From the Prairie to the Shore

Long Island beach at sunset

This summer, I will celebrate the 21st anniversary of my 21st birthday. It doesn’t seem possible. Not just because of this age I am now, but because that summer was one of the biggest adventures of my life. I spent it on Long Island, interning on the New York Newsday copy desk by night, and by day, experiencing life away from home for the first time.

I had earned a spot in a prestigious program that trained college journalists to become editors in the real world. We attended a two-week boot camp, then traveled on to the newspapers where we had been assigned. When I got my acceptance letter, I was ashamed to say I’d never even heard of Newsday. But I quickly learned it was a big, Pulitzer Prize-winning paper, and it adhered proudly to the New York tabloid tradition.

I was still 20 when I got my first look at the Big Apple, from the window of another intern’s car as we drove to Long Island from Philadelphia, where our training had been. The closer we got to that epic skyline, awash in a permanent urban haze, all those postcards and movies came to life, three-dimensional and endless and real. It was 1992 in New York, after the subways had been scrubbed of graffiti but before Carrie Bradshaw and September 11.

But we were zipping past it to continue east. I’d just arrived, and I was already bridge-and-tunnel people. New York Harbor faded in the west. I watched the spaces grow between the buildings, beyond Brooklyn and Queens to the Long Island Expressway.

Long Island House

We stayed that night in Amityville. (Yes, that one. We drove around until we found the house.) There were six Newsday interns in our program, each of us staying in the homes of newspaper staffers who bravely agreed to take student boarders for the summer. The next day I moved into what would be my home for the next 10 weeks: a rambling seaside vacation home on the south shore, roughly the size of a Marriott. I’d never seen anything like it. The back lawn sloped down to the bay, where I watched the Fire Island Ferry go by few times a day. Inside, there were six or seven or 20 bedrooms. Hard to tell. The upstairs hallway looked long enough to land a Cessna.

Long Island beach

The beach was a 15-minute drive down the shore. My whole life I’d been landlocked – this was something I knew I couldn’t get more of at home. I took the train into the city on occasion to explore, and it was magical, but it also smelled like pee. The beach smelled amazing. Fishy and salty and coconutty from the suntan oil. I liked to go in the evenings and stay a little past sunset to see the moon over the water. The waves mesmerized me. The breeze chilled me in a way a Kansas evening in June never could.

I sat, and looked, and thought. About the boy I pined for at home, who spent that summer falling in love with another girl, who is his wife to this day. About getting tickets to Lollapalooza, which was coming to the Jones Beach Amphitheater and would turn out to be my most quintessential Generation X experience. About starting my final year of college when I went home. And about how I didn’t think I wanted to be a copy editor after all. I wanted to write.

I felt alone a lot that summer. The big house swallowed me up, and it freaked me out to be there alone at night. I missed my friends in Kansas, and we wrote actual letters back and forth. (Long distance calls still cost extra then.) In July, I celebrated my 21st birthday in the usual way, at a bar in Huntington Station with the other interns, who were some really smart and fun people. They just weren’t my BFFs.

But every time I headed up the causeway to the beach, as I crested the rise and first saw the distant water, I always began to smile, and I’d turn up the music a little louder (that summer, Charlatans U.K. or Red Hot Chili Peppers – on cassette). I wouldn’t have the beach for long, but while I did, it was a beautiful distraction.

Erin O’Donnell
Co-Editor, Kansas Women Bloggers

9 thoughts on “From the Prairie to the Shore

  1. MeLinda Schnyder says:

    Really, really enjoyed this post. I started to copy and paste my favorite line or two but there were too many 🙂

    It was great getting to know more about you, and we’re lucky you decided to be a writer.

    Oh, and I’m totally borrowing your 21st anniversary of your 21st birthday when mine rolls around in less than 2 months.

    • Erin O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, MeLinda!! I have trouble believing it’s been that long or that I’m officially IN my 40s.

      So give it a shot and tell me at least one or two or your favorite lines 🙂

      • MeLinda Schnyder says:

        We’re the same age so all of the references (listening to cassettes, pining for the boy back home, making concert plans) took me back to my summer of 1992 — listening to Tracy Chapman on cassette while driving to my summer newspaper internship (my location wasn’t nearly as glam!).

        Loved this because it says so much more than dates can say:
        “It was 1992 in New York, after the subways had been scrubbed of graffiti but before Carrie Bradshaw and September 11.”

        Of course I loved this aviation reference!
        “The upstairs hallway looked long enough to land a Cessna.”

        I was just telling someone how big the world felt in 1989, when a friend moved from Missouri to California and I couldn’t afford to call her. We wrote letters instead, wish I still had them!
        “The big house swallowed me up, and it freaked me out to be there alone at night. I missed my friends in Kansas, and we wrote actual letters back and forth. (Long distance calls still cost extra then.)”

    • Erin O'Donnell says:

      Thank you so much! Those were some memories I hadn’t visited in a while, and I think I have an itch to explore them further, too. Beach getaway? YES please.

  2. Dani M. Stone says:

    Erin Perry (’cause that’s who you’ll always be to me) that was ridiculously beautiful. Tell me again why you haven’t written a short story collection or a novel?
    Great memories brought to life.

  3. BD Tharp says:

    Wow. Excellent post. I can smell the sea air right now. You were so brave. I on the other hand was never that brave. Thank you for sharing your adventure. Good Stuff!

  4. Bill Moormann says:

    I had no clue you were in New York at the same time I was! I must admit, I don’t miss the coast, but I do miss the City itself. Getting hot bagels at 4am, rollerblading everywhere, going to the Met for $1. I would have loved to show you Columbia. Interestingly enough, I missed Kansas the whole time too! What a great post.

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