Linda DeMers. From High School?

People frown at you if you wear flip-flops to a funeral. This thought came to me as my plane touched down on Long Island, and I realized I was due at one in a few hours and had forgotten to pack shoes. Luckily I was in my hometown. Giving myself the requisite half hour to get lost in traffic on roads I used to know, I finally pulled into the shoe store I’d frequented as a teenager. I started looking.

“Do you need some help?”

I turned to the clerk in back of me to say, “Yes” but stopped.

It was Bobby Werner. From high school. Class of ’68. His hair was all gelled up, committed to a bad comb-over I wish someone had talked him out of. He’d lost those full cheeks he had as a kid. But it was him.

Before I even say my next words aloud, here’s where I’ve been in my head: Bobby Werner made Honor Society our junior year, which was the province of kids whose fathers were internists, so it was doubly impressive because his father worked at Grumman, like mine. He scored touchdowns against rival football teams. He lived on Forest Avenue. His house was green.

There’s more, and I retrieve that, too. He sat in front of me in English class junior year, where he turned around to pass me the SAT practice ditto every morning. So if my math is right, Bobby Werner was forced to look in my direction 180 times, give or take. I had such a thing for Bobby Werner, and I was wondering — now that we were face to face all these years later — if the feeling had been mutual.

“Wow,” I say as if we’re old friends who just haven’t gotten around to seeing each other in several decades. “How are you, Bobby?”

I see blank. Of course, it’s probably not Bobby anymore, I’m thinking. He’s probably ratcheted it down to Bob. Hence the void, I’m sure. So I hop right back in.

“Linda DeMers. From high school?”

Not a glimmer yet. But he’s squinting a bit, so I think he’s trying.

“Massapequa?” I add, just in case he secretly went to more than one high school.

“You went to Massapequa?” he asks. I nod. He stares, and the pause sashays over, right into awkward.

“Impossible,” he says. “I know I’d remember you.”

At first I think he’s flirting with me, but maybe he sees this conversation as an attack on his powers of memory. Whichever it is, I bet he never guessed he’d end up working in a shoe store in his hometown. Or come across a woman who knows the details of his illustrious past.

There’s another pause — even longer than the first one — signaling that we’re finished dancing down memory lane. So remembering why I’m here in the first place, I break the silence.

“Do you have this shoe in black?”

When he returns from the back, he has a shoe box in his hand. He doesn’t say he recognizes me after all, now that he’s had time to think. He doesn’t say he’ll look me up in the yearbook when he gets home.

I bet Bobby Werner remembers graduation day when we smiled for the camera with our proud parents. Our class motto was “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” When we screamed it at pep rallies, we emphasized the middle sentence, believing we were immune to the chips and scratches that would eventually find us.

“Anything else today?” he asks.

I hand him my credit card.

The Neighborhood Bully, 50 Years Later

The first time I heard “Hey, Buzzard!” I was 12, and I knew he was talking to me. With a small crowd around him, Walter  began flapping his arms wildly in the air, and making loud “caw, caw, caw” sounds. His friends were already laughing and didn’t need an explanation, but they got one anyway: “I call her that because she’s so ugly and her nose is so big,” he told them as they moved down the street.

My nose was way ahead of the rest of my face. In fact, my whole body was just one big adolescent disappointment that summer. My hair had the consistency of steel wool and would puff out like a blow fish as soon as the humidity raised half a percent. I was taller than anyone on my block (including a few short adults). I kept forgetting about my feet. I tripped a lot.

Puberty had not come gunning for Walter the way it had for me. He was athletic and blonde, with perfect symmetry to his face. As the kingpin of our neighborhood, whatever he said garnered plenty of nods and laughs. My humiliation — always close to the surface — didn’t faze him. Just the opposite. The few times I cried only fueled him. Twice he spit at me but missed.

I found no “safe spaces” during those summers. Unless it rained, kids played outside all day, and the hand you were dealt was a three-block radius of your house, maybe a total of 50 kids.

At dinner, my parents might say, “So, what did you do today?” but they never wanted to hear the details. There was an unwritten manifesto of all the Massapequa parents I knew: They’d had the foresight to buy a home on bucolic Long Island, a far cry from the mean streets of Manhattan or Queens where they’d come of age. They got points for providing you with trees, good schools, and fresh air. The rest was up to you. You were supposed to have fun in the summer. It was your only job.

As a child, my mother had watched her family struggle through the Great Depression. She was replete with stories about oatmeal. When my grandmother could afford to make some extra in the big pot on top of the stove, she would have my mother take it to the family who lived above them, a trip my mother dreaded. When the woman opened the door, her face would fall and she would sigh. She took it because her kids were hungry, but she couldn’t bring herself to say “Thank you.” Oatmeal was charity and people who worked so hard didn’t take charity.

My mother fought dark feelings most of her life that all our security would be whisked away. Walter meant nothing to her when  — at any moment now — oatmeal might return as a staple.

My father spent most of his childhood in Maine. When his mother died after his third birthday, his father moved away to find work. My father was shuffled among kindly relatives who fed him as long as they could. Theirs was a small enclave of French mill workers who did not speak English. And then when my father was 11, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew and a man who refused to speak to my father in French. New father, new city, new language all in one moment. Walter? Don’t be ridiculous.

My parents listened to me, but their usual response — changing the subject — told me that they couldn’t relate. Their message was loving and practical and always the same, but it infuriated me in its simplicity: “Sometimes life is hard. Be a good person. Figure it out.”

A few years ago I was at a funeral back in Massapequa when I saw Walter walk in. He was easy to spot in the crowded room — still handsome, his blonde hair now gray. I’d been privy to what he’d been doing all these years. He has struggled — in a bunch of arenas — maybe the reason he was such a mean kid. He is still not known for kindness in any form. (Sometimes life is hard.)

Watching him, I felt a little vindicated as if someone had been keeping score all this time, and it had just been announced in this room at the funeral home that my totals soared over Walter’s. I realized, though, that I didn’t need to be the winner. And what I was feeling at that moment was a bit of compassion I didn’t see coming. (Be a good person.)

I caught his eye and smiled. He recognized me, and we made small talk about the old neighborhood. If I thought for a moment he remembered his treatment of me when we were kids, I might have brought it up, just to see what his memories were. But it was clear he just wanted to tell me about his business, his kids who play lacrosse, his new car, and his new wife. And maybe it was during that conversation — as my mind wandered — that I finally completed my parents’ advice from so long ago (Figure it out.) Because I remembered that at 12 I didn’t want to treat people the way Walter did. I didn’t want to end up like him.

And I didn’t.

“Plus You Have a Really Bad Accent”

As a college freshman in 1968, I landed in the middle of New York State and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a decent bagel anywhere. I was homesick for Long Island, the center of my universe. I’d never seen so many pickup trucks or people chewing (and spitting) tobacco as I did on Main Street in Cortland. It snowed on Halloween. I felt like I’d moved to Jupiter.

To counterbalance, I talked about Massapequa incessantly — how you could find anything you needed on Sunrise Highway, and how my high school had a championship football team. One day in the dining hall, I was in the middle of explaining to some girls why my hometown was known as “Matzo-Pizza” because it occurred to me that near-strangers were mesmerized by stories of my youth. (And here you’re thinking, she hasn’t changed much. You’re on to me.) Anyway, I was taking way too long in my explanation, figuring I had to go slowly because they’d probably never heard of matzo or stepped inside a real pizzeria.

Finally, a girl from Utica had enough.

She stopped me and said, “You know,” The City doesn’t always mean New York City, and The Island doesn’t always mean Long Island.”

I think I paused here, maybe with my mouth open a tiny bit, because she felt the need to simplify. “There are other cities and other islands in this state.”

Somehow, this was big news to me.

She wasn’t finished. “Plus you have a really bad accent.”

The first part amazed me, but as I began to look around I could see she was right. Who knew there were girls in the United States who had never stepped foot in a mall? Or that a town might have only one supermarket? Who knew that you could spend kindergarten through 12th grade in one building? For that matter, I don’t think I realized that people actually lived on farms. I thought they just hired people.

The second part stung. I didn’t know I had an accent, much less a bad one. Until I got to college and met people from Syracuse and Buffalo, I’d never heard a “flat a” sound in my life.

So I took a breath, and later that afternoon — being the deep thinker I was back then — I began to reinvent myself. I decided I kind of liked the way upstate people spoke. They sounded buoyant and hopeful. That’s what I wanted to be. I started with the word “cawfee” and went from there.

I also changed my handwriting because suddenly all the complicated capital letters in the ornate Palmer Method no longer suited me. I went instead with a print-like conglomeration that I hoped would say Linda is a simple, generous young woman, who does not overwhelm people with her large, loopy letters. If you didn’t know she was from Long Island, you might think she came from a quaint little hamlet on a lake with a population of 150.

After a few months, I stopped mentioning Massapequa every ten minutes like it was the cradle of civilization. By second semester, my accent — bad or otherwise — was completely gone, and my mother was complaining that my handwriting looked like a second-grader’s. When I graduated, I stayed in Central New York.

The first time I reopened my high school yearbook probably took five years. When I did, I read lots of this: “Never forget all the fun we had in French.” Or the laughs we had trying to conquer the uneven parallel bars. Or the day the lunch lady dropped that tray on John.

When the 10-year reunion happened, a time when I could have refreshed my memory about that gym class or poor John and the lunch tray, I couldn’t make it. I’d just had a baby, and if I’d considered traveling 300 miles to stand in a hotel ballroom with anyone, it wasn’t going to be when I hadn’t slept in four weeks and my breasts leaked milk every time I looked down at them.

The 20th reunion took place the year I was in a bad mood. We had moved to Baltimore. I couldn’t understand anything people said because they spoke in a thick dialect meant to throw Yankees off course. We had bought a split-level house — the type of home I swore I’d never live in. And my kids were a sloppy mess about how much they missed their friends.

Now our 50th reunion approaches, so clearly it’s been a while for me and the Class of ’68. I wonder how much I’ve changed, or I wonder if I’ve changed as much as I think I have. The older I get, the more I think that you pretty much are what you were when. Except for changing a few vowel sounds. And now we come with more stories to tell.

I think by 2018, our class will have long forgotten those singular, sweet and silly memories of high school that we inscribed in each others’ yearbooks. But we’ll be filled with the only bond that really matters. Massapequa will always be our “when.”

Maybe the day after the big party, we’ll have “cawfee.” And maybe I’ll even say it the right way.

Quick Requiem at a Red Light

After landing on Long Island and renting a car, I’m lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn’t think I’d need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently I do. One town just slides into another and looks exactly like the last one did. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it’s been a while.

It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of ’68, we referred to kids from Wantagh — three miles away — with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I’m guessing that’s all over now because kids don’t actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF’s. Maybe kids don’t root for the home team either. Maybe they don’t chant at football games, or even go to football games. We shouted, “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” Our lungs got a workout back then. But we hardly ever used our thumbs the way kids do today.

I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I’ll know where I am. And then I recognize that I’m at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It’s a bank now. It’s probably been a bank for years. Maybe it’s not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.

Shoe Town was one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years, and it seems right to mourn its passing as I wait at the red light. Before it came into my life and offered me the anonymity I needed with feet like mine, shoe shopping was a humiliating hell. Before the boxy store on the corner went up, all I had were smarmy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” only to come back from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.

The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn’t a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.

After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, “Well, we don’t have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home.”

She pretended to think it wasn’t funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around. This is what I was up against until I finally found a shoe store that made sense.

For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I’d melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.

Eventually I’d wander over to the Size 10 rack where I belonged and settle on a pair that didn’t embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. I took shoe size very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.

When you come back to the place where you grew up, it’s all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down Jerusalem Avenue. Opening your front door and knowing that roast chicken was for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.

So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that’s not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.

Massapequa. Ever heard of it?

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.