More than a Summer Escape
My first trip to East Hampton lasted three hours longer than it should have. My mother drove the family truckster—a used Mercedes station wagon, authentically German down to the instrument panel which read abkühlen, instead of ‘A.C.’ The compressor was broken, leaving us defenseless in the August heat.
It was 1983, and I was one month old. I loathed my car seat.
Nothing was moving on the Long Island Expressway, except for my squirming arms and the sultry blur of heat waves and car exhaust rising from asphalt. My mother, alone with her three children, sweat dripping from her chin and my cries echoing in her conscience, broke the car seat rule.
She could have said, “Shut that baby up!” But I imagine she showed restraint, and with patience only a mother can muster, turned to my older sister to say, “Taylor, honey, please take your brother out of that seat and hold him, the poor thing.”
That first trip was the worst trip. I have since made it to the East End of Long Island every year of my life. I have travelled from New Hampshire, California, and Oregon to reunite with my family each summer. My East Hampton experience has spanned four homes, my parents’ divorce, Hurricane Bob, and the vicissitudes of my boyhood and adolescence.
The flight from my home in Maryland to Islip this past July was an easy one. From our descending altitude, the cars on 495 looked like my son’s toys. He watched them, awe-struck at the world beneath his feet. My infant daughter lay on my wife, drunk on mother’s milk and swooning in the womb-like drone of turbine engines and recycling air.
We have lived on three different lanes in East Hampton: Middle, Further, and Hook Pond—not a surprise considering that East Hampton has more Lanes than a British phone book. Who can deny the poetic lilt of Lily Pond Lane?
Penny Lane, East Hampton’s not so poetic candy store, was also a home away from home.
Adjacent to the movie theatre, Penny Lane was a landmark of our summer. I spent hours economizing candy purchases and perusing the sexually-charged gag birthday cards. In fact, the first image of the female form emblazoned in my memory is of a wrinkly naked woman turning seventy—I forget the punch line, but remember the cake with phallic-shaped icing in front of her.
Penny Lane purchases provided recipes of torture for Peter and Taylor, my older brother and sister, who combined sales items such as Bazooka Joe bubble gum and ‘the world’s hottest chili powder.’ My brother’s dexterity kneaded the powder into the eraser-shaped gum and re-assembled the wrapper; my sister’s cunning made my eight-year-old brain think it was my idea to chew on it.
I wore a Ghostbusters t-shirt although I was afraid of ghosts and original Adidas Sambas without socks because those were the shoes my brother wore. Knowing me to be his eight-year-old mimic, my brother unwrapped a Bazooka Joe and chewed on it like a cow at pasture as we walked down David’s Lane.
“Can I have a piece?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Get your own gum.”
My sister unwrapped one.
I turned to her: “Tay, give me a piece, please!”
“Fine,” she said. “Here you go.”
The chili powder hit before I could appreciate the Bazooka Joe comic. I ran the half-mile home, past the duck pond, and dove with feet blistered and mouth open into the pool. It was a tactic not as effective as I had imagined it would be. The water tasted like chlorinated fire.
Penny Lane was long ago vanquished by the invasion of hipsters and fashionistas. Naked elderly women on greeting cards have been replaced by tanned slender mannequins sporting Ralph Lauren. But my memories of East Hampton will always include Bazooka Joe, chili powder and Whoopie Cushions.
I was a cashier for the Barefoot Contessa before Ina Garten took her talent to the Food Network. I made Villa Combos when the store was staffed by one cashier and two sandwich makers. I remember when Little Rock Rodeo was the go-to Mexican joint. When Turtle Crossing opened, we lived two blocks away on Hither Lane.
My stepfather Dwight crusaded for my independence. I was eleven when he asked my mother, “Is Mark ever going to be sleeping in his own bed?”
Dwight was driving a truck in Kansas at age twelve and was shocked that at the same age I couldn’t ride a bicycle. I agreed. I had grown tired of hiding my inability. I once jogged four miles to avoid the humiliating admission that I couldn’t ride.
My mother had deemed the narrow roads of my small suburban hometown too dangerous for kids on bicycles. The wide tree-lined HIther Lane was a safe alternative.
Dwight and I built a birdhouse, and set a post to hang a hammock to the Locust tree in our backyard. But learning to ride that black and white, gearless kids bike, proved the summer’s most arduous task.
I fell frequently and lacked confidence. Years of pent-up anxiety for the act exaggerated each tilt of the wheel. Once balanced, I raced up and down Hither Lane, pumping my legs as fast as I could. With cautious abandon, I built momentum for the paved descent to Egypt Lane, feeling for the first time that rush of wind on my face.
Not long after, Dwight was teaching me to drive a car in the vacant parking lot of East Hampton High School. Revving the engine up Hither Lane on our way home transformed the mountain I had conquered on my bike back into the slight knoll it has always been.
Hook Pond Lane
I have heard that smell is the sense most inextricably linked to memory. Certain aromas—Chlorine, sun lotion, or salty air—conjure leisure-filled summer memories. Misty, the English Cocker Spaniel of my youth, smelled like dirty laundry left out in the rain, truly unforgettable. As she grew, so did her many folds of skin, like overlapping brain tissue. Each fold hid a new unwashed crevice that stored stench, released in her lazy shifting.
I took pride in training her as a puppy, and equal pride when she would follow me around the house. The dog treats in my pocket probably had something to do with that. She was my buddy, and silent partner. She was prone to pink eye, and on desperate days in the adolescent doldrums, I rubbed our faces together, abusing the sign of affection to infect myself with a day home from school.
She did not age gracefully. The overlapping skin sagged over her eyes and blindfolded her. We’d hear thumps in the kitchen. “Misty ran into the wall again.” To get her vision back required a doggie face lift.
When she began to suffer from congestive heart failure, she became a permanent fixture on her bed.
One morning during the summer before my junior year in high school, she lay on her bed, her breathing erratic, her eyes closed, her belly bloated.
I took her to the East Hampton Veterinary Group on Montauk Highway. The veterinarian explained that her lungs had filled up with fluid. I stared at her on the steel gurney. I was asked if I wanted to be there when they put her down.
I rubbed her stinky ears as the an injection brought her palpitations down and stopped her heart.
When we moved from Hither Lane to Hook Pond Lane, the hammock came with us. I spent hours in that hammock beneath a tree, reading, or watching birds dart through slants of light.
Over this past fourth of July, I rocked in it with my son. My wife placed our infant daughter under my other arm. I said, “This is Heaven.” I cannot imagine a summer passing without my children creating their own memories of this town.
In reflection, I realize that East Hampton has been my geographic constant, my North Star. Tracing my memories here forms an important constellation in the night sky of my life.