I’ve been closely following this story over the past week. At first glance, it may seem like an all-too-familiar story of racial tension: High school kids cruise around looking for representatives of the “other” to bully; what starts as casual thuggery turns tragically into homicide. Unfortunately, stories like this are a dime-a-dozen these days.
What made this one catch my eye, and unsettle my stomach, is that I know this place. I was born in Patchogue, grew up in nearby Mastic Beach, and I still have family living there. The Suffolk County I grew up in in the 1960s and early ’70s was much different than today. It was more rural, for one thing; back then the area Mastic Beach was largely a village of summer homes for New York City residents. The family across the street from us, who adopted my beloved dog Josie when we moved to Illinois, lived in Queens most of the year. The mom and four daughters came out to Mastic to live in the summer, with dad coming to visit on the weekends. The last time I visited, it was hard to tell where New York City ended and the Long Island suburbs began. And it was more homogenous, for another thing. The neighborhood’s main diversity came from Italian families like ours and retired Jews, who apart from different religions nonetheless shared the commonality of having moved to get out of The City. Our church, St. Jude, offered Masses in English and Italian; nowadays it also offers a Saturday evening Mass in Spanish and a Sunday-morning sign-language Mass.
I wish I could say that news of this most recent hate crime had shocked or surprised me, but it didn’t. I have heard the intolerant rhetoric of newly arrived immigrants to Suffolk County from members of my own family. It always seemed strange to me that a family like ours, whose founders came to this country in the early 1900s and faced deep discrimination against “wops” and “guineas” should turn around and reflect that hateful attitude onto the next set of hopeful immigrants. How quickly our collective memory fails us.