in search of chief ted

AND THEN ONE MORNING, I went out for a walk in Setauket. Setauket is, or was, a tiny Anglo settlement. The original European inhabitants were Puritans from New England. They arrived by boat, and traded with the local Algonquians, who were recorded in history as the Setalcott (which might hint at the original pronunciation of the name). Old timers like Ted Green and Sherman Mills used to say SEE-tauket, but newer arrivals call it Set-AUK-et. Hence, the famed Se-Port Deli.

I looked for Chief Ted’s grave at Laurel Hill, but couldn’t find it, but I found some other Greens, Harts, and Sells. I had never gone into the cemetery itself, which is an old Setalcott burial ground, and seems somehow off-limits to outsiders, but I was surprised by how lush and leafy the whole place was. There used to be an old house at the end of Locust Avenue terminating in Christian Avenue that belonged to this enclave of the original people, but it’s long gone, and has been replaced with some standard suburban structure, of zero cultural value. There used to be a kid who lived up that hill named Reggie, but I can’t recall what his last name was. I just remember him walking up that hill when our bus dropped him off. Maybe Chief Ted’s nephew?

Chief Ted told me that when he was a kid in the 1930s, the Klan was active on Long Island. Men in white sheets would come through the forests at night to terrorize the people of color. There used to be a series of houses over at the intersection of Old Town Road and Main Street called Chicken Hill, and a pub nearby. Chief Ted told me that the owner of the pub took out life insurance policies on all of his Afro-Indian clients, so that each time one of them croaked after a lifetime of drinking his alcohol, he earned a little money too. Sharp fella. In the Setauket of the ’30s, Chief Ted would walk with the other children into Port Jefferson to buy ice cream at Grandma’s and walk back. I remember going to Grandma’s when I was a kid. I think we had my seventh birthday there. It’s long gone now. Port Jefferson of old.

I gave up on looking for Chief Ted and turned left onto Lake Street. The original settlement of Setauket was built around this now stagnant green inlet. The land where my parents live up the hill was undeveloped into the 1970s. Some of these houses are built in the traditional saltbox fashion that is common throughout New England. Up the hill and down Old Field Road, you find more wannabe colonial mansions. These are hidden behind hedges and gates, and there are no people. It is a peculiar feeling to walk all the way down Old Field Road, and then down Mount Grey Road, and then turn onto West Meadow Road, heading for the beach, engulfed in shady affluence, and still see no people. Now and then you can hear them, children’s voices in a distant garden, but other than a passing car, it is silent.

There are certain roads, like the one that leads out to Flax Pond and Crane Neck, that are framed by stone posts and look like the entry ways to a Mexican caudillo’s hacienda. One might expect armed guards in camouflage to arrest any intruder. It is more Gatsby than Escobar here, but it begs the question, what is the real difference between Gatsby and Escobar? Skin tone? Language? Gatsby wasn’t a killer, but he was dealing in moonshine. Pablo was selling cocaine. At some level, big money is just big money, whether you made it legally or not. The desire of big money is to isolate itself, to insulate itself, to hide itself away from the world. A person of means does not socialize with the common man. He hides himself away down a long drive, vacations to an exclusive island, cherry picks visitors. Old Field felt so silent and lifeless and I recalled dramatic teenage mornings, roaming around these same vacant streets listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band singing “Walking Blues.”

At West Meadow, I decided to go for broke and make it to the Gamecock Cottage and the heralded “Porpoise Channel” of Johnny Remorse. I kept looking around for the Krip Keepas, but there was none in sight. Not even Matty D. Where could he be? Still running from the Suffolk County PD? Instead I filled up my cup at the artesian well in the middle of the wetlands reserve at the Erwin Ernst Marine Conservation Center. There was an older man there who told me he had been getting water there for 40 years, and that I should be grateful and thank Mother Earth. I thanked her and went on my way.

Along the road back, I overheard some Italians, identifiable by their use of the words “qui” (here) and “la” (there). I managed to fake my way through some dialogue. They were from Napoli, Naples, and I told them I was Barese, from Bari, which in some remote way I am. “Ah,” the Neapolitan said. “We are over here and you are over there” (the cities are on opposite sides of the Italian peninsula). Next I passed two women who I think were speaking Czech or Polish. Some western Slavic language. And then there was a Chinese couple out on skates. Funny, I came all the way to Setauket on Long Island, ancient hamlet of Puritan settlers, and yet nobody is speaking English here, I thought.

I’m not even speaking English.

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