This plan Riverhead had to close the old Weeping Willow Motel and build a park hits close to my heart. I’ve been trying to understand exactly why for weeks, as the town readies the park for its grand opening this afternoon. Every time I drive past on my way to the grocery store, I stop and sit under the willows at the edge of the river and can’t help but feel the nearness of the tenuous lives of the troubled residents who once lived in the crime-ridden hotel.
My father lived on West Main Street when we were kids, a little bit west of Weeping Willow, past the Fisherman’s Deli and before what used to be the Riverhead Resort Motel. Every weekend we stayed there was a new drama — the streetwalkers on the lawn, the hobos camped out in the woods behind our house down by the river, a honeymooning couple who couldn’t believe they’d actually booked a room in such a sleazy part of town. My father once got it into his head to fish some junk out of the river. He walked out covered in leeches and screaming for salt.
The house we rented was a 19th century foursquare with an old shop next door where my father rebuilt pianos. It had once belonged to Leo Saxtein, a depression era attorney who was the father of a Riverhead Town Justice. The place was full of left rain boots and balls of string, old coke bottles and orange juicers made from thick green glass. Our jungle gym was an old boat with a hole in it, abandoned on the edge of the river. Sometimes we sold lemonade to passing canoers from the dock at Tom and Kelly Romanski’s house next door, then spent all our money on penny candy at the Fisherman’s Deli.
In the late 1990s, Suffolk County got it into its head (my first problem was believing governments have brains) to clean up West Main Street. They started by buying our house out from under us and tearing it down. They said it would be a park, part of a greenbelt. They said it would clean up the neighborhood and provide the public with access to the river. Today, it’s still a vacant lot, overgrown with weeds. The two cedar trees that we used to climb in our front yard are all that I recognize of the place I spent so many years learning about how poverty twists the human spirit.
Some people named Bobby and Mary Ann, who’ve lost their pet parrot, have tacked a sign offering a reward to the telephone pole that had marred our view of the street. The parrot’s name is Caeser. Call them if you find him. They’ve lost their parrot, but I’ve lost my childhood. All pain is relative.
I still can’t figure out why our house was chosen to be the test subject for the greenbelt plan. My best guess is that the owners of the property were the first willing sellers to come along. Our landlord had just died, the house was in the hands of the estate and the heirs were happy to get their cash and go. It’s a pretty standard peril for anyone who doesn’t own their own land to have to make drastic changes in their life based on changes in their landlord’s life. We were lucky that our lives changed for the better. It’s difficult to tell the stories of the people whose lives changed for the worse.
Politicians can talk about land preservation until they’re blue in the face, but they can’t buy land for preservation unless the people who own it want to sell. In our case, I guess, we were just caught in the crossfire. That doesn’t make it any less painful.
I went down to our land at 1361 West Main Street last night to see what I could see, to remember the wild river where I was raised. There’s still an overgrown set of tire ruts leading into the depths of the property. Someone dumped a couch where our boat used to be. There’s nowhere here to put a lemonade stand anymore. But the moon was high and bright and the river was still and mucky and the thickness of the encroaching weeds made a safe hideaway. If I was a hobo, I’d be happy to live there. But I don’t think that was the government’s plan when they bought the property.
I hope the Weeping Willow Park stays as nice as it is today on its opening day. I’ll probably bring my canoe there when I want to explore the river. It was an expensive project — $500,000 to remove asbestos, tear down the hotel and replace it with grass and park benches — but at least it’s finally done. I wish I could say the same for the land that I called home.