From Mulberry to Bayberry – Lessons of The Fishman

Written By: Christina Dell'Olio Labriola

“Oooo wahhh, oooo wahh! Oooo wahhh, oooo wahh! Oooo wahhh, ooo wahh!!! Why do foo-ools fall in luh-huv?!” Frankie Lymon, Frankie Valli, the Temptations and the Beach Boys all joined us religiously for the 12-minute car ride from Bayberry Lane to Scott Cameron Beach. 1963? No. It was 1994.

Growing up in Stuyvesant Town, my parents desperately wanted my sister and I to have an escape during the summers. The middle-income housing complex didn’t have the electrical wiring for air conditioning in the 90’s, so every single apartment was unbearably stifling come July 4th weekend. My mother convinced our Dad, a fish distributor from the Fulton Fish Market, to invest in a little summer home. They met growing up on Mulberry Street and spent their summers escaping to Coney Island whenever they could. As they got older, they shared rentals with friends in Hampton Bays, Amagansett and the Springs. It was already in his blood (his father was a fisherman in the small coastal town of Bisceglie, Italy) but my father was the embodiment of summer. Everyone in Stuyvesant Town knew “Phil the fish man” for his fun (and sun) loving personality and ridiculously tan skin. It didn’t take too much convincing on my Mom’s part before they agreed on an adorable 3-bedroom cottage on Bayberry Lane in North Haven.

Unpacking the car resembled somewhat of a military exercise. My Dad had no time or ray of sun to waste. “I got the nets!” I would yell to my sister (referring to the holy grail of all beach toys when you are an Italian American kid from New York City-the crab nets). Mom trailed behind with salami and roasted pepper sandwiches stuffed inside her wicker beach bag. Dad with the cooler and (his) Boogey Boards had already found the perfect spot to set up in between where Mecox Bay waits to impede on the Atlantic ocean every October.

Our little feet smacked against the wet sand as we booked it along the bay line to catch one. Swoosh. “Got one!” My sister yelled. Dad investigated the crab. It had an orange sack on its stomach, so back in the bay it went. Plunk! Another one. Actually, two! Two crabs in one swoop. Jackpot! After an hour of this repetition, our buckets were full with tonight’s ecstasy. When the sun began to dwindle and every Chipwitch had been eaten, my sister and I were back in the wood paneled Buick (R)OADmaster (the “R” fell off one day) belting out a few more songs from the “60’s Girls Groups” CD for the ride home. The whole time we both had one eye on the 4-legged friends clacking in the buckets behind us. Sometimes we would stop at Loaves and Fishes (or Loaves and Thieves, as my Dad called it) to pick up chips, guacamole and peach salsa (his favorite).

Once we got home, we had no time to spare. The corn shucking had begun. (First coat scraps had to be put in a brown paper bag.) My Mom was already chopping the scallions for the black bean sauce she was making for the crabs. My sister and I begrudgingly took our outdoor showers and then hopped on our bicycles down to Short Beach for some “Grease” reenacting before dinner.

This was summer as a disciple of my Dad, and there was nothing like it.

Each year, summer became more of a religion in our family with the countdown starting as early as January. My Dad would buy the latest gadget at the Sharper Image to take to the beach and found the newest tanning oil that would get him the optimal shade of brown. Weekends flew by on our deck with countless barbeques, mini Frank Sinatra concerts and belly laughter that traveled down to Tyndall Road. He taught us how to crab, clam and fish in Noyac bay and how to drive for the first time in the back roads of Sagaponack. Every August, he organized clambakes with friends and family, splurging a little bit more each year. Eventually, he started hiring entertainment. One year a bagpiper, the next, a saxophonist.

For the Fourth of July, he put on a show at Circle Beach. He got fireworks from his friend Pipoli back on Mulberry Street and families flocked from all over Pine Neck to watch his amateur display. I was always terrified he would get burned when lighting the top of the “birthday cake.” He would light it, and then bolt away, crouching down. But he always pulled it off. The mornings after, I would wake up exhausted from fun, charcoal and sulfur still pungent in my hair, and find my Dad on the deck blasting John Philip Sousa from his small silver cassette radio; imaginary conductor wand in hand, waving away at the trees.

He had a quirky passion for history and poetry. I could never get out of the car to peruse the newest earrings at “Funky Fun” (my favorite boutique in town), without hearing a tale of the Shinnecock Indians in some form or Truman Capote’s frequent presence at Bobby Van’s in Bridgehampton. The July before I entered the 9th grade at Marymount, I had a summer writing assignment that required me to add a chapter to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of the Amontadillo.” I complained about it to my Dad, naturally, after glancing at the book and deciding upon seeing it’s cover that it was boring. “Poe?! He replied to my despondence. “Ah…youth is wasted on the young!”

One drizzly Sunday, we biked down Short Beach Lane and found a secret path. It led to an old cemetery with illegible tombstones. On our way back, we stopped at the little pond before North Haven Point and sat on the bench. He was so content. “Isn’t it so beautiful out here?” he said. “Yes” I replied. I was young, but I saw how people’s moods changed upon coming. “Chris. This is our special place. If you ever have anything important to tell me, you take me here, and tell me on this bench. Okay?”

Years passed and my sister and I became teenagers and then college aged students. Distracted with boys and socializing, we spent a few less weekends on Bayberry Lane every year. Slowly, my Dad started missing weekends too. Then months. Which turned into years. Years added up, and then too much time was passing. It became obvious that something had changed in him. I was crushed.

I convinced my family to go to the house one weekend in an attempt to salvage the family that once was. On the way to Cromer’s to pickup lunch, I insisted My Dad and I took a detour. Seconds later, we were at the little pond. “We used to love this pond, remember Dad?” “Yeah?” He said. “I dunno. So much traffic out here now. I’m tired of it.” Traffic?! Oh God. This was the same man who sat in his beach chair in the parking lot of Scott Cameron Beach, Corona in hand, whistling away while we waited for a spot to open up on a packed Saturday. I waited for him to tell me something on the bench that day, but he didn’t.

In the next five years, a lot went down for my family. My parents went their separate ways. My dad had made a new life for himself and they sold the house on Bayberry Lane.

In 2011, I got married and my husband and I bought a home in Noyac. We spend any free minute we can here. My Dad comes to stay with us a few weekends every summer. When he’s here, he shows us a few tricks on the barbeque to ensure the corn will “taste like candy”. Occasionally he wakes up before dawn and surprises everyone with fresh croissants from Schiavoni’s. He delights in watching my son learn how to swim. And he always plays his oldies (loudly) on our deck.

Some things may have changed for our little family, but a part of my Dad will always be in Sag Harbor with us. The magic of this place (and the margaritas at La Superica) will always have him coming back for more.

Last weekend he fell asleep on one of the lounge chairs in our backyard. His hair, now salt and pepper, but his tan is more bronze than ever. I took his kindle off his chest and brought it inside to charge. Placing it down, my eyes were drawn to the screen.

“Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”— here I opened wide the door”

Thanks for all the memories, Dad.

Love Always,

Your Little Surfer Girl