time I ever saw Tiny Town was in 1985, during
driver’s ed class in high school. Our teacher, Bob, a mellow dude, called me
Lady Di, after the Princess of Wales.
Practicing the K-turn with Bob and my merry band of classmates was the
means to that golden ticket of independence and the world beyond the limits of
the Long Island sound: a New York State Driver’s license.
my turn at the wheel. We left the John F Kennedy High
School parking lot and drove towards Merrick Road, one of two main
thoroughfares in the town. Bob directed me towards Sunrise Highway, a six-lane
belt that divides the town into the wrong and right sides of the Long Island
Railroad tracks. Bob pushed us even further north, bade me cut up Merrick
Avenue, then cross to Camp Avenue, farther into neighboring North Merrick than
I had ever traveled, though it was a mere ten minutes from home. North Merrick
was the lesser of the two Merricks. Its
tonier twin, South Merrick, boasted the waterfront properties of the wealthy
kids I went to high school with. North Merrick was humble, working-class, and
home to our friendly-rival high school, Mepham. None of us in that Chevy,
fitted with a brake pedal on Bob’s side, really knew where we were. We
were out of our comfort zone.
Bob’s commands of random rights and lefts,
carefully checking the mirrors, using my turn signal, and giving the appearance
of control over the automobile. Then, on Camp Avenue, the fateful directive
came from Bob: turn right. Now we were on Central Avenue, a woodsy stretch, and
weirdly, the trees were not the ubiquitous manicured maples and pines, but a
forest of their unkempt cousins, trees gone wild, plus towering cedars and ash,
whose thick trunks and broad leafy canopies had been quietly growing for
hundreds of years. Our car grew quiet and all I could hear was our tires on the
road. We rolled on past Third Avenue, Second Avenue, First Avenue, the houses
growing older, un-retouched by the wealth of Reagan’s 80’s currently
face-lifting South Merrick houses into stuccoed monoliths. Small dogs yapped
from yards chain-linked around yellow lawns. Suddenly, Tony let out a gasp from
the backseat. “What the hell?”
the car in front of an impossibly small
gingerbread house, suitable for a few of Snow White’s dwarf friends. And it
dawned on me that what I had originally thought was a driveway, was, in fact, a
are we?” I asked, for some reason keeping my voice
low. My eyes grew wide in panic, adrenaline flooding my blood. Bob merely
shrugged, and chuckled at the scene.
shit!” said Tony from behind me. “I think this is Tiny
yeah!” said Alison, next to him. “I heard about this
place! I didn’t think it was real!”
Tiny Town?” laughed Bob, mellow in the passenger
this, this tiny…town,” said Tony. “All the houses are
like, midget houses. Everyone here is like, a midget!”
get out of here!” Allison exclaimed.
for Bob’s directive, I executed a hasty reverse
out of the driveway-sized street. However, what none of us knew was that the
streets of Tiny Town were arranged in concentric circles. We wound half way
around Fletcher Avenue, and then Bob said, “Left here,” and I turned on Fisk to
Wesley, only to find myself navigating an even more impossibly narrow street
whose doll houses looked like they were straight out of Hansel and Gretel,
well-kept and clearly inhabited, though no occupants were visible. I slowed the
car to 10 miles an hour, envisioning that the Chevy would soon be scraping the
edges of the streets, until we would be wedged permanently, perhaps to perish
at the hands of fiendish dwarves or child-eating witches. I stopped the car.
Sweat trickled from my armpits, Allison moaned, and Tony swore under his
breath, a prayer-like chant: shit, shit, shit, Jesus.
told us all to calm down, and directed me to
keep going on Wesley. Reluctantly, I did, and when we curved back to Central
Avenue again he said, “Now! Turn!” I floored it, and we rocketed out of Tiny
Town and back to the safety of right-sized streets, houses, and trees, our
hysterical laughter belying our inner terror.
Tiny Town was like stumbling upon an unusual
pebble or seashell, some miracle of the natural world, which you pocket for no
reason but the desire to possess it, even though out of its original context,
its totemic power can fade. Nestled in a treasure box or on a special shelf,
the find gathers dust. So too did the memory of my Tiny Town experience. Over
time, I doubted what we had seen. It was too improbable. Urban (or in this
case, suburban) legends are never real. We did no more exploring with Bob,
limiting ourselves to practicing full stops and left turns on the predictable
streets around the high school. If I thought of Tiny Town at all after those
years, it was to reflect on the bizarre nature of the discovery, but I never
tested it myself to see if I could find again those narrow circling streets of
a town with diminutive houses.
until nearly ten years later that the subject of
Tiny Town re-emerged. I was home for the Christmas break from grad school,
drinking pitchers of Budweiser with my brother and two hometown friends in The
Crease, Merrick’s only Lacrosse-themed bar. We reminisced about the changes we
observed in the town—the used bookstore now an Applebee’s, the formerly
stuccoed houses now boasting pretentious columns.
I said. “Any of you guys ever been to Tiny Town? I
wonder if it’s still there.”
whose New York accent sounds exactly Marissa
Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie, said, “Yeah, I heard of it, but I thought that was
like, you know, an urban legend.”
I told them. “It’s real. I’ve been there.”
pumped me for details, and after a few more
beers, we agreed we needed to go find it right away. With all the windows down
on his Four Runner despite the freezing temperatures of the December night,
Roland, Christine’s boyfriend, drove us up Merrick Avenue.
to summon the way, from all those years before, but
all I could tell him was, “When you think you’re in a driveway, but it’s
actually a street, you’re there.” We dodged eagerly down random streets that
looked “creepy,” or “weird.” An hour passed in this way, but Tiny Town would
not yield itself to us. Finally, I said, “You know what? I don’t think it works
this way. I don’t think we can get there on purpose. It’s almost like a
spiritual journey or something. You know, like, we can’t find it. It has to
to The Crease and smoked a few more cigarettes
and shared two more pitchers.
think we should try again,” Roland said, his face set. “I
think we have to.”
out-voted him, so we dropped the subject and
started making fun of the math teacher we’d all had at Kennedy. Another night
on that vacation, we again sat drinking Buds in The Crease, bored and silent.
go to the diner or something,” Roland said. “This
place is beat.”
into his SUV, and Roland blasted both the heat and
the radio—a heavy metal station that pulsed in the fillings of my teeth. He
swung up Merrick Avenue.
where are you going?” asked Christine. “The diner
is the other way.”
up, you’ll see.”
fumed silently next to me, and I closed my eyes,
tired, buzzed, wishing the music wasn’t quite as deafening, but content to be
ensconced in the luxury of heated leather seats. I kept my eyes closed, even
when my brother proclaimed, “It’s snowing”; picturing the diner’s oversized,
laminated menu offering everything from French fries to shrimp cocktail to
Chinese roast pork to apple pie a la mode. One in the morning. Whatever we
wanted. The thought made me smile. Then suddenly, Roland snapped off the radio.
I opened my eyes to see what had inspired that move and then opened my eyes
wider. My brother gasped. Tiny Town laid before us, in its miniature splendor,
the cottages twinkling in Christmas lights, and all of it coated in a fine down
of fresh snow.
the hell?” Christine said.
shit. It’s fucking Tiny Town!” My brother exclaimed,
and all of us began exclaiming at once.
I said. “There’s more. Roland, keep driving.”
car, easily three times the size Bob’s Chevy
had been, carefully wound down the circular street, into the heart of Tiny
the hell is this place?” Christine said.
Christ!” shouted Roland. “Is that Santa’s house!?”
was on a greatly reduced scale, but surely the
humans inside—if indeed they were humans—must have been no more than a foot or
two high. We spent twenty minutes slowly circling the enclave, Roland and my
brother proclaiming this or that house or street was “good Tiny,” until we felt
that we’d seen it and we should probably get out before we somehow jinxed it.
diner, I asked Roland how he had found it. “I thought
about what you said, about not trying to find it, and I just found it. Something
like, the right state of mind.”
seriously. It’s not bullshit!” he said. “That place is
weird.” He sipped his Coke, popped a french fry in his mouth and chewed
thoughtfully. “Why is it there? Why is
my brother said, and we all cracked up, the spell
was established as a Methodist summertime
campground in the 1870s, and thrived for nearly thirty years until a waning
interest in religious activities turned it into a year-round residence rather
than a summer gathering spot. Locals call the area The Campgrounds. The streets
were intentionally designed as a wheel with spokes.
hub was the tabernacle, at first a tent and then a
building. The notably below average size of the cottages was simply due to
their origin as temporary summer dwellings, and the modest lot sizes restrained
expansion until the housing bubble in the 2000s, when developers bought several
lots for a song, razed the gingerbread houses with their curlicued lattice, and
cranked out modern boxes to the edges of the lots. The Tiny Town of my
experience is all but a faded dream.
Tiny Town mean? Why is it important? The delighted
terror we felt that day in 1985 was more delight than terror because maybe,
just maybe, we had found something—discovered, or uncovered, a mystery, a
landscape not fully understood, that baffled or eluded the understanding, and
thus interesting. A welcome contrast to the dull, familiar, and predictable
patterns and structures of suburban America.
is symbolic of the tenacity of the past. How
religious symbolism and tradition can carve a fierce place for themselves
within even the least likely environments, and permanently imbue a place with
the sacred. One of the definitions of mystery, according to The American
Heritage Dictionary is “A religious truth that is incomprehensible to the
reason and knowable only through divine revelation.” That is an apt description
of the experience of finding Tiny Town. The fact that one could find the
streets of Tiny Town easily on any map of Merrick was beside the point; it was
more important to feel like those children in an episode of the Twilight Zone
who had discovered a portal to a magical land.
is an award-winning fiction writer and teacher.
She lives in Houston, Texas. Her work appeared most recently in Intellectual Refuge.