Oyster Bay, New York, a small municipality on the north shore of Long Island, is a decidedly warm-weather town.
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.
thing, then, that I decided to visit on the snowiest day of winter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.