6-4-05, 11:04 PM -
A clear, moonless night in Huntington, Long Island. A faint glow on the western horizon is the only thing to remind me that I'm not exactly in the middle of nowhere. The rest of my surroundings are nearly small-towny enough to make me believe I've flown home to Weatherford for the weekend. But this being the Northeast, I have done my traveling via train, namely the Long Island Rail Road, which traverses the island rather comprehensively, from Brooklyn to Montauk.
I've been drawn here by the Hollow Body Studios Roots Music Festival, the first of what organizer, singer/songwriter, & Hollow Body Studios owner Doug Kwartler says will be at least a few more this summer. I played bass for Doug back in December, and I dig what he does. He picked a hell of a great place for this festival thingy, that being the Conklin Barn. Where's the Conklin Barn? It's right behind the Conklin House.
The house dates back to before the Revolutionary War, and in fact played a part in it as its owner David Conklin was held prisoner by the British in 1777. George Washington himself paid a visit during his tour of Long Island in 1790, but I think the coolest thing about the house is a round stone platform near the barn. Visible on the stone is a spot where there obviously used to be a plaque or marker of some sort. I wandered out there during a break, and ran into Austin Kuebler, one third of the Northerners, a band Doug's been playing with for a while.
Austin actually grew up in Huntington, and told me in conspiratorial tones that the missing plaque bore a notice that this platform was the site of a witch burning in the seventeenth century, and had since been removed for decorum's sake. I can't find anything online about the Huntington Witch, but if ever there was a better spot to burn a witch, I've never seen it.
The lineup at the Festival was quite talented and generally subdued, which suited the venue's intimate old wooden interior perfectly. I've seldom had a more comfortable evening of live music enjoyment, and I would particularly recommend John Bechhof to anyone who happens to see him coming to your town. The other acts were no slouches, but I must say that I did note an occurrence of the phenomenon I know so well, wherein the least interesting band on the bill brings fifty times more fans than everyone else. I'll go to my grave in bafflement on that front, I fear.
Speaking of graves, Huntington has a fabulous old cemetery on a magnificent hill overlooking the Conklin House. Many of the graves date back to the Civil War and before, and the view from atop the hill is a sight to behold. Much of Long Island is densely wooded & hilly, with multicolored treetops as far as the eye can see, which actually isn't very far, largely due to the abundance of bigass treetops.
There are things about Huntington that are instantly familiar to me from my youth. Lack of corner-standers, largely unused sidewalks, cars parked in lots rather than along the street. Businesses housed in small house-like buildings surrounded by concrete parking space on all sides. It couldn't feel more different from Brooklyn if it tried.
And yet there is an undercurrent in this town's fundament that renders it alien to me. A missing piece.
That would be poverty.
There is no poverty in Huntington, at least none that I could see along the mile & a half I walked from the LIRR station to the Conklin Barn. And this was on the highway, which along with the railroad tracks is usually the province of the down-and-out, or at least the underpaid.
But everyone I saw in Huntington seemed to have everything they needed. Young, well-conditioned hair flowed through breeze blown into convertibles that no summer job could pay for. No rust or neglect marked the cars of the white-haired customers at antique stores, which seem to populate the small highway like kitschy, shingled wildflowers. The looks in the eyes of the high schoolers & collegiate types who appear to dominate the town have the certainty of someone who has never experienced adversity, or at least not the sort of adversity that could stand in the way of something they needed.
It's odd that I feel more at home in such suburban settings than I do in, say, Harlem. Because really, I have quite a few more things in common with the Harlemites I know. Achievement of goals & dreams is not the default outcome expected, and any progress you make will be due to your own diligence, not the strong wind & support net at your back.
But of course, I don't fall squarely into either world. Growing up lower middle class in the country, I had benefits & protections that inner-city kids didn't have, and I didn't have many boons that the Huntington set appear to have. Still, it's interesting to see both extremes.
Walking back to the station after dark, I'm reminded that small towns can be scary places. A dirt path takes me past the sloping cemetery, which has a stillness less comforting at night that by daylight. A quarter mile down the road, a thick, dark forest overhangs the sidewalk. A horde of some unknown insect or frog chants ominously, calling from where I dare not set foot. But the woods are actually the least scary obstacle on my journey.
I had all but forgotten the distinct tightening in the chest that occurs upon encountering a lone motorist on a quiet road at night. It's bad enough when you yourself are a motorist, but I assure you that it's far more arresting when you're a pedestrian.
A human being alone in a car is a strange thing. People think and act very differently inside that protective bubble than they would anywhere outside of it. Anger is heightened, reflexes are quicker, and the results of actions come about at a much faster clip. There is also a remove, since all events take place in the world on the other side of the glass. In many ways, the enclosed car cab was really the first video game.
All of this is kept more or less in check by the presence of other drivers. But as a driver alone on the road at night, I myself have felt a certain sense of detachment from the world outside, as if it's some sort of spectral sea I must let the car bring me through before I can reach my destination.
This is problematic enough for relatively stable people. But of course, there are people out driving late at night who are not on the strong side of stability. Some, in fact, are nutty as fruit bats.
So there is a certain tension in my gut when a car & I approach an intersection at the same time under a lone streetlight. The shadowy figure behind the glass waves me across. I can't see his eyes. I walk briskly, my footsteps eerily loud on the rock-strewn pavement. I pass in front of the car's grill, which growls in expectation of its master's next command.
I'm startled now to realize how much power a person behind the wheel has. Out here alone, there's really nothing to stop him from running me over. It sounds a bit paranoid, but truthfully, if you put the wrong combination of unstable personality & bad night together in that hermetically-sealed environment, you could easily get a killer. And those are just the ones who aren't premeditating murderous deeds anyway. Scares the shit out of me the more I think about it, so I won't.
Now safely aboard the train (another kind of closed environment, but one with considerably less power conferred on its occupants), I'm rather happy to be back in the land of direct interaction with those around me. Sure I could kill somebody, but it'd be a hell of a lot harder.
Still, I'm immensely glad that I got out of the city to visit this little burg. One needs quiet now & then to soothe the raging brain. And since a nature trip would involve renting and operating one of those crazy-making death buggies (maybe I should become Amish), I reckon Huntington's a good option.
Y'all don't kill nobody, hear?