No Vacancy at the Neptune Motel

Written By: Susan A.  Cohen

1.When did Montauk become a “No Vacancy” kind of town? The kind of town with traffic and forty-two taxis waiting for the 6:48pm train.  Forty-two taxis with forty-two entrepreneurial drivers hovering by the tracks offering rides to every passenger who steps off the platform.  I admire the cabbies’ skills at filling their cars and vans, their broad smiles and their adeptness when exiting the jammed and chaotic parking lot.  I still remember when there was only one taxi waiting for the one or two eastbound passengers to disembark.  The driver, an older man with greying hair whose name I never knew, drove an old black car with only a subtle indication that he had a NY Livery license.  He was a quiet man who expected that if you needed his services you would have enough sense to approach his car.  That was when the Depot was still a Depot.   And now, when the train arrives at 6:48 or 8:29 or 9:01 on a summery Friday night, there are always taxi cabs– five deep, five across nearest to the platform and then lined up hood to back bumper– a giant traffic jam within one small train station parking lot.  I stand at the edge of the crowd waiting for my husband to make his way from the train through the weekend visitors and the jigsaw puzzle of taxi cabs.  I think about when I was a teenager and I would board the almost empty train in Montauk, get off in Amagansett or East Hampton and the conductors never charged me for the ride.  I think about how I would sit by the window, often the only person in the train car, watching the fleeting, framed visions of Montauk, and then Napeague slip by like flip-book kineography.

The forty-two drivers leave for the private homes, and share-houses and, of course, those hotels and motels boasting their “No Vacancy” signs.I have become obsessed with the “No Vacancy” sign at the

2. Neptune Motel. I am parked in the lot behind White’s Drug Store, parked just across from the Montauk Post Office, parked at just the right angle to watch the Neptune Motel. Today, I am a spy, or perhaps a busybody. For as long as I can remember, I have never seen anyone enter or leave that little motel.  I know the motel is booked (so says the No Vacancy sign), but still, there’s an emptiness about it in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.   The Neptune is not near the beach, it has no beautiful view, and there is no place to sit out on a deck to drink a beer or get a sunny nap on a deck chair.  And yet, one year it suddenly had a “NO” next to the word “Vacancy”. And though I cannot explain why, I am spending part of my sunny afternoon sitting in my car in front of the Neptune Motel.  It is, of course, much more interesting to watch the people who go in and out of the Post Office than the zero number of people who go in and out of the motel in the hour and a half or so that I sit there.

“No one, not one person ever went in or out,” I tell my husband, who has politely listened to and ignored my obsession with No Vacancy signs in general and the Neptune Motel in particular.  “It’s Montauk’s version of the Hotel California,” I add.  “Perhaps they painted the ‘NO’ on permanently,” he says, a thought troubling enough for me to return the next day to get a closer look.  And when I realize that the “NO” is permanent, I am even more flabbergasted. This is the Neptune Motel we are talking about—modest prices, once temporary housing for the summer’s waitresses, waiters, store clerks, gardeners, sous chefs and cleaning crews.

Now I see it clearly; Montauk, once called a sleepy little village at the end of Long Island, has become a permanent marker “No Vacancy” kind of town.

3. When you hear the word “Neptune” what’s your first thought? Do you think of the Roman God of the sea, or do you think of the eighth farthest planet in our solar system? Here in Montauk, known for surfing, fishing, and other watery pursuits the Neptune Motel is most certainly meant to conjure up images of Neptune the mighty ruler of the seas; a deity as likely to create tidal waves and cause shipwrecks as he is to bring much needed rain.  However, when I hear the word “Neptune,” I think planet.  I think about NASA and 7th grade science fairs displaying solar models.  I think about Douglas Adams. I think about fictional multi-legged, multi-eyed space aliens who someday might be written into a sci-fi film set on Neptune, where when we humans arrive, the only Motel sign written in both Neptunian and English, will say, “No Vacancy at the Neptune Motel.”

4. On my morning walk, I consider the one of the newest homes in my neighborhood. To make way for this elegant shingle-sided-white-trimmed home with built-in pool and three car garage, the builder had to demolish one of the old Leisurama-like houses. I do not know if this particular old house was an authentic Macy’s 1960’s Leisurama house or not, whether it was sold fully furnished right down to tooth brushes in the bathroom, or whether it was built by a competitor trying to break into the new “buy a Montauk summer home “craze.  But this old home had the look of a Leisurama–a modest rectangle of a house with a side carport.  I remember the old women who lived there, though I never knew her name.  On my morning walks she would wave as I passed by—always dressed in her front-zipper dress and flip-flops.  For a short time, my daughter and her granddaughter were beach pals.  I never went into her house, but felt that I knew what it looked like inside.  I loved the concept of those small houses, still do.

Along with the rise of No Vacancy signs lining Old Montauk Highway there has come the disappearing act of the modest houses that tuck themselves into the landscape, that hide from the roads, that have grass and pebble driveways. There is a simplicity in the small houses and a wildness too that drew one’s gaze to the ancient glacial deposit landscape—Montauk’s knob and kettle-hole topography rather than to the house itself. I understand how easy it is to fall in love with this edge-of-the-world place that triggers both the wildness within and simultaneously allows tourists and residents alike to slip off the time-space continuum, if only for a few days at a time. But the loss of these houses feels more like a loss of spirit than a triumph of architecture.

5. The Neptune Motel is now for sale. It sits on less than a ¼ acre, has twelve rooms, an apartment and is listed for $ 3,800,000. Most likely, someone will buy it this season, renovate it, make it hip and change its name. But a little part of my heart is holding out for the small houses charm new owners and for The Neptune to keep its name and stay humble.  “Vacancy” or “No Vacancy” sign, it doesn’t matter.  It’s The Neptune—motel of the summer workforce who live four or six to a room, of intergalactic visitors and ocean gods.