It was high season in 2001 andHamptonstraffic accidentswere at an all-time high. Zoning fights and McMansion construction pervaded the news. And inJuly, a boldfaced daughter of privilege and publicityhad injured people in a parking lot meltdown. Something was off more than usual that summer.
Complaining about the area was a national pastime by then. But as a renter lucky enough to be able to moveout of the city for July and August, I had always seen as much to likeas malign. Maybe it was a feeling about what was to come in September of that year? Maybe it was my impatience with being single, or maybe it was not beingrich and thin enough around people who were both. Maybe it was the line for Dreesen’sdoughnuts, the tight faces of the privileged onNewtown Lane, or the surly woman who owned myEast Hamptongym. More likely it was the loneliness I still felt after too many summers of not finding myself invited to so many parties and dinners for which I had no reason to expect invitations.
But at least I had the Sag Harbor Community Band. Several summers before, the decades-old amateur organization had welcomed me as a third trombonist. I hadn’t played in years, but one night I’d been walking around and complaining to myself about how crowded the village had become when I heard music. Not the pounding electronic beat of the house music that was pervasive at the time, but something sweeter and richer. Like a hound to a scent, I followed the sound ontoBay Streetuntil I saw the band playing one of its free Tuesday night concerts in front of the American Legion hall.
“Thanks for joining us,” an M.C. was telling an audience inlawn chairs on the street. “Here’s a song I think you’ll all know.”Above the crickets and sailboat masts ringing in the marina, a bright march filled the air. It took me back to my grammar school band years and Memorial Day parades. But it also filled me with a tenderness I hadn’t felt in ages. The musicsounded so familiar, sweet and hopeful.
Early the next summer, I was rehearsing on my dented trombone when my rental housemates were in the city. It had been years and I was rusty, but I hadn’t forgotten how to read music,blow or move the slide to the right positions. A few weeks later, after several rehearsals in which I got nothing but welcoming encouragement from the veteran volunteers around me and the conductor, Fred, who used to say if something sounded awful, “Gee that sounded so good I’d like to hear it again,” I was sitting in front of an audience in adefiantly un-chicuniform of red polyester trousers and a white military shirt. It was my first of many concerts to come, and a tutorial in what it means to work as an ensemble with the kind of people in the Hamptonswho are going about their lives without any of the fanfare of boldfacedsummer interlopers.These players weren’t the power players the world found so titillating. They were teachers, nurses, plumbers, landscapers, professionals and college students back home for the season. And to perform their complex harmonies, unlike so many dominating the local news each summer, they had to listen to each other. “It’s just a nice, calm group,” a young trumpet player who worked at his father’s Bridgehampton pharmacy told me at our concertthe week after July 4th, when a rising siege mentality was making meavoid all shopping on Fridays and fear gettingsideswipedon my bike by sleek drivers in S.U.V.s “They have their society and we have ours. Here nobody’s trying to be somebody.”
With no pun intended, it struck a chord. For so much of my life, especially in theHamptons, I’d been striving to be someone too, and it wasn’t someone I particularly liked or even knew that well.
But being in the band, playing the cornball music I was still reluctant to admit I loved, gave me permission to be the simple and sentimental suburban son I had been long before myHamptonsdays. Nobody knew this better than my parents. They only lived an hour away, in a working classSouthShoresuburb that city people barrel through on route to theEast End. My father was a retired small town lawyer who became an administrative law judge, and had frustrated me with his lack of ambition. (He was the only real estate investor I’d ever heard of who managed to lose money in theHamptonsby selling some Sagaponack land prematurely in the 70s.) My mother was a retired librarian with a distrust of fashion. For years, theirHamptonsvisits made me anxious. I didn’t want to introduce them to housemates or take them to restaurants. They didn’t fit the upscale image I wantedto convey. Of course I was ashamed of myself for feeling this way, a grown man with the status obsessed issues of a teenager.