The Rockaway Irregular
I found myself reading a reflective piece by fellow Wave columnist Daniel Solomon this past weekend, written, it seems, as he prepares to leave Rockaway and avail himself of a higher education.
Dan is a precocious young fellow who became a Wave columnist while still in High School – and a lightning rod for many local readers, besides, for his often intemperately explained left-leaning political views.
In fact, he’s an unapologetic, selfavowed socialist who, he tells us, found his political bearings in the cauldron of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School where he first stepped outside the narrow milieu of a local Rockaway upbringing. If I’m reading him correctly, it was there that he finally came to believe in an America that’s more wrong than right for its many mistakes over the past two hundred plus years of its history, an America that persistently and callously (and, too often, maliciously) pushed aside native American peoples, imported African slaves (and sustained the heinous institution of slavery for most of its initial century), enforced Jim Crow laws, and other forms of institutionalized racism, in its second hundred years, fostered rampant capitalist abuses, etc., etc.
Not for Dan the positive side of our national experience it seems: the America that grew and absorbed people from all over the globe who came seeking a better life; the America that transcended its own sins by rejecting slavery, racism and Jim Crow and expanded and glorified the ideals of personal liberty and equality; the America that thrice saved the world from aggression through two hot wars in the twentieth century and a Cold War that brought down an expansionist Communist dictatorship. In Dan’s eyes, that America is eclipsed by the sinful one as he told us in several pieces he penned on the now largely discredited “Occupy Wall Street” movement and in other columns during the course of his career with The Wave as a columnist.
A revolution against the cruel excesses of our oppressive system, is on its way Dan warned us, an uprising that he claimed would be wholly justified by the continuing evils of our society and institutions. The Dan of those articles had looked around – and found us wanting. But now he’s moving on to Harvard and the nostalgia of receding youth has him firmly in its grip as he looks backward to his Rockaway years – at an upbringing within the relatively privileged precincts of the west end, an upbringing that was subject to, and infected by, all the implicit prejudices and undeserved sense of self-importance it fostered.
Dan’s experience is not so strange though. Nor is he the first to muse on the passing of the years. I’ve been reading his columns since he began writing them here and have often been impressed with the breadth of his knowledge and his obvious command of the English language (though I sometimes suspect he is even more impressed than I – a trait he’d do well to shake if he means to move on to larger venues). And, while I’ve found many of his dogmatic, left-leaning fantasies off-putting and unconvincing, I sympathize with his discovery of other communities and the realization that we’re not, and never have been, a perfect nation. But we are hardly the fatally flawed bully he imagines either, and I fear he has too often missed that in his rush to indict.
Like every other country and people, ours is a tale of contradictions and mistakes, as well as of triumphs and progress – and, like every young person before him who has wakened to the realization that he’s suddenly moving on, Dan’s tale is an old one, too.
I was the same more than 40 years ago in these same precincts (though the piece I wrote then never saw the light of day – it wasmore personal reverie than public posting and I wasn’t a Wave prodigy myself). I wrote then about my own youth in Rockaway on the eve of my leaving it when I didn’t know if I’d be coming back or not. Nor are such thoughts unique to the young. Even as I read and considered Dan’s “Rockaway Ruminations” this weekend, I was preparing myself psychologically for a hospital stint and a procedure that’s routine enough these days – but surely not without risk. Perhaps, I thought in the course of my own musings as I read Dan’s piece, the next column I meant to write for The Wave, which I had been putting off for most of the summer, would be my last one.
We never really know, do we? Perhaps, if I waited too long, I would never write it at all.
Surely Dan, looking ahead to a new phase of his own life, must be struck now by this same sense of impermanence – and of how much always seems to remain to be written. Will Harvard change Dan yet again? My guess is it will. Will it mitigate the hard left belief system that’s got hold of him and prompted him to view our nation with such dismay?
This last, I fear, is a good deal less likely given the record of modern academia – and of Ivy League schools in general. But everything changes, even the angry young idealists many of us once were and I remember, not without amusement now, how another young fellow once sat alone in his room, still awake at 3:00 a.m. some 40 years earlier, on the very day he was set to depart the country, thinking and listening to the night’s sounds outside his window and remembering his own Rockaway boyhood while the incessant bleat of a distant fog horn somewhere out on Jamaica Bay marked the passage of the hours.
That young man listened and remembered, too, and tried as hard as he could to impress the rhythmic and repetitive sound of that horn deeply into his memory. He was hoping he would not forget it then – not then and not afterwards either, once he and the horn were both finally and irretrievably gone.