Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where have all the good doormen gone?

A few years ago, we rented a beach house in Jamesport, New York. Jamesport is on the south shore of the north fork of Long Island. This distinguishes it from being on the south shore of the south fork of Long Island. The south fork is where one finds East Hampton, catered tiki beach parties, and celebrity megamansions. The north fork has, among other things, an outlet mall, a west nile virus research lab, and an abandoned nuclear power plant. People who vacation on the north fork can sit on the beach and watch the sun set over the south fork. Looking south from East Hampton, though, it’s not even clear that you are part of a forked environment. As far as East Hampton dwellers are concerned, Long Island might well be shaped like a knife.

We preferred the north fork for several reasons. True, there were fewer opportunities to wait in line at a Manhattan-owned gourmet market for coffee and a boysenberry muffin. We were unlikely to spot Alec Baldwin eating a sandwich. But if the north fork wasn’t quite as fancy, it was more affordable. We once rented a cottage out there for an entire summer, which we could manage not only because it was the size of an East Hampton tool shed, but also because the defunct nuclear plant was down the road. The hulking nuclear reactors did tarnish the natural landscape somewhat. But they were an innocuous blight. After a decade of construction, people had decided that all that energy was not worth the cost of a potential evacuation, which would require them to travel 60 miles and cross through New York City to reach the mainland. The thought of fighting traffic at the Holland Tunnel alone must have killed the project.

We only rented the house in Jamesport for one, short week. But it stands out in my memory because of something my older daughter said the day we arrived there. Driving out from the city late on a Friday evening, we were greeted on the front steps by the man who owned the property. He opened the door for us, kindly helped us to bring in some bags, and showed us around a bit before he left. When our daughter returned to the front room a few minutes later and found him gone, she asked, “Where did the doorman go?”

Funny as it was, her confusion also made me realize that my daughters were actually true New Yorkers in a way I never was. Their perception of the world was fundamentally defined by that everyday urban experience. I was thinking recently how odd it must be for the kids that we haven’t seen a single doorman since we moved to Wisconsin. That we almost never ride in an elevator here, despite having taken one up twelve floors several times a day to get to our apartment. That we’ve not heard a single ambulance or fire truck speed past our house blasting a horn. That the playgrounds are not packed with kids, and buzzing with activity. That we never walk to the bagel store after school for a snack. That we never really walk – at least not for functional reasons, or with a lot of other people around.

The kids are happy here. But I do wonder sometimes if this new reality has been a bit jarring for them, at a visceral level. On our recent trip to New York, we stopped in to see Dio, our former doorman. When he opened our cab door, our older daughter got out and threw her arms around him. One of these days, I know, she’ll start to forget him. But somehow I am also sure that the potted plant that now hides our front door key will never elicit the same affectionate response.

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