A Change in Status
When you grow up in Suffolk County, you are in the shadows of both New York City to the West, and “The Hamptons” in the East. You can find motivation in each. You can find ambition by the shining city and it’s bright lights. The scene is easy to understand, power, fortune, history, all lined up on a grid. However, I found my motivation, my inspiration in the East. Not some random place, not a sprawling home or a sandy beach, but in a six-room hotel. The American Hotel.
Raised in a broken home. The youngest of three. Raised by mom, not dad. No one expected me to do much with my life. Not one person in the family had ever gone to college. Not one. No cousins, no uncles or aunts. No one had ever done more with their life than becoming a Tin-Knocker or a carpenter.
Weekends were for family. Everyone stuck together. When us kids were talked about, it was about how and when one of us would get a union job, and which trade it would be in. No one had any real ambitions. While that was normal in my family, it just did not resonate with me. As I grew older and closer to adulthood, I could not see myself being average or working for others who would control my life.
Once I got into College. The family gatherings seemed to change for me. I was the kid who was in college. I had made myself independent. I had not followed the “family plan.” While I thought this was laudable, it was the beginning of my ostracism. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was on a path which would separate me from my roots, from my family.
Being a hyper kid with “crazy” ideas and left-wing tendencies, I was labeled in my family as “trouble.” Trouble decided to go to college. Trouble was obviously not happy with his status. Trouble had contempt for the family plan.
Where I was once invited and participated in all family functions, the look from my cousins, aunts, uncles, even my grandmother, had changed. The spy-eye was ever on me. The kind of clandestine bad feelings that you start to notice when you walk over to a group of people who are engaging in conversation, until you come close and everyone shuts-up.
The trend continued and got worse once I started Law School. No more conversations about my Lacrosse games or my track & field victories. Little by little, the only time someone struck up a conversation with me was when there was a legal question to answer. I was now an outcast. Separated from my family by education, and fear. I had uncorked a new horizon, set a new standard.
I felt like everyone, except my mother, wanted me to fail, to be punished for attempting to change the status quo. The pressure was not so terrible, but, there was a true test of my metal coming up. The Bar exam.
You hear all kinds of stories about how hard the bar exam is. To make it worse, I went to the Law School that had the worst Bar pass rate in the country. My Law School was a new experimental law school. The motto was “Law in the service of human needs.” As the curriculum was focused on helping the needy and the disenfranchised, somewhere the school had not adequately prepared its students for the very traditional part of lawyering – passing the Bar.
Law school was over. Three years of grinding work. Hundreds of pages of reading, each day, for 10 of 12 months for three years. With the only relief being my 2 months of a Summer job in the Hamptons that I enjoyed every Summer. This Summer would be different, no breaks, no relief. It was time to study for the Bar exam.
The routine was very Spartan. Wake up at 6AM, make breakfast, then start studying. I would put in three hour shifts, three times per day. At the end of each shift, a short break, then back to my studies. I had things all laid-out. My status would change and improve. However, somewhere inside, I almost feared the success. I was truly about to break through into a world I never knew.
For good measure of my circumstance, studying was not my only commitment this summer. I had a job four days a week working as a waiter at the legendary, American Hotel in Sag Harbor. This would help my motivation, as each night at the Hotel, I was able to get a glimpse of where my life would be headed.
Each night at the Hotel, I saw success stories, high-end professionals, famous actors, rock stars, super-models, and sometimes, the faces of “60 Minutes.” But my favorite, an encounter with Colin Powell. All of this was part of a new world. Soon to be my world.
The life I sought, as a poor kid from Suffolk County, was shown to me in the nightly view in this historic hotel, where even the famous, became as regular as an order for 150 year-old Armagnac. Where the porch of this iconic nest in the East End, showed a humble young man, that the status you seek is available, if you dare to reach for it.
It wasn’t long before my commitment would be tested. After three weeks of my intense studies and lack of sleep, there was a Friday morning in June when my friend, Stanley, another waiter, showed up in my driveway at my Southampton rental. He was in a Jeep with two beautiful models that Stan had met the night before. They were models from France, each in bikinis, each looking more beautiful than the other.
I stepped out of my rent-house, and the first words I heard were with a French accent: “Cucci, come to za beach with us.” “Come have fun with us.” Big smiles of invitation on each young woman.
I said to Stanley, “ Stan, I have to study.” I have to stick with my routine.”
Stan said: “Cooch, take a break, your books will be there when you get back.” Don’t miss this opportunity. These girls are very friendly, and they need us to show them around the Hamptons.”
“I can’t.” I said. And as the words left my mouth, I could feel the maturity I was exacting. I was at that moment an adult. I surprised not only Stan, and the two beautiful women, I surprised myself. But I felt the lure of long-term happiness, shown to me by the faces at the Hotel, as the real impetus behind my rejection of temptation.
After a few more attempts at luring me by Stan to pull me from my studies, He saw my resolve, got back into the Jeep with models in tow. And with music blaring and laughs form all, I was left alone to my future. The boy who wanted to break through his blue-collar roots, who wanted to be more than average, had become a man with resolve. The American Hotel had made me comfortable, but the patrons helped me rise.