Montauk: From Beginning to The End
2016-We’re in Montauk again to celebrate. This time it’s my wife’s birthday and Father’s Day. We leave the Grice house on Franklin Road, flip flops flapping, beach accoutrements jangling. We cross Old Montauk Highway, skirt the highway on the black sidewalk and continue to a sandy path. I catch my breath when I see the ocean as we come through the dunes, this always reminds me of seeing the grass of Shea Stadium for the first time. I know Kira, my wife of 22 years, will want a spot close to the water; we find something just above the high tide line. I ascertain the wind direction, dig a hole for the umbrella and angle it just so. We set up beach chairs, mine in the shade, Kira’s in the sun. Sitting there, book in hand, looking out at a lone gull taking flight over the blue ocean, I breathe deeply of the salt air, peace. This is my, this is OUR Happy Place.
Sitting there glancing at a fishing boat on the horizon, oddly enough, my thoughts turn to my father, Jimmy Spinner Sr. It’s odd because he passed away in 1985 and as far as I know, he had never been to Montauk. I can tell you this, my old man loved Brooklyn but he loved the ocean and fishing more, had he ever visited Montauk, he never would have left.
If Montauk is The End this story begins at The Beginning, in Brooklyn.
My father was a carpenter by trade but a fisherman in his heart. I used to joke with my friends that my dad could enjoy fishing in a puddle. I commune with my father whenever I’m near the ocean. All that I know about the ocean, the beginnings of my love for the sea, starts with him. In the early 70’s, my father purchased a working man’s fishing boat; wood, worn, small cabin underneath, inboard motor. Jimmy Spinner Sr. was happiest rocking to the waves, sunburnt forearms holding a fishing pole, his son at his side, a cooler full of Schaefer and C&C Cola within easy reach.
We docked our boat in a marina behind Floyd’s (now Toys ‘R’ Us) on Flatbush Avenue. It was there I learned about: the push and pull of the tides, the prehistoric looking horseshoe crab and the molar-like barnacles growing on the pylons of the piers. My handsome, weathered father knew about buoys, knots, lures and bait…I was hooked.
Summer 1975, Dad takes me to see “Jaws” and my love for the ocean deepens. I devour every book I can find about sharks at our local libraries. As 8th grade graduation from Immaculate Heart of Mary looms, my thoughts turn to studying the ocean. Glancing through the book of New York City High Schools I find that John Dewey offers Marine Biology. My fate is sealed. Freshman year Marine Biology with Lou Siegel, our science labs were at the beach. We’d take the train one stop to Stillwell Avenue and spend time measuring wave amplitudes and frequency, in Coney Island; or we’d examine the creatures in the tidal flats at Plumb Beach. By Advanced Marine Biology junior year, my knowledge, love and respect for the ocean swelled.
Senior year, 1981, I am at a party in Brighton Beach. We’re a large group of seniors sitting in a circle on the sand, waves crashing in the background, drinking beers when Steve Schiffman, a friend, walks over with a buddy. “Jim Spinner, meet Ian Grice, you guys will both be going to the University Buffalo in the fall.” We became fast friends. And it’s the Grice family that introduces me to the Atlantic Ocean beyond Jamaica Bay…
Ian’s parents, Eddie and Maureen Grice, both teachers, rent a beach house every summer. By the time I was hanging with the Grices, they had narrowed in on the East End of Long Island. The Grice family loved to entertain, to eat and drink and talk with friends. Each summer we would learn about a new town and the local bars, restaurants and beaches of: East Hampton, South Hampton, Sag Harbor, Shelter Island. I loved them all. It was a meandering journey but eventually they buy a place in Montauk. Now I loved Shelter Island for its romance, the fact that everyone on SI made a special journey to get there, was romantic. Sag Harbor I loved for its Americana and the connection to John Steinbeck. I loved all the towns but when the Grices landed in Montauk, it was different. In the Hamptons, Sag Harbor, Shelter Island, I felt like a poseur in my Macy’s purchased madras shorts. Montauk felt like, home. I loved the working class feel of the town, bars like the Shagwong had real fisherman in them. I never liked the t-shirt slogan, “Montauk, A drinking town with a fishing problem.” It seemed crass to me but I understood right away Montauk’s real fisherman bona fides. One of the first things I thought was, my father would love this place. Sadly, right around the time I was graduating from college, my father passed. But Eddie and Maureen filled the void, continuing the work my father had started.
After college, Ian, my friends and I were a cliché, Wall Street nubes, taking the train out to the Hamptons for the weekend. Never did I laugh so much as we did in the bar car of the Montauk Cannonball, letting off steam after a long work week. I rarely drink Budweiser in a can but when I do it always reminds me of those weekend trips in the 80’s and 90’s.
Those days were golden, Jimmy Buffet providing the soundtrack as we were body-surfing, reading books on the beach, biking out to the lighthouse, taking an outdoor shower and dining on mussels marinara. What I remember most about those weekends was the conversation. The driving force was the matriarch, Ian’s Mom, Maureen Grice. Brooklyn Irish, (born Maureen Murphy) she was wise, educated, she taught me stuff about the east end I would go to her for answers to all of life’s questions. To this day I know the philosophy behind Occam’s Razor because of Maureen, she was my Google before Google.
Over the years, I got disillusioned with Wall Street, frustrated with my lack of personal fulfillment. One Saturday night, Coronas in hand, sitting on the dock overlooking Lake Montauk, Maureen says, “Jimmy, maybe you should teach? I think you would love it.”
The seed had been planted. With every walk along the beach, every hour sitting around a fire, every bike ride, I’m thinking about life. Eddie and Maureen keep watering the seed and I’m thinking, Maybe I should teach? Look at how happy Eddie and Maureen are. They’re both teachers and they can afford a summer rental every summer. So it was in Montauk that I found the answer to what I really wanted to do with my life.
Over the years, I had the good fortune to convince some beautiful, smart women to spend time with me. I always loved introducing these ladies to my second family, the Grices, and to the East End. Right around 1990, I’m dating a girl and it’s getting serious. I know in my heart that Kira is the one but… Sitting with Ian and Maureen on the deck, the sun beginning to set, I’m boasting, “Ah, we’re never getting married right Ian?” At which point Maureen holds court, “You know Jimmy” she begins as if I am ridiculous, “if you are serious about this I’ll tell you something. At some point, you’ll cease to be interesting.” I took this two ways. First it was a compliment because Maureen, a tough judge of character, was admitting that I was interesting. But if I lived the life of a bachelor, moving into my 30’s and beyond, that would cease to be the case. I reflected on what I wanted out of life… once again, I found the answers, in Montauk. Kira and I got engaged on the beach. I knew she was the one when she “got” Montauk, when she loved it as much as I do.
Here I sit on the beach, Summer of 2016, my girl at my side, and I’m reflecting back on time spent on the East End. It’s so obvious that this is where I am supposed to be. Kira feels it too. My father taught me about the ocean, in high school I studied Marine Biology and met the Grice family. A couple of teachers taught me about the East End of Long Island and it was in Montauk that I learned about what’s really important in life. I know that if my father had ever been to Montauk, he never would have left. My problem is, I have been there, and now I have to figure out a way to stay.