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.
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.
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