Coping Mechanism

Written By: Andrina  Smith

“You learn to lie a lot.” I let that comment sit for a moment, and noted in the next the truth that it resonated. You definitely learn to lie a lot. I sighed and sat back in the booth of our table at LT Burger, marveling at the circumstances that led us to this point. She was an heir to one of America’s greatest fortunes and could easily spend my yearly salary in a single shopping spree. I taught her little sister theatre at summer camp. Her father was worth nearly $4 billion dollars while mine never thought I was worth enough to meet. Our stories couldn’t be more different. Yet here we were, sitting at a burger place in Sag Harbor, drinking marshmallow milkshakes discussing topics one could only hear at the $1800 a week day-camp. When I asked her how, given all she was afforded, she exuded such normalcy her reply was simple. You learn to lie a lot. I laughed because, as contrasting as our backgrounds may have been, our coping mechanism was the same. You learn to lie a lot.

I grew up in a 3-story home in Southampton that looked like the set of an August Wilson play. Purchased in the late 1800’s, the homestead housed everyone from my great-grandmother to my younger brother. At its peak, I lived in that house with 12 other humans. Living anywhere else would have given us the label of middle class. Here we were Hamptons poor. However, we behaved as if no one had ever informed us. Sure, there were extracurricular activities my mother’s single parent paycheck couldn’t afford, but her charisma served as its own currency. That currency more often than not shielded us from the reality of our financial situation. While we couldn’t afford dance lessons, I was able to take riding lessons at Two Trees Stables. Juxtapositions such as these have followed me throughout my life on the East End and I have long ago forgone trying to figure them out.

Growing up, I attended Southampton’s local catholic school where I learned to genuflect and observe rites of passage that I would never partake in. I attended Our Lady of the Hamptons from the age of three to twelve, and then The Ross School from 13-17. For the entirety of my pre-collegiate, scholastic experience I was in a uniform. That detail contributed to my thinking I was of a similar financial caliber as that of my classmates. Clothes serve as a tremendous indicator of financial status. When this element was removed, so too were the many distinctions that help segregate students. While I never came to school with a Kate Spade pencil case, the fact of the matter was we all ate the same pepper seared tuna on the same ceramic plates. The glaring differences that normally would serve as lines of distinction were ameliorated; a direct result of the insouciance learned from growing up around people with money. Sure, my mother might have cleaned houses. But they were Southampton houses. My early exposure to “Hamptons Chic” assuaged traits that would have crippled me if I were raised in another affluent area code.

Each morning of my senior year, I would pull my 1988 Subaru hatchback into the senior parking lot at The Ross School. If it were a Crayola crayon, its label would read puke orange. And yet, despite its putrid coloring, I never thought twice parking in what was ultimately a luxury car parking lot. After spending 5 years at a school that had both an indoor coy pond and Billy Joel attending high school concerts, vapid displays of wealth were no longer shocking. Our head lunch lady went on to be a chef at the white house, and our overnight city trips were spent in our founder’s Park Ave penthouse apartment. Suffice to say, the confidence in which I believed I would receive a trust fund was well founded. The delusions of the rich, when immersed into that world, are nothing if not contagious.

After Ross, I attended Emerson College and graduated with a theatre degree that I had no idea how to pursue. So after graduation I found myself working as a hostess at a high-end sushi restaurant in Sag Harbor. Anyone who has ever walked the summer sidewalks of the quaint village is all too familiar with the hoards of humans whom congregate in front of 23 Main Street the moment the restaurant opens. Equipped with a landline, a pen, and a sundress, myself and two other hostesses organized the eating itineraries of the affluent wishing to dine with us. If there is one thing I learned working there is was that the rich and famous don’t like to be told they have to wait. Especially when they’re hungry. The second thing that I learned is that faking it well in the Hamptons puts you in circles of people who are inaccessible to 99.9% of the population. Growing up in Southampton was not a lesson in the 1%g but the .1%.

The majority of the services on the East End are aimed at a very specific niche of the population. To be continually successful on the east end you must service, not the rich, the wealthy. The revenue one can make from high-end sales is astonishing. Unlike California, the towns that make up the collective term “The Hamptons” are much closer together. Therefore crossing path’s with this country’s elite is accomplished far easier. Day trips on yachts, mansion parties, and events at million dollars a year beach clubs are experiences I encountered simply because of the environment in which I was raised. I have heirs to fortunes numbers saved in a phone I sometimes can’t afford. I have accepted this as a part of life.

As I continue to flirt with the idea of entering adulthood, I see more and more compromises people must make in order to maintain a certain lifestyle. This quality is grotesquely enhanced when referring to the wealthiest members of society. From my hostess stand at that sushi restaurant, I would see CEO’s eating with both of their ex wives, Fashion designers dating people who could be their grandchildren, and wives sharing sashimi with they’re dignitary husbands and those husbands mistresses. There was one wealthy couple that would come in with their children and grandchildren. Visiting the restaurant was a family affair. Except on the days it was not. One those days it was just an affair. The Patriarch of the family would come in with a table full of cosmetically enhanced blondes ordering bottles of our most expensive sake. The wife was fully aware these days existed. It was a part of an agreement worked out between the two of them. When so much money is involved arrangements like this become the norm rather than the exception.

I am not in a love affair with the Hamptons. That phrase is reserved for the Manhattan escapees whose weekend rental symbolizes a fling with the east end. Instead, my relationship with the East End resembles that of the older couple who frequented Sag Harbor’s sushi eatery. It is a relationship that is bristling with unaddressed questions that I refuse to ask. Like that faithful wife who ignores the tryst of her husband, I turn a blind eye to the behavior that overtakes the east end during its warmer months. When people talk about the Hamptons they rarely talk about the generational family farms being decimated for mega-mansions. Little is said of the gentrification of the local African American community or the treatment of the indigenous Native American population. No one wants to address the rampant lack of job-opportunity for year round residents that disproportionally favors summer vacationers. The Hamptons and I have a compromise. I am silenced with gratitude for the lifestyle I have been able to experience. Only time will tell if that silence is life long. I laugh again at the words of the heiress. It’s true. You learn to lie a lot. You just never realized how much of that lying would be to yourself.