Square Park, swooning over Jean-Michel’s work, melting down drunk over a perceived insult. When I read about how Ricard really was, basically everyone says he was an asshole. It doesn’t really matter when “The Radiant Child” is still the piece of criticism I’ve read most. “I consider myself the metaphor of the public,” he writes. “I’m a public eye. And I only hype the sureshot.”

Maybe it’s that influence that always sees me going back to Long Island as a toned-down Moira Rose, all ballooning jumpsuit I bought in Mexico City paired with a bag purchased in Buenos Aires finished off with deeply on sale designer shoes I bought at Barneys during a meltdown. Hello, hometown. I’m a writer now.

The other day I listened to Eileen Myles on “Bookworm” say, “The rhythms of your home are the rhythms of your writing voice.” That reminded me why they’re one of my favorite writers, a commitment to their vernacular, their roots. It’s not a chest-puffing move, but one that’s just about telling the truth—not just in what you say, but in its very form. That’s why I love Knausgaard, Cusk, Heti, and Kate Zambreno, too.

“I get bad marks for a dirty desk,” Zambreno writes in Book of Mutter, about the death of her mother. “I store everything in my desk because I cannot bring the mess home with me and so the nuns dump my desk in the center of the room and I must clean it up to stares.” My desk in a terrible Catholic grade school was also always in utter disarray, to the jeers of teachers. One of my oldest friends’ first memory is not of me, but of my absence one day, where my messy desk was mocked when my brother came by to pick up what I needed for homework. Did I cause him shame in that moment? I have to ask myself. On one of our last phone calls, he told me he wanted to move to the city. He wanted to get away from Long Island. It didn’t suit him anymore. He also wanted to be a writer, wanted to write the story of his incarceration and experiences in the fucked-up state-run rehab facilities. My brother had so much to say.

Memories of nasty nuns, of kneeling on fake green leather benches before a crucifix, of a disdain I felt for everyone around me on my softball teams, of getting in my friend’s car when she just had her permit to get wraps at Tiger Lily Café, of the time we stole our brothers’ Razr scooters to go to Burger King (they’re both gone now, same disease), of diner after diner after diner, of knowing each Starbucks by heart, of the way the sun rose over the Northern State Parkway on my way to school, of all these movies I watched on TV—these are the rhythms of my home, and they’re the undeniable rhythms of my writing voice. The Brothers McMullen is a love letter to that notion, I see now. St. Patrick’s Day, Long Island—they’re nothing to be ashamed of; in my writing, I’ve taken control of the stain by not hiding it. They’re who I am. I drink to them. I write for them. 

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Mark Byrne, co-founder of Good Vodka, which is made from coffee waste. We talk about moving from journalism to booze, green-washing and virtue-washing by massive brands, and how alcohol can become truly sustainable once again.

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Just research. Nothing fun. But revisiting Eileen Myles’s For Now after that “Bookworm” interview. It’s one of my favorite radio shows/podcasts ever, even if I mentally yell at host Michael Silverblatt for misgendering Myles!

Let me tell you the truth: I have NOT been cooking. Too busy, baby. If I have cooked anything, it’s been a mindless act for sustenance and I really do miss a calm yet elaborate dinner on our patio with a nice bottle of wine. Above is a vegan brunch platter from a restaurant in Aguada called Mimosa. The best vegan brunch ever.