The Kodachrome Lobsterman of Montauk
The Rail is a fisherman’s bar and restaurant in Montauk – a village known as The End. It’s the last eastern stop on the Long Island Rail Road, and Montauk Highway, New York State Route 27, dead-ends at the lighthouse cliffs. Returning workers all pass The Rail to get to their trucks after a day of commercial fishing. The battered old building offers comfort, like a beacon, to weary seamen and occasional travelers alike. I’m at the bar, two stools from the entrance, when the front door swings open. Sunrays cut through the subdued darkness; everybody turns, and squints. Four lobstermen enter: faces red, wind-burned, rubbed with salt, set on fire by the sun. Sunglasses removed, they let their eyes adjust to the dark. They’ve just come in from the water and they look cold, their hands rough with pulling lobster pots from the depths of the icy ocean. I am hungry. I came to The Rail to eat freshly caught Montauk seafood. “I’ll have what he’s having,” I say to the bartender, motioning to the man on my right. “I’ll take a bowl of steamers.” “Those aren’t steamers,” he says. He pours a drink into a short glass, straight booze over ice, and takes it to the busy end of the bar. The lobstermen position themselves around the curve of old oak near the entrance, making their presence known to fishermen and tradesmen already eating hearty food and drinking draft beer from frosted mugs. Late-afternoon shadows splay across uncovered tables, and wood floors reflect the constant wear of rough boots and sand. It’s clear I’m no lobsterman, no fisherman, and no Montauk local. The bartender treats me like the out-of-towner I am: polite enough to make me feel like a paying customer, but brief enough to make me feel like a passing stranger. That’s all right with me. I finally catch his attention. “How about those steamers?” “Those are steamed little necks,” he corrects me. “Is that what you want?” “Yeah, they look good. I’ll take an order of those.” I say this with confidence; I know the difference between steamers and steamed little necks. I’ve been around clams. I know my clams. “You got it, buddy. Coming right up.” The lobstermen, all sorted now, stand and lean around the end of the bar. When they finally call their orders, the bartender is attentive and familiar. “Bottle of Bud.” “Draft.” “Seven and Seven.” “Jack on the rocks.” One empty barstool sits between me and the defrosting lobstermen. That’s okay, I think. Ahead of me is a two-hour drive, watching the sun set over ancient Montauk dunes on curvy, hilly Old Montauk Highway. After I get my steamed little necks, that is. The lobstermen savor their first sips, shaking off the bone chill. It’s a cool, clear day on land, bright sunshine, about forty-eight degrees. Drop that temp a solid fifteen degrees out on the water, add in some wind chill, and top it off with weather-beaten fishing caps: draft beer and mixed drinks must feel warm by comparison. My food comes, and I start to feel warm and happy, just the way the lobstermen look. I break off a piece of thick-crusted bread and plunge it into rich clam broth, hot and overloaded with chopped garlic and black pepper and parsley. I ignore the fork and use my hands to enjoy fifteen half-opened fresh clams stacked up and steaming, each morsel ready to eat from its own shell. The food stays piping hot, top to bottom. A blond, hatless lobsterman slips into the empty seat to my left. I barely notice as I indulge in my steamed clam feast. He lays a small metallic box on the bar and begins plucking thirty-five-millimeter slides from it, holding them up to the light. He studies the small squares one by one; the slides look old. Stiff cardboard frames surrounding transparent film have yellowed with time, but the images seem intact and shiny. He’s being ignored by his companions, but I am insanely curious. So is the bartender, apparently. “Now what the hell did you find, Anthony?” To all the stool-sitters he adds, “Half the junk we got behind the bar and hanging up all over this place, Anthony dragged in over the years.” “It’s probably worth a fortune, and I just give it to you,” retorts Anthony. “Don’t complain or I’ll take my stuff back, and you’ll have nothing but liquor bottles and forty-year-old paneling to look at. This place has character because of me.” “You’ve got that right, Anthony—you are a character,” says the bartender. Suddenly I get an elbow nudge. “Hey, you see that stone duck up there?” My gaze finds the duck behind the bar, and I nod. “I found that. It’s art.” I agree. “Where did you get it?” Anthony sidesteps my question. “I find things. That’s what I do when I’m not lobstering.” I don’t press the issue. I’m just happy to be talking with a lobsterman. For the moment, I’m no longer just another napkin-and-fork drifter from back west. I’m beginning to feel like one of the boys. Even so, nearly all my focus is drawn to the Kodachrome slides Anthony keeps flashing. Up and down, into the light and back into a small holder, temptingly close to my hand, which I notice is tapping nervously on the bar. I pick up the trail the bartender blazed. “So … those slides. Can I see one?” “Sure. I think they’re of old Montauk from the fifties. Some have dates. See right here? 1956.” I take a peek and then place a slide in the bartender’s outstretched hand. He authenticates each scene. “Yep, yep,” he says with authority. “This one here is the back of Gosman’s Dock, and this one is the Montauk Jetty, and this one is of Lake Montauk.” “You know,” I say to Anthony, “if you got some of these shots enlarged, people might buy them at a good price.” “Really? You think they’re worth something?” “Sure,” I say. “You’d buy these?” “Sure. Why not?” “How much will you give me?” “How much you want?” “Five hundred.” Anthony is not a novice trader, apparently. I laugh. “No way, man. Half of those slides are of some guy’s family and Christmas trees. I don’t want those. I want landscapes and old wooden fishing boats.” “Yeah, but the other ones are good. You saw them.” “Yeah, but—” “Okay, three hundred!” “I’ll give you one-fifty.” “Make it two hundred.” “Deal.” We shake on it over the bar. Anthony lifts his beer mug and takes a big gulp. I pause for a moment to exhale, now that the sudden bargain has been struck. I follow Anthony to his vintage seventies pickup truck, his faithful black Labrador eager to see him, and then he follows me to a bank. It’s getting colder now, and the sun is almost gone. I’ll miss the dunes on my drive back, but this is a fair trade-off. The slides are an unknown, but I’m excited about getting to finally hold them in my hands, and Anthony seems happy: the two hundred dollars is for real. The exchange complete, I cannot hold back any longer. “Now that I own them … where did you get these?” He hesitates but relents. “They belonged to the Lereah family.” “You mean Senator Lereah? That family?” “Yeah. Some of those slides are marked Peter Jr. That must be him, I guess.” “And you just found them?” No response from Anthony. I knew not to press. When I’d left my house in the early afternoon and decided to head for Montauk, I’d felt, deep down, that the day might develop in unexpected ways. Had I stopped partway—in the Hamptons, for instance—and ordered a coffee at Starbucks, I might have returned a completely unchanged man. The extra few miles to Montauk take me across a boundary between places I know and understand and a world where sea lions sun themselves on the beach. Where a fisherman with rod and reel, just a few miles off the Montauk Point Lighthouse, can catch a three-thousand-pound great white shark feeding on a drifting whale carcass. Where the rich and famous cross paths with the down-and-out and drunk. And where the fishing stories get told over and over in the pubs, and old shipwrecks litter the treacherous shoals where lobstermen set their pots. If Anthony the lobsterman decides one day to return my phone call about the extra three hundred Kodachrome slides he claims to be in possession of, I will gladly make the trek to Montauk and return to The Rail. I hope the second seat from the end of the bar near the front door is empty. I’ll order a bowlful of hot steamed little necks swimming in buttery broth, with fresh crusty bread for dipping, and sit there and eat and mind my own business—until something out of the ordinary happens. *This is a true story. Names were changed for privacy.