The Bureau of Unknown Destinations
Pine Island oysters at Wild Honey in Oyster Bay, Long Island. (Brad Cohen)
Oyster Bay, New York, a small municipality on the north shore of Long Island, is a decidedly warm-weather town.
If the name didn’t already hint at this, I came to that realization while researching the town on my phone, about 20 minutes into the 90-minute train ride from Manhattan. The “places to go, things to do” section of the town’s website was dominated by something like two dozen nature parks, preserves, sanctuaries, refuges and an arboretum or two, perfect for a lovely day in the sun.
Good thing, then, that I decided to visit on the snowiest day of winter.
I booked the trip at the Brooklyn-based office of the Bureau of Unknown Destinations, the latest of artist Sal Randolph’s interactive art projects. In past projects, she’s given away money to the public and infiltrated books into libraries, and her newest experiment, made possible by the interdisciplinary gallery Proteus Gowanus, involves offering “free tickets for psychogeographic voyages by rail”. The goal of the project is to give people the chance to “set forth free of decisions” and “test (their) sense of destiny” by travelling to destinations unknown. Travellers can check the website for office hours or email Randolph to book journeys through mid-April, 2012.
After a brief chat, Randolph handed me a sealed manila envelope with the trip number 28 stamped on the back. I would not, as the name of the project made clear, know my destination until I left. I met my friend, Liz, at New York City’s Penn Station the following afternoon, and we tore open the envelope to find a mini notebook and two return tickets to Oyster Bay. We assumed there would be an abundance of oysters, but even if the destination turned out to be mundane, the envelope and the complete freedom from expectation added a level of adventure and excitement to the trip.
When the train arrived in Oyster Bay, there was a school on one side and houses surrounding us – all blanketed in white. The whole place seemed to be sleeping, even -- as I was soon to be told -- the oysters.
We trudged through the snow to a small shop, The Chocolate Lady, where Paul, the proprietor, and his daughter served us homemade toffee and truffles, though the chocolate soup probably would have been a better decision. This was the beauty, we soon decided, of travelling. No matter how close we were to home and no matter how little we prepared for this trip, by getting out of our comfort zone, we were forced to actually interact with real people – something becoming increasingly unnecessary in everyday life.
The walking tour maps at the Oyster Bay tourism booth were either stored for the winter or buried in snow, and the framed maps on display were iced over. So we took Paul’s suggestion to visit the Raynham Hall Museum, the Victorian home of the Townsend family, whose claim to fame was a son who was a member of George Washington’s Long Island-based Culper Spy Ring and a daughter who, the museum insists, received the first valentine ever written in the United States.
We rang the bell and waited for a tour, as the sign in front of the museum instructed. After a few minutes, the 21-year-old tour guide, Tom, stumbled to the door. He had to put his shoes on, he explained. He wasn’t expecting anyone on this day, with the snow and all. We didn’t expect to be there either.
We discussed the strangely tiny build of 18th century women and the discomfort of girdles, looked at centuries-old objects like sock dryers and sausage makers, and deciphered old letters, including the infamous valentine and one from George Washington himself. This would not normally have been my idea of fun, but it turned out to be a delightful way to spend a winter afternoon. If we’d come when it was warm, we would never have gone to the museum and learned about 18th-century teeth — soldiers required four back then (in order to tear open ammo cartridges). George Washington’s teeth were not, as commonly believed, made of wood, and “Victorians had a crazy sweet tooth”, which explained the plastic ice cream dish on display on the dinner table (“ice cream is ancient”, Tom explained.)
By the time we exited the museum it was dark, and it was hard to imagine that the deserted town was nearly as charming when filled with people in the warmer months.
We headed to Wild Honey, which appeared to be the poshest restaurant in town, and ordered dirty martinis with blue-cheese olives and a dozen local Pine Island oysters with pineapple mignonette. The bartender, Joe, and the couple sitting next to us at the bar explained (in delightfully thick Long Island accents) that the town really comes alive in the warmer months. October’s Oyster Festival, a strange cross between a town picnic and a wild street party is really the best time to visit.
On the way back to the train station, a friendly local gave us a lift to the shoreline; we had to see the water before we left. At the end of the dock, we looked out onto the black water of the Long Island Sound, shimmering under the moonlight. I ran around the snow-covered beach until I fell on my back, treasuring a starry sky, a now-rare sight for a Brooklyn transplant, before getting on the 90-minute train back to reality.