For the last 30 years I’ve lived in a city I love, where people take a certain pride in swallowing the last vowel sound of every syllable ever invented. I’ve never gotten the hang of it, though I’ve tried, and even after all this time, I’ll be talking with a stranger here in Baltimore, and the person will say, “You’re not from here, are you?”
Sometimes I say, “I grew up in New York,” but when you say it like that, you get, “Oh, Manhattan?” People think it’s exotic to have grown up in New York City, where you never learn to swim or drive, and you’re all blasé when you see Robert Di Niro strolling around your neighborhood.
Answering “Long Island,” doesn’t always work out down here either. To people south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Long Island may or may not be an extension of New Jersey, and that’s the end of that.
We never really get over where we grew up, or at least I didn’t. I mention it a lot, even if I haven’t lived there since 1973. My hometown has become more and more wrapped in gauzy, rosy memories, and in my head it’s exactly the perfect place it always was.
I love where I’m from. Massapequa.
So imagine my excitement when a whole bunch of people from my hometown all got famous at once. Of course this happened in the late 80s and early 90s, and here I am still talking about it, so you might want to consider the source. I guess I thought all that fame connected to Massapequa meant something about me, which it decidedly did not, but I got a whole decade out of riding coattails and boring the socks off people who innocently asked me where I was from.
Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin (and his brothers) and Ron Kovic, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, got famous. Steve Guttenberg and Peggy Noonan, the White House speechwriter who wrote President Reagan’s eloquent words after the Challenger explosion, also got famous. And here I usually take a breath and mention a couple more, but I try to make it clear that Jessica Hahn and Joey Buttafuoco’s fame was not exactly what Massapequa’s founding fathers had in mind.
So for a long time if people in Baltimore found my accent not to their liking, and there was even a hint that I should expound on my roots, I’d say, “Well, actually, I come from Massapequa,” just to see who was up on current events. Back then, most people wanted to talk about Alec, and I would go into my own little rehearsed snippets about any or all of the Baldwins.
And if it went too long, the person would interrupt with, “You knew him?” or worse, “You knew them?”
I had a number of ways of evading this question and going with the broader stroke, shall we say.
On a train to New York last year I sat next to a man who grew up in Huntington, a neighboring suburb, and as we got to talking about our hometowns, he said, “So . . . Massapequa. . . so many famous people from Massapequa, right?”
I perked up. I was delighted by his attention to detail, and wanted to applaud him for keeping up with fading news stories.
I started by telling him that Alec Baldwin’s father was my history teacher. (This has never been true. But saying, “He was my friend Jill’s history teacher” wouldn’t be the same, so I’ve always gone this route.)
And we all called Alec by his childhood name, Xander, I tell the man from Huntington. (I do recall seeing Alec as a little boy with his Dad in the high school parking lot. About 100 yards away. He was blond. Unless it was Danny, Stephen, or Billy, which it certainly could have been. Maybe I yelled, “Hey, Xander!” I can’t really remember.)
I can see I’m not as good at this as I once was. I’m a little out of practice after all these years, and I blame the Massapequa celebs who couldn’t keep it up and no longer needed a publicist by the millennium. And after a while, it got harder and harder even for me to keep the Baldwin brothers straight, except Alec — or as I call him, Xander.
“Carlo Gambino lived in Massapequa, right?” he asks. This man is really working out as a traveling companion.
It’s been a while since I trotted out all my Godfather facts, but I do my best. I tell him that Gambino’s summer house was right on the water in Massapequa, on Club Drive. The fact that I know the name of his street brings me closer to The Don, and apparently, this is the effect I’m going for.
“His house had no shrubs in front — nothing.” I’m not at all surprised that when I say the word nothing, I linger.
“So no one could hide in the bushes?”
“Exactly!” I say. This is going better than it usually does.
“And he kept a boat docked in Oyster Bay behind his house, 24 hours a day, with an armed guard on board.”
“Is that true? Really?”
“I think so.”
I’m not sure why I equivocate here, and right away I can see he was hoping I’d know more details. He seems disappointed that I never saw Gambino in person. Or that I don’t have details about the horse head scene in the movie. Or an answer to his next ten questions, when the best I can do is mumble, “Um, I’m not sure.”
By the time we pull into Penn Station, I feel like reminding him that no one famous ever grew up in Huntington.