Some Nights At The Tidewater
Nights pay out slow at the Tidewater. The little bar sits along an unloved stretch of Montauk Highway, a rattletrap box of sky blue aluminum siding, bracing itself against the tailwinds of traffic that always seems to be passing by. Summer nights seem especially slow. It all proceeds by a series of false starts. The feeling of expectation lingers awhile then dissipates. Tourists only ever find their way to the Tidewater by happenstance. Solitary figures drift in, looking lost, looking like they aim to get even more lost, to get as lost as possible. Their anecdotes are astonishing. They were major figures in their respective fields. They made millions, lost it all, meant to win it back but got distracted along the way somehow. They jab their ice with swizzle sticks as though excavating for some lost promise. Sports fans bumble away the afternoons with their woes and their big talk about women and the chastened way they phone their wives to be picked up after the final out and one more shot for the road. What was it they came looking for in the first place? Summertime in the Hamptons carries with it steep expectations but a place like the Tidewater exists amid the grandeur of Southampton as a standing reminder that there are all manner of distances in the world, but the distance between expectation and reality is the shortest, most insurmountable on of all.
I work a few nights a week, manning the grill, tossing drumsticks into the shimmering hot oil, mopping the floors after the neon beer signs have been switched off. Most nights, for longer than is healthy for a cash operation, it is just the owner and I at the bar. We talk about ticks, we talk about the Mets infield, we talk about how cell phones are diminishing the capacities of the culture. He sees conspiracies in places you wouldn’t think to look. When the electrical grid goes down, the world will need guys like him, guys who can still do long division in their heads, who can fix car engines and blown fuses, who can navigate by memory and starlight. It is the insistence of a man who feels he’s been unfairly cheated out of something in life. To own a bar in the Hamptons and find business struggling, this is must be some proverbial kind of short-changing.
When the campus up the highway was full, before the State U. took over and made it a lowly, little-used outpost of its graduate school, business was good. Now, it’s mostly young guys from the reservation who knock back greasy dinners and shots of high-end liquor and toss a few good-natured slurs back and forth below the squabble of post-game highlights. The Mets are deep into their customary mid-summer collapse. The Indians come in late, in pairs and threes, but one guy always springs for the group. They talk low and eat quickly and speed out of the parking lot playing loud music and I wonder where they go. I wonder what their world looks like, their ancestral home edging up against the pleasure domes of outland millionaires. What kind of perspective does that bestow? I wonder in turn what my boss sees from behind the bar when they enter, what it does to your outlook when you have the kind of luck that imparts a bar in one of the world’s great resort towns and places it in that unfashionable stretch between the smoke shops and the marine science lab along Montauk Highway? At the height of a Saturday night in July, almost within earshot of the clubs thumping with bass-heavy tunes and cash drawers going ballistic, this section of road is quiet.
The remaining customers are a mixed bunch. Some locals: firemen, fisherman, excavators, contractors. Pick-ups in the parking lot around dinner time, the ashtrays crammed with broke-neck reservation brands ashed to the filter. Caddies and pros from the clubs wander in at dusk, ordering hamburger platters in some variety of British Commonwealth inflection. A few diffident literary types from the writing program on campus cram the place on the odd weeknight. Poets don’t drink the way they once did. Now everyone is health-crazed, outlandishly limber from all the yoga between poetry workshops. I am one of the literary types, one whose affinities run with the older order of things, the delusion that artistic inspiration comes in a bottle, or at least some freeing of the senses the bottle can provide. I came out to the Hamptons following the possibility that I might be a writer. Now I sketch out stories between shifts and stock the cooler while trying to imagine the details behind the lives of the customers I’m helping to keep well lit. All sorts of possibilities for how life can happen seem to play out across the quiet exchanges, the listless cheers for the home team, the wary glances across the four-square bar.
In the afternoons before work, I bike past the mansions. During the week, the streets are silent but for the whine of lawn equipment. It comes on hidden beyond the hedges and so persistent it sounds like it’s edging out from inside your own mind. What are you doing, it whines, to give yourself a life like this? Think of the children growing up in such splendor. Think of the money spent. I come from a different part of the Island, calling distance from the city’s edge. There has always been something remote and inaccessible about the east end to a kid from the bedroom suburbs of Nassau County. It’s where the stars build their mansions. It’s where people still farm. Sitting on the beach on a Sunday, the procession of helicopters racing moguls back to the city seems endless, the walloping sound of chopped air like the call of some exotic bird insisting that you, down there, barely visible you’re so small, are in no ordinary ecosystem.
Worlds converge. The progression from desolate campus to ramshackle reservation bungalows to epic baronial estates feels unreal. I am looking for reasons, looking for some kind of pattern. One night someone leaves a red Ferrari in the parking lot. It sits for a week. One night some of the Kardashian people come in, members of the production team. They are young, slightly embarrassed, slightly defensive, when they mention their employer, their eyes quick, expressions braced for ridicule. They likely aimed higher in their artistic ambitions than chronicling the inane doings of aimless millionaires. They are all staying in a house up the road and they drink way too much and kiss each other in the back of the bar. There are Australians and Irish in golf duds from Shinnecock. Japanese chefs. Hispanic laborers. Retired cops. On the last night of the Pow Wow, an elder from the Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts stops in after the ceremonies. He says he’s 86 but looks 20 years younger. He is a war dancer. Everything was something else once. You fill everything up with expectations and if you have the means, you make those expectations come to life.
One rare nights, this place feels like a world all its own. Most nights, it feels like the ends of the earth. Going for the dumpsters late, deer stand stock-still in the moonlight. I came here expecting to be a writer and immediately found myself lost. This was in January, the campus locked in frozen desolation as intractable as the ice coating the unattended pathways. The seasons change. Summer comes and I need a job and the owner is a kindly soul deep down and he offers me work. But working for tips at a place like the Tidewater is a tough proposition. The Writer’s Conference in July brings in droves of would-be authors, earnest talk, intent noticing, abrupt romance. My expectations are low, having seen the way the business of writing at this level amounts only to so much talk. The experience seems to be one of disappointment. But my expectations were perhaps off all along. It’s impossible to ever really get what you expected. Your expectations were beyond reason. You signed the lease or the contract or the treaty. You expected the terms to be met. You came out to one of the world’s great resort towns and you got the Kardashian interns and Lyme disease and a job frying chicken wings.
And then a woman walks in. You know her from your workshop, she’s only out here for the two-week conference but she came for the same reasons. You get to talking because there’s not much else to do in a place like the Tidewater. It all happens rapidly after that, with the spellbinding quickness of a dream. A year later, I am making plans to finish up my coursework here and move away to be with her. It is love, the rarest thing, the thing you expected least of all.