Once Upon A Time In The East

Written By: Dr. Dennis P. Steigerwald

It was the loud, rhythmic, grinding sound of the geese flying south that woke me that November morning so long ago. I’d never heard a sound like it before, and the room I awoke in smelled of smoke. I was alone, lost and afraid, and I ran for my life, right into the wonder that was Amagansett. The sound of the surf and the smell of the salt air stopped me in my tracks while the geese maintained their perfect formation not twenty feet over my head. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had arrived. It was 1967 and I was home.

Truth be told, I wasn’t home yet but I had been gifted a glimpse. Two days earlier I had stormed out of my parents’ house in East Meadow. I felt betrayed by my parents and was angry beyond words. I was an impossibly helpless teenager, had no life skills whatsoever, and I wandered into a world of sexual predators, drug dealers and, thank God, a handful of people who would save my life. The person most responsible for the life saving part was a wonderful man named Ray, a Vietnam vet I met at Hofstra College. It was his father who took us to their house, more of a cabin really, in Amagansett the next day. Nothing would ever be the same. A seed had been planted that would continue to produce fruit for the next 50 years.

I returned to Hofstra after that weekend confused, afraid and virtually penniless. Ray and the “Vets” adopted me, my poetry and my newly found passion for surfing as the “flower child” and proceeded to shelter, protect and educate me in the ways of a world more hostile than I ever could have imagined. Somehow, with their help, I survived the harsh winters and criminal element that defined my new winter home in Long Beach while I continued on at Hofstra.

The magic carpet that made it possible for me to grow to the doctor I became however was the East End. You see, Ray introduced me to Ralph Martell, owner of the first “Meet Market” in the area, Martell’s of Amagansett, and got me a summer job there as a waiter. It was an amazing place dead center in the middle of everything that was the late 60’s. Anything and everything was possible for anyone. It was a true melting pot for those willing to step outside of themselves, from a dead poor runaway like me to the über-rich. The result was life changing.

Martell’s combined dinner, drinking and dancing brilliantly and employed an early version of what would now be known as “boy toy” waiters and bartenders as well as attractive cocktail waitresses. They served an above average East End dinner fare and provided the dancing via juke box that created the atmosphere for romance du jour. People waiting to get in would line up from the sidewalk along Montauk Highway to the entrance. The line would then extend along the sidewalk to the west for over 100 yards. It was a sight to behold and the local population was furious!

They had been used to quietly enjoying the basic and timeless elements of the East End that continue to draw and hold people today; fresh produce from topsoil deposited by the Wisconsin glacier 10,000 years ago, a world class fishery, the moments of silence that approach the absence of all sound, the ink black nights that put their jewels within reach even though you’re only 100 miles from Manhattan. They were not ready for, or accepting of, the onslaught. They felt that they owned, and certainly did not want to share, the East End.

Martell’s served all strata of society and we got to meet movie stars, TV stars, the rich, the runaways like me, the up and comers, the dreamers, the scammers, princes and paupers alike. What a very special place it was. Unfortunately, like that era, Martell’s of Amagansett is now only a memory to be shared in stories like this.

I was now starting to find my way, and I was surviving on two small scholarships, tips earned at Martell’s, winnings at poker after work in the Martell’s dining room and the exchange of goods commonly shared by young people in the 60’s.

During this time, I met a group of waiters and bartenders who worked the summers at restaurants and bars in the East End and then headed to Florida after the season to work as lifeguards, fishing guides, waiters and even school teachers. They were brave, strong, smart, handsome and, living at the edge of the system, knew how to have fun. They and my close friend Bill, who died along the way, inspired me to become bi-costal. I chose the area of Southern California that stretched from Laguna Beach to North County San Diego in a broad and loving embrace with the Pacific Ocean, the ocean of peace. I carried the soul of the East End with me at all times however, a defiant finger thrusting into the sea of storms, the Atlantic. As is always the case, time and place factor into events, history and lives. This era and these places were special and I thought it would never end.

I was rapidly getting bolder and finally getting past my early western Long Island territorial phobia of “beyond these five square blocks there be monsters”; in fact, now I was traveling coast to coast by motorcycle and somehow I managed not to get killed or arrested even though I escaped more hair raising adventures than Indiana Jones. During this time the East End was still the home in my heart but southern California had a magic all it’s own and, while the difference between the two areas was profound in the mid-late 60’s and early 70’s, they both produced remarkable people and stories that may well live on forever.

Life became wilder by the year and along the way, in Southampton in 1969, I was blessed with the finest son a man could have. It would take some time but, because of him, I was finally forced to look in the mirror and consider the future. Something I had not done since I had walked out of my parents’ house in 1967. It was 1974 when I finally said NO MORE! Unfortunately, my friend Bill did not. I went on to become a successful doctor and he died in 1987 at 37 years of age. I miss him still.

During this time, while I was practicing in North County San Diego, I met the woman I would marry and with whom I would spend the rest of my life. Jacqueline was a beautiful young woman from Switzerland, and we met while we were both on vacation in Cabo San Lucas. During our long distance courtship, which lasted four years, we agreed to meet in Montauk. She immediately saw and sensed the same things that had set me free in the East End twenty years earlier. It was love at first visit just as our meeting in Cabo had been love at first sight.

While we lived in San Diego for 14 years through some very trying times following a disabling car accident, we continued to visit the East End whenever possible. Finally, we decided to move to the place that had captured both our hearts, and Jacqueline and I now call the East End of Long Island home. We live on a small island sheltered by islands and, while poor by most local standards, we share a rich relationship with our little island and all of the East End.

The East End is raw life with a spirit that births poems. It can be as comforting as the womb and as cold and frightening as the grave. We have chosen life in a place of beauty that rewards inner strength and punishes the fool.

As long as there are runaways like me and special places they can run to, and from, this type of story will be told. This particular story happened, and could only have happened, once upon a time in the East.