Long Island’s little secrets

Long Island’s little secrets

As you approach the final stretch of Long Island, New York, the land mass splits into twin forks, as equally beautiful as they are distinct in culture and reputation. At the apex of that split is a town called Riverhead, sitting, as its name suggests, at the mouth of the Peconic River. It is the gateway to the splendor of the island’s East End: to the family farms, open markets, and wineries of the North Fork and to the mansions of the Hamptons on the South Fork.

I found myself at this juncture near Christmas. I was visiting family on the island, where I grew up and where I’ve lived in several of its towns. One of them was Riverhead. It is a place of strange duality. Here you’ll find beauty and decay, charm and vulgarity, modern commerce and good old-fashioned poverty, thronging crowds and desolation. I lived here for over a decade and never figured the place out. A recent trip to its quaint downtown reminded me of this. Pour yourself a cup of tea and let me show you around.

The area is charming enough. A Turkish restaurant sits along the river, which at that point looks more like a creek or a minor tributary. Nearby, you can lounge on waterside benches, walk your dog, admire a few old houses on the historical registry. If your palate isn’t so exotic, there’s a Depression-era diner a short walk up the street – its original patrons might have called it a “greasy spoon” – inhabiting what was once a railway car. In the other direction, there’s an aquarium for kids.
It sounds nice, and mostly looks the part, but there’s an odd loneliness to the place. Many of the shops along Main Street are vacant.

This part of town seems stuck in some perennial downturn – even as the large strip malls near the highway swarm with people. Local politicians talk constantly of “downtown revitalisation programmes”, one of those terms that inspire more dread than hope – dread of tax dollars disappearing into sinkholes of corruption, of no-bid contracts, of ineffectual five-year plans and groveling aldermen seeking re-election.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a Rust Belt town that lost its factory. It’s not a skid row. Its problems are more subtly woven into everyday life. On my brief walk from the car to a sushi restaurant, for instance, I pass at least three empty storefronts, and that’s just on my side of the street. There’s a beautiful Methodist church, so white it could have been painted yesterday – but as lonesome as a schoolboy on his first day. I pass an old art deco theatre with a large marquee. Long ago, I imagine, it must have been the focal point of recreation.

For years the town government has tried to revive it, in appearance and profitability, and only until recently was it completely shuttered. Now, though operational, it can never be more than a novelty, one step away from a bail-out.

I walk into the sushi restaurant to find I am the only customer. Of course, I choose to eat at off-times, in the mid-afternoon lull between lunch and dinner. But the solitude inside the place fits a pattern.

The only other people in there are the owner and a waitress. How wonderful that we’re alone together. I take a seat by the window, order a few salmon and tuna rolls, and think about how a place I called home for so long is still unknown to me.

A common literary trope is the small town with the big secret. Reality is not as neatly plotted: most towns don’t have one secret but many little ones. One of Riverhead’s secrets is its relentless violence. Don’t read the crime section of the local papers. You’ll find it all on the blotter: drugs, murder, robbery, gangs and their violent hobbies. The Bloods are residents. So is the MS-13 gang, a scourge in many Long Island schools.

Newcomers to the town are warned to avoid certain parts. Don’t go near the train station. Not after dark. Be wary of the courthouse. Stay away from “The Greens”, the locals’ name for a cloistered warren of streets where the gangs practise their trade. (So called because the streets were built on an old golf course.) You always know when you’re in a “bad area”. You begin to see with your gut, not your eyes; and your gut tells you that friendly, productive people don’t linger on street corners in the middle of the afternoon. Your gut also knows the exact point at which too much cracked pavement and overgrown grass mean you’re not welcome.

I pull myself out of this reverie. These secrets are too heavy for such a light meal.

After I finish, I approach the owner, folding cloth napkins at a corner table. I thank him for the delicious food. He rises and shakes my hand, and he looks surprised. (If you want to surprise someone, compliment them.) I tell him I remember when his restaurant was a little café, well over a decade ago, when the place was run by two hippyish ladies selling lattes and overpriced “organic” cakes. He laughs, says they were nice enough people but no good at business.

Then he leans in a bit, as if letting me in on another grand secret. “There’s no money in coffee,” he says, his voice enclosed in a whisper.

I suppose he’s right, unless one manages to achieve the breathtaking scalability of a major chain or franchise. But as I hurry back to the car in a sudden December drizzle, again passing the old marquee theatre desperate for relevance, I realise that, in some places, there’s no money in anything.

Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s US CEO