My Happy Ending
We’re in Montauk again, to celebrate. It’s June, so it’s my wife’s birthday and Father’s Day. We leave the Grice house on Franklin Drive, flip flops flapping, beach accoutrements jangling. It’s early season, most of the summer people are not out. It’s quiet, except for the sound of a nail gun, someone’s putting on a new roof. We cross Old Montauk Highway, skirt the highway on the black sidewalk and continue to a sandy path. I pause 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. We stop. “This is why we come here.” I know Kira, my wife of 23 years, will want a spot close to the water; we have our choice of spots. We find something just above the high tide line. I ascertain wind direction, dig a hole for the umbrella and angle it. We set up beach chairs, mine in the shade, Kira’s in the sun. Ahhhhh. Sitting there, book in hand, looking out at a lone gull hovering over the ocean, I breathe in the salt air. Peace. This is OUR Happy Place.
I put off reading and just look, appreciating. 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 my father 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 at heart. I used to joke with my friends, who seemed to all love fishing with my father, that my dad would drop a line in a puddle if he had to. I never visit my father’s grave in Greenwood Cemetery because that’s not where he is. 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, started with him. The Atlantic was part of him, he was drawn to it, and he nurtured that love in me. 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 boys at his side, a cooler full of Schaefer and C&C Cola within 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 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, 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 city high schools I find that John Dewey offers Marine Biology. Freshman year I took Marine Biology and all of 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; or we’d examine the creatures in the tidal flats at Plumb Beach. By junior year, I was taking Advanced Marine Biology, and my knowledge, love and respect for the ocean swelled.
Senior year, 1981, I am at a party in Brighton Beach. We’re a group of Dewey seniors in a circle on the sand, waves crashing in the background, drinking beers, when Steve Schiffman, a friend from homeroom, walks over with a buddy. “Jim Spinner, meet Ian Grice, you guys are both going to SUNY Buffalo.” Sometimes life comes down to a few moments. I mean, it’s not exactly Lennon meets McCartney but we became fast friends.
Ian’s parents, Eddie and Maureen Grice, both teachers, rent a house every summer. By the time I was hanging with the Grices in the early 80’s, they had narrowed in on the East End. The Grice family loved to entertain, to eat, drink and talk with friends. Each summer we would learn about a new town, the local bars, restaurants and beaches of: East Hampton, South Hampton, Sag Harbor, Shelter Island. It was a fun, exciting, meandering journey. Eventually the family buys 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, something 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, bars like the Shagwong had real fisherman in them. I never liked the slogan, “Montauk, A drinking town with a fishing problem.” It seemed crass to me but I understood right away Montauk’s sea-working bona fides. One of the first things I thought was, my father would love this place. Sadly, right around the time I was starting to hang with the Grices, my father passed. But Eddie and Maureen filled a void, continuing my father’s work.
After college, Ian 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 the work week. Anytime I drink a Budweiser in a can it reminds me of those trips.
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 conversation. The driving force was the matriarch, Ian’s Mom, Maureen. Brooklyn Irish, (Maureen Murphy) she was wise, educated, she taught me stuff about the East End and life. Throughout our friendship, 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.
Eventually, I became disillusioned with Wall Street, frustrated with my lack of personal fulfillment. One Saturday night, Coronas in hand, sitting on a dock overlooking Lake Montauk, Maureen says, “Jimmy, maybe you should teach? You would love it.”
The seed was planted, every walk along the beach, every hour sitting around a fire, every bike ride, I’m reflecting about life. Eddie and Maureen keep watering the seed and I’m thinking, Maybe I should teach? Look at how happy they 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. 1990, I’m dating a girl and it’s 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 the boasting bachelor, “Ah, we’re never getting married right Ian?” At which point Maureen holds court, “You know Jimmy” with the emphasis on Jimmy as she begins, “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 in fact interesting. But if I lived the life of a bachelor, that would cease to be the case. I thought about what I wanted out of life… once again, I found the answers, in Montauk. I knew Kira was the one when she “got” Montauk, when she loved it as much as I do.
Here I sit on a Montauk beach, my girl at my side, reflecting back on life. It’s obvious this is where we are supposed to be. Kira feels it too. My father taught me about the ocean. A couple of teachers taught me about the East End, 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 I have to figure out how to stay.