Monday, May 12, 2008

Kelly McMasters Welcome to Shirley on front cover of Newsday LI Life

Kelly McMasters had the cover of LI Life in Newsday this past Sunday, Mother's Day.

Here is the story.

From Newsday, May 11th 2008


Kelly McMasters knows two Shirleys.

The first is an Eden of transplanted borough-breds who ached for a piece of the "country" and found it on Suffolk County's South Shore. They expressed their love with mounds of pasta fagioli, their solidarity in July Fourth block parties that cordoned off their close-knit blocks.

The other Shirley -- which to McMasters encompasses the adjacent Mastics -- is a sinister, silent one. It seeps into lives from underground, its calling cards cancer and quiet despair. On the surface, it manifests itself as a kind of geographic self-loathing, evidenced in nicknames like "Shirlee" and "Mistake Beach."

Both Shirleys intersect in McMasters' newly published "Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town" (Public Affairs, $24.95), a love letter to her adoptive hometown (she moved in as a 5-year-old) that confronts what she calls the "haunted house on the hill" -- Brookhaven National Laboratory, just on the other side of the Long Island Expressway.

While she was growing up some five miles to the south, McMasters (now a Manhattan-based writer who teaches journalism at Columbia University) was mostly unaware of the lab's nuclear program, or about contamination issues that didn't come to light until the late 1990s.

Once she left home, "my graduate-school essays kept coming back to the town and this lurking presence, which is the lab," says McMasters, 31, guiding her mom's borrowed Volvo down William Floyd Parkway in the town she left but still loves. "You should always write about what you are scared of."

Like her return visit, "Welcome to Shirley" is a nostalgic, meandering look at a pocket of the Island best identified by what it is not -- not the fabulous Hamptons, with which it shares a shoreline, if not a hip quotient. Shirley is not even a town in the traditional sense, as the scattered commerce on William Floyd Parkway is as close as it gets to a Main Street.

"Living in Shirley said something about you," McMasters writes in the book, her first, about the town's "image problem." "We glowed in the dark from the nuclear experiments at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Our hair was teased higher and we had to put clothes away on layaway, even at Fashion Bug."

McMasters crunches into the parking lot of the Smith Point Motel, where her family slept the night before they moved to their new rental home -- and soon left, when termites swarmed the room. "The doors used to be all different colors," she says, slightly crestfallen at their current homogeneity.

Several blocks away is the first house McMasters lived in, which anchors her fondest memories of Shirley. That patch of lawn is where she and her friends formed a "bat circle" -- lying on their backs at twilight, they watched the blur of bats departing the nature reserve across the street. That empty slice of space beyond the fence is where her favorite backyard tree used to stand.

And there, across the street from the vanilla-plain, vinyl-sided corner house, is where her beloved neighbor Jerry, a former lab employee, used to live. His death from brain cancer marks a turning point in the book, as McMasters begins to catalog the tumors, growths and bumps that appear on friends and family, including her mother, who has lost half of her thyroid to benign growths.

"The lives of these two places are completely intertwined," she says of Shirley and the lab to the north. "But while Shirley has no choice but to have a relationship with the lab, Brookhaven Lab doesn't want to acknowledge it [any relationship] exists."

Brookhaven's response
Not true, says George Goode, manager of Brookhaven Lab's environmental and waste management services, noting that the lab has tried to be a "good neighbor" and that statistics do not match McMasters' assertions: Independent task forces have concluded "that the cancer rates were not higher in proximity to the lab, and also specifically childhood cancer could not be related to it," Goode said in a telephone interview. Goode says extensive monitoring shows that radioactive contamination "has never left the lab property."

By contrast, chemical contamination, primarily from solvent use for cleaning metal, has, Goode says, though he adds testing shows that it has not extended south of Sunrise Highway, and that the chemicals have migrated "very, very deep under the surface -- far deeper than your typical public drinking water wells."

Some of McMasters' neighbors still live on her old block, including the real estate agent who rented her family that first house. "Some of them have read" her manuscript, "and one of them said, 'You can't get mad because everything Kelly said is true,'" she says, turning the car into the Woodlands, the "upscale" section of town, with its '80s-issue prototype McMansions. One of them sprung up on a lot that her father bought and then had to sell for a loss. Its two cement dog sentinels are secured with metal chains.

"Speaking its name makes it more real, and that's scary," says McMasters of her fear of the contaminants spilled into the environment over years at the lab, now a federal Superfund site because of its hazardous waste. "With me, it's less terror, and more just waiting."

Smokes and style
After a brief drive past the Poospatuck Reservation and its many cigarette shops, where a teenage McMasters bought all her smokes, she pulls up to a nondescript electronic gate. Beyond it is the sprawling Colonial-era estate of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who, during an interview with McMasters, is quoted as saying of her decidedly un-chic ZIP code: "I just import the people I want. I don't mind the town. It's white trash, of course, but I don't care." Still, Wintour has become an ardent local environmentalist, fund-raising to clean up the Forge River, which, not coincidentally, runs alongside her property and, when algae blooms overwhelm it, "smells like sewer gas and rotten eggs," McMasters writes.

McMasters describes attending Shirley's Christmas parade, post-"Devil Wears Prada." At that point she had lived in Manhattan for a decade, and so had a foothold in Wintour's world, albeit with a lot less couture. Having spent much of her childhood in Shirley, she also identified with the local guys "with neck tattoos and thermals." Neither will claim her totally as their own, she says a little wistfully, but "I want both because I am both."

The borrowed Volvo stops at Cranberry Dock in Mastic Beach. The initials McMasters carved on the worn planks are long gone, eroded by the waves or the names of other teenagers who came after her.

"I don't think that the water should just be for the rich people, and that's one of the good things about Shirley," she says. In the end, her fondness for the place outweighs her fears, but economics is what finally forced her out for good. When she and her husband, painter Mark Milroy, went looking for a house, they ultimately bought in rural Pennsylvania. "Though Shirley is the most affordable place on Long Island, it's still super-expensive," she shrugs.

McMasters navigates the unpaved road that hugs Narrow Bay, nestled between Moriches and Great South Bay. She pauses at a small white cottage, spare and wind-whipped amid the marsh grass, and confides that it is her dream house.

"What more do you need?" she asks gently.

No comments: