After attending the 8:30 Sunday Mass in Montauk’s St. Therese of Lisieux Church, my husband and I drove to Ditch Plains for our one-hour walk along the shore and then sit in our chairs to enjoy the ocean. It was nearing low tide – perfect for walking – and early enough to find a parking space. To our surprise, the lot was full, mostly with trucks and vans, the kind that surfers drive. After circling several times, we spotted a slim, young man and woman with keys in hand walking to their vehicle. I lowered my window.
“Are you folks leaving?” I asked.
“In ten minutes, once we change out of our wetsuits,” he answered.
“We’ll wait,” I smiled. My husband positioned the car to one side and turned off the motor. Looking away to give them privacy, we discussed the changing face of Montauk – changes that we’d read in Newsday, Dan’s Papers and The Montauk Sun: Gosman’s up for sale, the Panoramic View now part of Gurney’s, Cyril’s closed, high-end restaurants opening or replacing more affordable ones, rowdy crowds visiting, some breaking the law, forcing the town to impose sanctions and fines to maintain order. And parking spaces scarcer to find.
“He’s cursing at us,” my husband said, suddenly. “He thinks we’re watching him take
off his clothes.”
“Why, we aren’t even looking in his direction! How can he talk to us like that? Has he no respect for himself or others, especially his seniors? Let’s leave,” I said. I didn’t want a confrontation.
We turned the corner and saw a middle-aged man behind the trunk of his van. He was stocky, with a pot belly, also in a wetsuit, talking to another wetsuited man of approximately the same age and build. I exited the car and stood near. I waited for a pause in their conversation or to be noticed, before asking if they were leaving. They ignored me. Finally giving up, I walked a few cars forward and saw another young man in a wetsuit enter his van and pull away. I motioned to my husband and he quickly took the spot.
As we headed toward the water, my husband stopped abruptly. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
I watched him walk over to where we’d met the first surfer. He was still there, his wetsuit still half on.
“I want you to know we weren’t looking at you undress. We only wanted the spot once you vacated it. You didn’t have to be rude about it,” my husband explained.
“These spaces are for residents only,” the young man shouted, inserting several curse words for effect.
“For your information, we’ve been Montauk residents for twenty-five years. And you still don’t have to be rude.” As he left, more curses were hurled at his back.
Seated in our sand chairs, it took us a while to feel the tranquility we normally find when gazing at the ocean. The gentle, cove-like curvature of the land, the diamond-faceted sparkle of the water, the soothing rhythm of the rolling waves, the dazzling splash-dance of the white caps, the salty scent of sea and air – normal endorphins – had lost their magic.
I closed my eyes and recalled images that were in direct opposition to what we’d just experienced. One was meeting the Browns years ago. I remember trudging along the sand carrying a cooler, beach bag with towels and books in hand and chairs and umbrella on our shoulders. With sandals dangling off one finger, we searched for the perfect spot to claim our own. We passed by the Browns several days in a row. I couldn’t help but notice that they sat without an umbrella and their skin was quite bronzed for it. One of those times, they smiled. My husband, with his Irish gift of gab, commented on the beauty of the ocean and, seeing an empty space beside them, plopped our chairs there. They introduced themselves, and I thought how aptly named they were.
The Browns were twenty years older than us and retired. They had a one-bedroom condo in Rough Riders Landing and a winter home in Arizona. We told them about our four children, our home up-island and the one in Montauk, off West Lake Drive. Weeks later, we invited them to dinner, and, from the upper deck, we showed them our distant views of Lake Montauk. Soon after, they reciprocated. We shared a golden sunset through their unobstructed view of Fort Pond Bay.
The following summer, while walking the beach from Ditch Plains to town, we met Randy. He and I had much in common. We were both Italian, shared a love of entrepreneurship and the ocean. He wasn’t much for going in the water, but his feet could wade in it for hours as he walked and talked. Randy was contemplating buying a storage facility and was anxious to discuss its pros and cons. And he wanted to know how to reconcile welcoming family and friends to his house in Culloden Point and not impose on his wife.
Randy’s wife was a teacher like my husband. They exchanged experiences, discipline problems and how best to deal with them. Their children were younger than ours. We offered them what expertise we’d learned in parenting.
We passed many beach hours with them and the Browns, as well as with family and friends that came to visit. There seemed no end of topics to discuss beside the vast ocean under fair blue skies.
In time our youngest child went off to college. Since she’d grown up in Montauk, it was only natural that she should waitress in Gosman’s Restaurant for the summers.
“Guess who I saw today!” she sometimes squealed, coming home tired after her shift. She was excited to spot celebrities, like Chevy Chase or Paul Simon, from time to time. When Hillary Clinton came, she took a photo with her, which she treasures still. One night she came home so ecstatic, I couldn’t imagine what had happened. A man ate a full swordfish dinner and followed it with a three-pound lobster. Then he tipped her $100!
Yet, what impressed me most was what she repeated often. “I feel like I work in a Monet painting.”
She was right, of course. The restaurant flanks Lake Montauk, whose waters sparkle under a radiant sun. Fish swim below and seagulls soar across a lapis sky. White fishing boats and yachts cruise directly under the restaurant’s windows for patrons to gaze at and admire. On land, colorful blooms of hydrangea and wildflowers circle and dot the restaurant’s bricked piazza, as tables and chairs, replete with blue and white umbrellas, expand the eatery outdoors, European-style.
Since Gosman’s walls are mostly window, they are often left open for cool, summer breezes to filter in, while delicious fragrances of lobster and other cooked seafood effuse out. People strolling on the surrounding boardwalk can attest to it. Their nostrils fill with the scent of lemon-butter entrées as their eyes spot diners regaled with plastic bibs relishing their fare. My husband and I have celebrated many wedding anniversaries here so attired.
Those with active children or who prefer a more casual dining atmosphere order takeout from the outside Clam Bar and sit alfresco at the round umbrella tables arranged beside the restaurant, water-view intact. It’s where we brought my mother and two sisters with their families when they visited from California. We were seventeen in number then, better suited financially and behaviorally for the outdoors.
There’s also Topside and the Inlet Café as additional eating places that Gosman’s owns, providing upper and lower views of the surrounding waters. All summer long, our daily ritual is to promenade the Gosman Compound and people-watch, as they walk past the boat that’s on display or take photos of their children steering at the wheel with the ocean backdrop. There’s a stage and lawn where free concerts entertain visitors on Sunday evenings and a gazebo and shops that line part of the promenade, sporting beach and nautical ware.
The ice cream stand is everyone’s favorite. Young lovers, parents, children and grandparents sit on the low stone wall, licking their mounds of many flavors down to the cone. Homeport, the antiques shop is another draw. As you enter, it smells of sweet-scented spices and boasts of warm, old-style furniture and home goods. And there’s Gosman’s Market, where the casings under the counter sell every fish imaginable, including different-sized lobsters in their respective tanks.
I haven’t mentioned other sites that delight, like the Montauk Yacht Club with its large yachts lining an extensive boardwalk, or Montauk Point’s sea-sky panoramas, or the cliffs of Camp Hero, or the Montauk Library’s sweeping seascapes out the window.
Montauk’s face is changing, yes, but its Monet-like character remains eternal and for
everyone, calling for the best in each of us to unfold, though some may take longer to reveal it.