Back in the dark ages when I was growing up on the North Fork, everyone hid in their houses and pretended to bake pies when the annual slew of pumpkin pickers, corn mazers and generalized gawkers descended on our farm fields. They were a cute nuisance, and they brought in a ton of beloved tourist cash, but they weren’t then an invading army.
There aren’t a lot of people on the North Fork who really have time to hide inside and bake pies, but that’s the way we like to portray ourselves to the outside world. I’m sorry if I burst your bubble, but that’s not the way it is. It’s just the way we pretend it is on Facebook.
But now, it’s decades later, and this corn stalker business has gotten totally out of hand. At some point mid-October, if you’re unlucky enough to have to spend your weekends out here, it’s impossible to do basic, ordinary weekend things because everywhere you go, cute families from points west are wandering in traffic with Radio Flyer wagons and giant pumpkins and ears of roasted corn.
You can’t go to the laundromat. You can’t work out any reliable child custody switcheroo that doesn’t involve keeping the other party [who usually isn’t your best friend] waiting for you to pick your way through the pumpkin pickers. You can’t go to Riverhead to do your shopping and you can’t go buy a couple ears of corn at Harbes because, well, the North Road over there in Mattituck is just a parking lot, while the South Road is a little bit like the LIE around Exit 23 during rush hour. That’s Main Street, Flushing, just in case you never leave the North Fork [Don’t worry. I understand. Who has time to drive to Flushing when you need to keep the oven on to bake all those pies?].
I wouldn’t mind all this mess so much if it didn’t seem like such a waste. All those rotting November pumpkins sitting on suburban doorsteps will never become pies, and they’re sitting next to sterile corn stalks that never once bore an edible ear of corn, while the hipsters in Brooklyn have to grow food on the rooftops because otherwise they’ll starve to death after spending all their money on rent. Reporters find injustice everywhere, which is why we’re such miserable people.
Back in 1942, my great-grandparents owned a potato farm up on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. My great-grandfather had polio and the family spent their winters in Puerto Rico because potatoes don’t grow in the winter and warm weather is good for people who have polio (so they tell me). My grandfather, who was just 17, was best friends with Bob Hart, the captain of the San Jacinto, which took his little family to Puerto Rico every winter.
Well, in 1942, Nazi u-boats sank the San Jacinto and Captain Hart went down with the ship. My grandpop went down to the Navy recruiting office and demanded to be allowed to kill as many Nazis as he could, in retribution for what they’d done to his best friend. They sent him back home and told him to take care of the potato farm. He’d been the valedictorian at Riverhead High School the year before, at the age of 16, and had studied journalism at Rutgers for a year before he realized what a miserable lot journalists are and went home. But he didn’t ever think he’d end up spending his life on a potato farm.
He spent all spring mad as hell, planting potatoes by hand, swigging whiskey from a hip flask and looking back at his meandering drunken potato rows. Later that summer, the rows grew into a two-foot tall potato bush maze. No one from Levittown came to his farm to wander through his maze, and there were no pumpkins to be picked. There were just measly white potatoes that kept his family fed through the long Long Island winter.
The Navy let him in after he turned 18 that fall, but, by the time he was finished training to be a slingshot pilot, the war was over. From then on until the farm was sold, his potato field was the landing strip from which he launched aeronautical explorations of every corner of this big, pastoral country. I don’t think he ever got lost in a corn maze, but he never stopped eating potatoes.
That’s what the North Fork means to me.