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Tiny Town

By Diana Wolfe


The first 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.

It was 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.

I obeyed 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?”

I stopped 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 street.

“Where 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.

“Oh shit!” said Tony from behind me. “I think this is Tiny Town!”

“Oh yeah!” said Alison, next to him. “I heard about this place! I didn’t think it was real!”

“What’s Tiny Town?” laughed Bob, mellow in the passenger seat.

“It’s this, this tiny…town,” said Tony. “All the houses are like, midget houses. Everyone here is like, a midget!”

“Let’s get out of here!” Allison exclaimed.

Not waiting 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.

Bob, chuckling, 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.

Discovering 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.

It wasn’t 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.

“Hey,” I said. “Any of you guys ever been to Tiny Town? I wonder if it’s still there.”

Christine, 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.”

“No,” I told them. “It’s real. I’ve been there.”

The others 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.

I tried 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 find us.”

We returned to The Crease and smoked a few more cigarettes and shared two more pitchers.

“I think we should try again,” Roland said, his face set. “I think we have to.”

Our nays 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.

“Let’s go to the diner or something,” Roland said. “This place is beat.”

We piled 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.

“Roland, where are you going?” asked Christine. “The diner is the other way.”

“Shut up, you’ll see.”

Christine 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.

“What the hell?” Christine said.

“Holy shit. It’s fucking Tiny Town!” My brother exclaimed, and all of us began exclaiming at once.

“Wait!” I said. “There’s more.  Roland, keep driving.”

His enormous car, easily three times the size Bob’s Chevy had been, carefully wound down the circular street, into the heart of Tiny Town.

“What the hell is this place?” Christine said.

“Jesus Christ!” shouted Roland. “Is that Santa’s house!?”

Everything 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.

At the 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.”

“Bullshit,” said Christine.

“No, 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 it so–?”

“Tiny?” my brother said, and we all cracked up, the spell broken.

Tiny Town 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.

At the 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.

What does 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.

Tiny Town 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.


Diana Wolfe is an award-winning fiction writer and teacher. She lives in Houston, Texas. Her work appeared most recently in Intellectual Refuge.

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