MY HOME TOWN
Tawkin' 'Bout My Generation: The Long Island Star Factory
Wednesday, August 15, 2001
It's just too easy to make fun of Long (emphasis on the hard G) Island.
Joey Buttafuoco, big hair, the mob, the garbage barge, Levittown, corrupt local politicians, "Survivor's" Dr. Sean -- it's all there. Along with a host of the famous and infamous, I grew up in the Massapequas, a place on the island's South Shore roughly divided, by train tracks no less, between blue-collar and white-collar. We liked to call it Matzohpizza because of its rich ethnic mix (there were plenty of Irish, too).
The caricatures of Long Island are my heritage. I know from fugedaboudit. I was part of the blue-collar crowd. My dad, Tony Gulotta, was a printer at Newsday. My friends had fathers who were cops and firemen and mailmen. A couple of moms, including mine, had part-time jobs, but only during the hours their children were at school. I didn't meet a kid whose dad wore a tie to work until the ninth grade.
At Alfred G. Berner High School, now a junior high, they sent children who lived on the water to school with us. There I met kids whose dads were newscasters and corporate lawyers and senior vice presidents. I also met lots of famous people, although they weren't famous then.
Xander (pronounced Zan-duh) Baldwin, now better known as Alec, sat next to my brother in science class -- in my yearbook, he's a skinny, goofy-looking freshman class president. He and his brothers lived on the right side of the tracks, but they didn't come from real money. The Baldwin kids were famous in Massapequa long before any films were made because their late dad -- Mr. Baldwin to us -- was a football coach and social studies teacher at Massapequa High for almost 30 years.
Alec and his brothers aren't the only famous sons and daughters of Massapequa. Jerry Seinfeld double-dated with my friend Marion and her date. She recalls him starting sentences with "When I'm a professional comedian." And it was always "when," never "if." Brian Setzer, the Stray Cats rocker turned big-band leader, lived down the block from another friend -- neighbors complained about the noise.
Kiss was the bar band at our favorite hangout, the Daisy, in Amityville, the next town over, but we knew Gene Simmons as Gene Klein and Paul Stanley as Stanley Eisen. We shot pool and drank 35-cent beers while they played.
Mob boss Carlo Gambino lived on the water, on the right side of the tracks. Bodyguards hung out on his front stoop. A rite of passage in high school was to drive fast past Gambino's goons, yelling obscenities out the car window. Cheap thrills, Long Island-style.
Ron Kovic, the Vietnam War veteran and peace activist who wrote "Born on the Fourth of July," was raised up the block from my buddy Gail. Anti-Hillary book author and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and I went to the same junior high, although she was ahead of me.
My friends and I have a theory about why she dislikes the senator from New York: It's not just the politics, it's because Hillary Clinton looks and acts like the snooty moneyed girls who were often quite cool to the girls who lived north of the tracks. Like me, Noonan has retained friends from her youth in Massapequa. "I spent the Fourth of July . . . at Tobay [Beach], with my best friend from junior high and her husband and family and my son," Noonan recently told me. "It was fabulous. We toured as we always do, like the stations of the cross, the houses we lived in."
Noonan moved from Massapequa in her sophomore year, but she returns for high school reunions. "So many of us are still friends, which is thrilling and touching." I know exactly how she feels.
Like most of these now-famous people, my family didn't have a lot of money. Neither did anyone else in my neighborhood. But at Berner High in the early 1970s, working-class and privileged-class not only mingled, they became friends. I got lots of rides on expensive motorcycles and 35-foot sailboats. I was invited to summer houses on Fire Island. I didn't know it then, but those forays would open my eyes to another Long Island.
As teenagers, we hitchhiked to the beach just about every summer day, first to Jones Beach Field 4, the closest to the main roads. And then, when cars and boats entered the picture, to Tobay Beach and Gilgo Beach and Fire Island. We dug our toes in the shallow waters of the Great South Bay in search of clams, slurping them down with cold beers. We learned to body-surf without breaking our necks.
We discovered the beauty of the North Shore. We spent rainy days at Teddy Roosevelt's house, Sagamore Hill, with its hundreds of animal heads and its sweeping lawn reaching to wide-open vistas of the Long Island Sound, seeing the F. Scott Fitzgerald world we read about in English class. We rambled through quaint, New Englandy villages like Cold Spring Harbor, with its incredibly expensive gift shops and French restaurants. We absorbed the ecology at the Planting Fields, a 400-acre Gatsby-like estate turned into a state historic park.
We went farther afield on Long Island. We took long motorcycle rides to the North Fork, then all Long Island ducks and potatoes and now a string of wineries and upscale bed-and-breakfasts. We drove to the tip of the island at Montauk and climbed the 200-year-old lighthouse for views of Block Island. We went to clubs in the Hamptons.
I left Massapequa Park at age 20 and moved to a beach on the other coast. For many years, I didn't like coming back. I made fun of the accents and the rudeness and the crowds. I turned my back on fugedaboudit.
But now I go back whenever I can -- especially in summer. I am comforted when, leaving church on a sunny Sunday morning, I watch an old man put his arm around his friend's shoulders, overhearing him say, "Waddayagonnado?" I laugh when I take too long ordering and the guy behind the deli counter tells me he doesn't have all day. I go with my mom to the village's "Breakfast in the Park" on July Fourth weekend and see the kids of the kids I went to school with. I sit on my brother's boat at Tobay Beach drinking a cold Budweiser, watching the kids catch crabs off the pier, and feel totally content. I eat Italian cookies from Di Monda's and french fries from All American, and I know I'll lose the weight when I leave because they don't have food like this in the Olive Garden world I inhabit.
The island has faults. It's crowded, the drivers are crazy, the people aren't outwardly friendly, and smokers are everywhere. But my kids won't grow up grabbing a slice of pie at Sal's, understanding Yiddish words without being Jewish, watching the waves come in under a full moon, walking into town to pick up hot semolina bread.
I sometimes wonder why so many famous people are linked to the Massapequas. Did ethnic guilt obligate them to make good? Did the proximity to the seemingly unattainable world of Manhattan spur them on? Were they saving themselves from drowning in the miles of tract homes? Or, like me, did interacting with those privileged kids open their eyes to a world of possibilities? Who knows. Cuz, hey, waddayagonnado? Pass me a cannoli and fugedaboudit.