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state of mind

BY GREG O’BRIEN

AMERICAN PIE WESTCHESTER COUNTY WAS AMERICAN PIE IN THE ‘60S. You could drink whiskey in Rye when I was young. Growing up here, just four exits up Route 95 from the Bronx, yet time zones away in culture, one could order the best brand of Bushmills on an 18th birthday. I did, and paid the price at the Five Points on Midland Avenue, now Kelly’s Sea Level bar, owned today by a childhood buddy, Jerry Maguire, and his family—hardly the alter ego of Tom Cruise. By all measure, Rye is more than a bar stop. It’s a storied place on Long Island Sound at the mouth of New York Harbor, the locus of Rye Beach and Playland where movie scenes from Fatal Attraction with Glen Close and Big with Tom Hanks were filmed. I will always remember the scene in Big with Zoltar the Magnificent, the fortune telling machine that transported a young Hanks, the character of Josh Baskin, from childhood to adulthood and back. Where is Zoltar when I need him? Rye is a place of long-term memories for me, a shoring up of a past that can never be forgotten— memories that offer great solace at tangents of a change in life. In Alzheimer’s, brain cells in charge of short-term memory are losing the war. But longterm memory is still safely tucked away in a relatively peaceful neighborhood. Those memories are like a loyal, trustworthy friend, an ally to spend time with, at least for now. The significance and yet illusiveness of memory for those with Alzheimer’s is edifying. We all need memories; they define us. Saul Bellow, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner, once observed, “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” Rye, in so many ways, defines my mother and me, and a legion of ethnic transplants, in its simplicity, idealism, and in the everyday ordinary that delineated a time and space, silhouetted by the demographics of a generation—long-term memories to hold tight. Rye was everyone’s town. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was a Norman Rockwell community from central casting, a mix of Stockbridge and Mayberry, R.F.D.—bleached, white picket fences, flannel shirts and faded jeans, Oxford button downs from the Prep Shop on Purchase Street, and some Sax Fifth Avenue suits for the city folk. I’ve never left my childhood; I exist there today, to every extent possible, moments frozen in time of great joy, peace, security, immaturity,

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and potty talk at times. On some days, it’s the only peace I know. Alzheimer’s brings one home to long-term memory—in my case, to a time when doctors made house calls, nuns wore black sweaty wool 19th century habits, baseball was king, and a McDonald’s hamburger, fries, and a Coke cost just 25 cents. The memories keep me whole, and serve to stitch a patchwork quilt of experiences that leave indelible images of life that cannot be forgotten. Rye was the quintessence of American Pie. The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens were icons in my town, and the night a single engine Beechcraft Bonanza, model 35, serial #D-1019, wing number N3794N, crashed in a Clear Lake, Iowa cornfield on February 3, 1959 was the day the music died here. I was in the third grade when the plane went down, and even Sister Timothy, a plump, stern, but benevolent Sister of Charity, took note of the loss. We called her the “Big Bopper.” The day the music died was the first communal tragedy Boomers experienced, a shared loss of innocence to be followed in four years by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and three decades later by the death of Mickey Mantle, the “last boy.” No doubt, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of a generation took the last train to the coast. But we Baby Boomers survived, a bit tougher, more cerebral, and always idealistic. Perhaps we should have seen a flood of disasters and dementias coming, like the rise of high tide on a foggy Long Island Sound. But instead, we chose to clip priceless Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Willie Mays baseball cards with wooden clothespins to the spokes of our bicycles to mimic the roar of a motorcycle. Made us feel childishly reckless. In street value today, we shredded the collective investment of college tuitions and retirement. And we think we’re so smart. Rye—a place where George Washington slept, Ogden Nash and Amelia Earhart lived, and once the seaside retreat of the Manhattan elite— was inhabited decades ago by ethnic, fist-generation working stiffs. Today, some of the wealthiest, most successful in the nation live here. But to me, Rye simply is home, a place to remember, a patchwork quilt of hometowns across the country. Everyone needs a memory of home, real or imagined; mine is more real than imagined. Innocence, as it was elsewhere, was the coin of Rye in the ’50s and ’60s—a town where first-,

rye magazine 54  

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