What I Miss Most: Sitting Around on Staten Island
Welcome to What I Miss Most, a recurring column in which writers wax poetic about the things from home that they found themselves yearning for upon moving to NYC (or the things from NYC they craved upon moving away from it). For an archive of previous What I Miss Most columns, click
Whenever I tell people I’m from Staten Island, they’ll always feign politeness. Physically choking back a ferry joke, they'll assure me that they can’t hear my accent. “Oh, I’ve actually never been,” they’ll say; then, like clockwork, “but I drove through it once!” If they feel like humoring me, they’ll ask, “What’s there to do there?” And here’s what I tell them:
There is nothing to do on Staten Island. Growing up, the nothingness was a bad thing, a thing I had to get out from under. It wasn’t until spending years away that I finally came to appreciate it.
In a very literal sense, Staten Island gets dumped on a lot. For decades, the outermost borough of New York City was home to the Fresh Kills landfill, the world’s largest garbage dump. Covering 2,200 acres, the old joke was that there were two man-made objects you could see from space: the Great Wall of China and the Fresh Kills landfill. And I grew up in its shadow, just six miles downwind of all that toxicity.
Like most young adults with a crippling fear of dying in their hometowns, I wanted out.
But Staten Island and its people also get dumped on verbally -- mostly by those in the other four boroughs. The insult heap includes everything from mockery of its crass accents (Ay, Cahmine, take out da fuckin’ gahbage, eh?) to its insular close-mindedness (it’s the only borough that runs the risk of swinging red during presidential elections). And while there is truth to some of its caricature -- chances are pretty good that if you live on Staten Island, you know someone who owns a pizzeria, is a wedding DJ, or, in some cases, both -- transplants to New York have no right to join in on the ridicule. To speak in my native dialect: these mooks should watch their fuckin’ mouths, capisce?
The Island’s punching bag nature is why I eventually left for Brooklyn, a decidedly “cooler” neighboring borough that my parents both grew up in, and subsequently worked very hard to get the hell away from. They thought my move was insane.
Like most newly christened adults with a crippling fear of dying in their hometowns, I wanted out. I was fed up with the limitations of small town suburbia -- having jack shit to do on Saturday nights and winding up skateboarding in the Starbucks parking lot or stealing Minor Threat T-shirts from the Hot Topic in the Staten Island Mall. (Side note: many thanks to my mall-employee friends who kindly looked the other way and kept me clothed throughout high school.)
I packed up and set out for Brooklyn because I wanted new places, new people, new culture. I wanted the proximity to the venues, the restaurants, and the parties, the secret ones in discarded shipping containers by the docks that your sketchy dealer told you about on the down-low. And sure, Brooklyn and Manhattan are packed with that kind of stuff, so much so that there are websites just like this one dedicated to making sure not a single minute of your weekend goes by without -- god forbid -- having an endless stream of options for the hottest, hyperlocal-est, most Instagrammable spots in your neighborhood.
But what they don’t tell you on EdgyBrooklynBullshit dot com is that this lifestyle grows old fast. Living in cramped, overpriced apartments just to be near cramped, overpriced bars is a depressing tradeoff. You very quickly start to question whether living in an apartment whose shower doubles as a storage space for your extra mouse traps is really worth it. It’s why the city ebbs and flows with Midwesterners who move here after college, only to find a baby-making partner, and eventually move right back home to nest. (Side note: buh-bye!)
Staten Island, on the other hand, has no such pretensions about it.
There is a constant to Staten Island. I used to call it dullness. Some of the friends I had growing up there never left, and I could never wrap my head around that. Didn’t they know there were banging parties happening just a few miles away in Brooklyn’s abandoned piñata factory district? It wasn’t until I moved away and came back to visit as an adult that I understood -- Staten Island is a place to feel grounded, to feel at home.
That gets lost in big-city living. People become too focused on what they’re doing and where they’re doing it. But with fewer options in the suburbs, you start to appreciate who you’re doing these things with. You appreciate how you’re living.
Plant your bare feet in the grass, and just be.
I should take a step back here to clarify that I don’t want to sell Staten Island as some sort of laid-back utopia of peace and serenity. It’s the only borough in NYC where you can still spot a pair of TruckNutz. Plus, let’s not forget all that stuff I said about most of it very literally being a giant trash heap. But there’s something about it that’s lost on New York transplants as they look down their noses on the forgotten borough, which is this: Staten Island is the real New York. It’s home to the firefighters, EMTs, and city workers who keep New York running. And there is a camaraderie in that community.
You might spend a Staten Island Saturday night at the bar. Not a bar, but the bar. The one on Forest Ave that you know all of your friends will be at. By “friends,” I mean, y'know, actual friends, not "people you’re tangentially connected to through your various social and career-climbing networks and barely actually know."
Maybe the thing I miss most about the Island is even simpler, though. You can spend a summer night in your backyard -- not a fire escape or a tiny back alley that primarily serves as a meeting spot for raucous late-night cat orgies -- but an actual, spacious lawn, where you can grill up a burger, sit back in a folding chair, plant your bare feet in the grass, and just be. No networking, no constant search for the next hot thing, no culture overload. You can just exist.
So when people ask what there is to do on Staten Island, I tell them -- nothing. But I don’t mean it as an insult anymore. It’s a place where you can step back from the city’s sad, anxious lust for the CoolNewSomething, take a minute, and just breathe life in.
Even if it does smell like fuckin’ gahbage.
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