Letter From Massapequa
BUT WILL IT PLAY IN MATZO-PIZZA?
More than ever, national politicians are turning their attention to the suburbs. Just as small towns and big cities once shaped American life, the latest census indicates half the U. S. population now lives in suburbia. The `burbs will get most of the redistricted congressional seats next year.
In the past, politicians and social commentators took the pulse of the nation by asking a simple question: "Will it play in Peoria?" So where is the epicenter of the current political universe, the new Peoria of American politics? Would you believe 42 miles due east of Manhattan, hard by the Great South Bay of Long Island? "Massapequa--America's new hometown," proclaims New York's Newsday. The 1992 race, predicts The New Republic, will boil down to a titanic battle between George Bush and New York Governor Mario Cuomo for the soul of Massapequa, land of the "angry middle-class homeowner to whom Republicans have pitched their appeal since the days of Richard Nixon."
HOMEGROWN. Now hold it right there. I know Massapequa. Massapequa is my hometown. And if this is the new incubator of U. S. politics, America, trust me, you may want to think about this.
Not that I don't love this place. It's a bigger part of me than sometimes I would care to admit. But there are things people should know about this proposed political barometer.
Affectionately called Matzo-Pizza because of its mix of Jews and Italians, Massapequa, population 80,000, is also a melting pot of Irish, German, and many other ethnic backgrounds. As long as you're white, that is. Very few blacks live anywhere but in East Massapequa, which, while officially part of the town, has separate schools and is regarded as a sort of other Massapequa.
This is where the children of the immigrants who crowded the New York tenements fled to in the years after World War II. Speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who has crafted rhetoric for Presidents Reagan and Bush, has described the Massapequa of her 1950s childhood as a place for which "my parents, like all of their friends, left the city to get a lawn and let the kids ride their bikes in the streets." Such families still come.
The place is neither high- nor lowbrow. Just lots of shopping centers, bargain stores, diners, pizza parlors, and bagel places. The name Massapequa, locals joke, is Indian for "by the mall." It's a culture that worships every American's right to buy things.
Despite new accoutrements, Pequans haven't changed all that much since their front yards were Brooklyn stoops. Noonan remembers people yelling at each other a lot in the summertime. Fellow Massapequan Ron Kovic, the Vietnam veteran who told his life story in Born on the Fourth of July, recounts a few such screaming fits.
That's what I remember, too. We had some great fights on our street, neighbors threatening each other with garden shovels, insulting each other's ancestry, that kind of thing. It's a place where the front door flying open and a father throwing his shoe at his son across the lawn has always been a sign of on-the-job parenting and not a reason to call the police.
The baby boom produced a spate of famous Massapequans. In addition to Noonan and Kovic there are actors Steve Guttenberg and hunk brothers Alec and Billy Baldwin. Massapequa humor? You can catch it on prime-time TV on the Jerry Seinfeld show. Then there's Jessica Hahn on The Love Phone and the rock group Stray Cats--Pequans all.
But the town's everyday human fabric leans to zoning lawyers, small-business owners, auto mechanics, and New York City police officers. The quintessence of Massapequa is the All American, a 1950s-style drive-in hamburger joint on Merrick Road. Independently owned, it has fought off eight national fast-food franchises that over the years set up shop in the vicinity only to go out of business. It's so dear to locals that kids who have grown up hanging out there have the rented limo swing by so they can get some fries and pose for pictures when they get married.
Politics? All that means here is tax breaks and getting your kid a park job for the summer. People move to Massapequa to get away from big-city politics, right down to the Mafia families who have some of the more expensive homes down by the bay. But personal beliefs? Ideals? Ahh, whether you are liberal or conservative, ideals--or personal values, if you will--mean something here, even if they are as mundane as keeping your lawn trimmed and neat.
TURNCOATS. Three decades ago, Massapequans worshipped President John F. Kennedy. Today, the grandchildren of immigrants who were Democrats embrace the feel-good politics of Reagan and Bush. Desert Storm was a huge hit. At the Sunrise Mall, a poster of the American flag with the caption "These colors don't run" has sold well. "It's a resurgence of Americanism," says John H. Meyer, a 58-year-old native Pequan. "The war did this." Meyer doesn't like to talk about politics and doesn't really know why he, and just about everyone he knows, is a Republican now. That's just the way it is, he says.
So this is the new Peoria, huh? Let me tell you what the nation can look forward to. Massapequa is intensely egalitarian, but racially polarized. It's compassionate, yet selfish. It's sane, but rigid and stifling in many ways. It's closed, but it works. Above all else, Massapequa works.
Any Democrat who wants to become President will have to overcome the skepticism of government that has infused the middle class, which has purchased a discreet form of social insulation in places such as Massapequa. It never ceases to amaze me how George Bush's political advisers know this place so intimately and play to it so successfully. But he should keep something in mind. In Massapequa, Mr. President, all they really want you to do is to keep the government's hands off their dreams.
Oh, and maybe an invite to the White House sometime. That would sure impress the relatives--and really bug the neighbors.DOUGLAS HARBRECHT