My friend Antonia once said that she loved riding around with me in the white Chevy van that The Star used to use for newspaper deliveries. I would borrow the van on weekends in the 1990s, when I lived in the city and didn’t own a car of my own, barreling around to late-night beach skinny-dip sessions or afternoon Bargain Box runs with WLNG blaring. These were the days when the newspaper van had a Star logo, “Shines for All,” in mid-blue on either side panel. “In this van,” Antonia said, “I feel like you get to be both super-local but also respected by the city people. No one can look down on you. I’m jealous.”
I knew what she meant. I’ve always felt very satisfied with myself for being not just as local as any non-Native American, due to my 13th-generation pedigree, but also capable of being as snooty and snotty as snooty and snotty can be — what with my family’s literary pretensions, genealogical pride, and worldliness (round-the-horn whalers in the 19th century and bohemian rovers in the 20th). It’s a pleasant teeter-totter to ride. A double insider, or an insider who can be an outsider as the situation demands. You cannot out-snob me, and you cannot out-reverse-snobbery me, either.
When I was in college in Manhattan in the 1990s, I preferred to ride the Long Island Rail Road home at the weekend — I still prefer the L.I.R.R. — but frequently had to board the Jitney, dragging my three-inch rubber heels, due to the dilute schedule of the L.I.R.R. Montauk Branch, and I always enjoyed it when the attendant, approaching with clipboard and pen, recognized my last name. I never had to spell it out.
Until about 30 years ago, anyone who grew up in these environs would recognize the last name of a fellow townie (we never used that word, “townie,” by the way). On top of that comfortable familiarity, adding another stratum, anyone whose family was notable for own ing a business or serving in government — or counting a high school basketball player among its numbers, or running a newspaper — inhabited a slightly elevated space of petty prominence.
The population expansion out here wiped all of that away, uncoupling the social connections and leaving a sense of loss that we can’t seem to stop talking about. No one knows anyone’s name anymore, and they certainly don’t know what your grandfather’s nickname was. There is no point in being nostalgic. The small world — the knowable world, where you knew who you were and everyone, from the ballet teacher who sold lamps in the lamp store to the cook who made the deviled eggs at the deli to Pinky, the sixth-grade teacher, knew who each other was — is not coming back.
It’s been 26 years since this reality dawned on me, 26 years exactly. I can date it to the very afternoon: the Friday afternoon of Fourth of July weekend, 1995, the day I returned to America after my years as a cafe habitué and boulevardier in Budapest. That was the Friday I took a memorable Jitney journey home from J.F.K. The smell of barbecue — charcoal, lighter fluid, and burnt hamburgers — was so strong in the suburbs of Long Island that it seeped through the sealed windows of the bus.
A woman ahead of me began to do what we all do in the let’s-not-call-this-the-Hamptons: signal her distinction as an insider by remarking, in a voice intended to be overheard, “Do you remember the almonds?” She was complaining to a man whose face was hidden behind The Wall Street Journal. “When the Jitney first started the service to the city? Those little foil bags of smoked almonds? And Perrier,” she continued. “They gave you each a bottle of Perrier. And now they throw a bag of chips at you, and you get this ridiculous half cup of water, and when you try to pull it open, it spills all over your top.”
I was sitting in the very back, by the latrine. On the seat just beside me was a nylon animal carrier, which jiggled. The bus attendant in her green polo was making her way along the aisle to collect the fares, bracing herself with her hip against the side of the plush seat-backs as the Jitney rolled and humped eastward.
The feeling of being an alienated spectator looking in, culture shock, was intense. It was true what other nations said: Americans were strapping, beefy, with giant, white, flesh-eating teeth, and incredibly clean. The only nationalities that talked as loudly in public places as Americans were Germans and South Africans — a distinctly dubious international brotherhood of high decibels. When the attendant got to my row, and tilted over the pet carrier with her clipboard to ask my name, I answered in a voice so low she couldn’t hear me.
“Rotter?” she replied.
“R-A-T-T-R-A-Y,” I said, handing over my touchingly small and modest green American dollar bills. The pet carrier jiggled.
A couple wearing matching pastel-cotton sweaters were settled into their seats across the aisle. “I’m sorry but a tablespoon of Campari shouldn’t cost $12,” the woman said to her companion, noticing with a glance that I was staring at their summer sweaters. She leaned toward me and stage-whispered, “I bought that seat for him,” indicating the dog carrier. “I paid for it, in case you’re wondering.”
“Okay,” I said.
Well, you can’t go home again, as the man wrote.
The 21st-century experience so far has been an experience of displacement, in ways small and large, trifling and tragic. Where this bus of community is going — community small, community large — and where I’m going with today’s column, I don’t know.