It was the summer of “Star Wars,” it was the summer of Sam and it was the last summer for Elvis. For me, it was the summer my younger brother David and I worked at the same three places in the Hamptons. It was a golden summer, but one seasoned with missed opportunities and close calls.
Because I was mostly clueless about life in June 1977 (though a high-school graduate), I didn’t realize at first that the first job I applied to wasn’t really a job at all. I had answered a handwritten “fishermen wanted” ad posted on a bulletin board at the Montauk IGA supermarket and, without asking for any details over the phone, told the man that Dave and I would be at the Montauk docks early the next morning.
When we found the big cabin cruiser named The Goldenrod late the next morning, and met the retired New York City cop who owned it, we knew it wasn’t a real commercial fishing job. We knew we couldn’t possibly catch enough fish to justify even taking the boat out of the marina. We knew the cop just needed company on his boat. (I give us some credit, retroactively, for grasping that.)
Maybe I thought we needed to start the summer with an adventure. It was the first time our parents had ever let us to stay unsupervised at the beach house they built on Amagansett’s Napeague Stretch just five years earlier—a project that perilously overextended them, emotionally and financially.
It was the first time Dave and I had fished from a boat in the open ocean, and we actually caught some salable fish—mostly flounder and porgy. Occasionally, one of us would pull a sand shark or a sea robin (a bony bottom feeder with wing-like fins and spiny “legs”) over the Goldenrod’s gunwale, prodding our high-strung skipper to cry “ahh, a shitfish!” in his high-pitched Bronx-Irish accent. Then he’d beat the fish off the hook (usually to death) with one of the many old billy clubs he kept onboard.
We’d sell our catch (usually a couple of buckets full) to Montauk restaurants. The cop gave us half the earnings, but it was barely enough to keep gas in the AMC Matador’s tank and 69-cent Banquet frozen dinners in the antique, frost-encrusted freezer. We fished for a week, and as much fun as we had, we knew it wouldn’t last—and it didn’t. The Goldenrod captain’s family finally came out from the city to relieve us.
Desperate now to find gainful employment, and put some money into the bank for college, we overcompensated and found two jobs each, with both of us working at the same two places. During the day we drove delivery vans, shopped for delivery items and stocked shelves at the Gristedes supermarket in East Hampton; evenings we worked in the United Artists East Hampton Cinema movie theater.
I was a year older and then slightly more presentable than Dave, so I got the theater usher job; Dave was happy with the porter position. I probably saw “Star Wars” fifty times that summer, though I’ve never once seen the entire film from start to finish. After the success of the East Coast premiere of “Jaws” two years earlier, when Hollywood celebrities thronged the one big theater, United Artists added two small theaters to its flagship big-screen house. Smoking was allowed in the big house’s balcony and on the left-hand sides of the little theaters. The theater floors, long before the days of seats with cup holders, often became a sticky sludge of spilled soda, candy, popcorn and cigarette ashes; sometimes we’d need a paint scraper to clean it up.
During the first five minutes of my usher job, the manager said to the assistant manager, “Don, why don’t you show Mike the ropes.” Thinking I was going to learn the secrets of film projection and popcorn popping, I was instead led to the velvet ropes that opened and closed on penned-in patrons. Most of my job involved standing like a lobby fixture—a longhaired 18-year-old kid in a 100% polyester uniform consisting of a red jacket, white shirt, black clip-on bow tie and black pants with red stripes. I carried a flashlight in my pants pocket.
In retrospect both positions were dream jobs, particularly for someone who likes to listen and observe. At night, I’d stand guard watching a wide assortment of moviegoers drift by, from farmers to fishermen to local merchants to summer people to movie stars, models, artists and writers, always too tongue-tied to talk anyone to celebrities I recognized. During the day I took grocery orders over the phone from Diana Ross, Edward Albee and Craig Claiborne (who was very patient with my shopping for him, but could be very prickly about produce), and delivered groceries to tony Hamptons estates.
Every morning talk in the Gristedes break room revolved around the Son of Sam murders. Gristedes’ butcher and produce manager, both middle-aged, were particularly fascinated by the slayings. They’d read grisly details from The Daily News and New York Post aloud while I listened quietly, reading the full-page headlines and munching on Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. Meanwhile, the back covers of both of these tabloid papers headlined the escalating battle between the Yankees’ strutting superstar, Reggie Jackson, and the club’s brawling blue-collar manager, Billy Martin—a clash of egos that nearly came to blows that summer.
On August 11, 1977, the day after NYC police finally apprehended the Son of Sam, the break room was abuzz with excitement. About half the store’s employees gathered around a portable TV and we heard a chilling piece of news: Sam had picked his next target; his plan involved driving out to the Hamptons with a trunk-load of guns. The Post headline that day was a single red-inked word: “Caught!”
One week later, or more precisely on the morning of August 17, 1977, the day after Elvis died, I was racing to work at Gristedes, blasting “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Matador’s eight-track, when I got pulled over for the first time in my life. The cop said he clocked me doing 70 on the Napeague Stretch, just before the highway speed limit dropped from 55 (then the national speed limit) to 45 mph heading west into Amagansett. I was driving without a license because I had lost my wallet the day before. Although I hadn’t done anything else wrong, or smoked any pot that summer, the cop said he had good reason to search my car—i.e., my long hair and big, bewildered blue eyes.
And the cop found something: a nightstick under the driver’s seat. When he asked where the club came from, I stammered something like “I’m not sure, but I think a retired New York City cop might have given it to my brother while we were fishing on his boat.” I followed the officer to the East Hampton Police Station, where I was fingerprinted and had my mugshot taken. They considered holding me in the station’s single jail cell until my Mom came with $100 bail, but a rare East End murder suspect inhabited the lockup that day—and he was in a bad mood.
Ultimately, my parents and a local lawyer got me off the hook. My Mom still has my mugshot (the lone photo taken of me that entire summer) somewhere, but neglected to take a picture of me in my red-and-black usher uniform.
The biggest lesson I learned that summer was the importance of seizing opportunities. Despite having an East End beach house to ourselves and working in two of East Hampton’s most public places (both jammed with kids our age), I didn’t experience a single romance or even have a real date that whole summer. Aside from high-school graduation parties, I don’t remember even drinking any beers.
Oh, wait…Yes I do. In the closest case of my having a date that summer I asked a free-spirited Gristedes deli-counter girl to meet me at a midnight sneak preview. After my usher shift, I bought a six-pack of Michelob and then met my “date” under the theater marquee. She slipped the beers into her purse, along with her pint of Southern Comfort, and we sat up in the back of the big theater’s balcony, drinking, making out and laughing loudly at a comedy that wasn’t all that funny (possibly “Kentucky Fried Movie”).
I ended our revelry and my one clumsy stab at summer love while finishing my fourth beer. That’s when I dropped the beer bottle onto the hard floor and everyone, including the concession girls and assistant manager down below, heard it roll down the aisle to the front of the balcony. The brawny, no-nonsense theater manager (who I knew was off that night) probably would’ve punched me out on the spot. He’s retired now, but still out there (I checked online). And if he gets wind of this account, I might be in trouble again.