Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
Sag Harbor was always different from the other Hamptons. It fact, it was often called the Un-Hampton. Its deep water harbor, once the official port of entry to New York State, was a bustling whaling village and thriving industrial factory town. For me, it was the perfect place to escape New York City’s hot and steamy summers. My friends, Aline, a graphic artist and photographer, and Gio, a musician, were transplants from Greenwich Village during the years 2004-11. Their first rented home on Division and Latham was originally a Pentecostal Church built in 1897. Although the spacious living area resembled a downtown loft, you couldn’t help but notice two high-backed bishop’s chairs, and two long brown wooden pews from its forgotten past. Staring down at you from every angle, noted especially before falling asleep, were two framed signs in large black letters, “Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth,” and “Holiness Unto The Lord.”
One should always heed good advice – religious or otherwise – but this particular July 4th weekend was reserved for fun. There would be meat and cheeses from Schiavoni’s, steamed lobsters from Schmidt’s, and plenty of wine and vodka to keep the conversation going late into the night. Most often we talked about art, life, food and people. We listened to the Yankees on the radio and waited for The Sandman to rush toward the mound and save the game.
For the barbeque on the 4th, Vivian, a lifelong East Ender, joined the festivities. I was fascinated by her first-hand account at the age of 13 of the Hurricane of 1938 that wiped Montauk Fishing Village on Fort Pond Bay off the map. Closer to home in Sag Harbor, she spoke of the fury of the storm that lifted the 185-foot steeple from the Old Whalers’ Church intact, and smashed into the Old Burying Ground. It was never rebuilt. She brought along old newspaper clippings and black and white photos that vividly portrayed the wreckage. At dusk, we walked down to the harbor to see the annual fireworks display.
For several years, the church was their home. Winters were harsh though, and it was difficult to keep the place heated even with its old pot-bellied stove. Aline was able to work from home with visits from her trusted messenger and friend, Ramon, and Gio did house painting and music; both did caretaking for friends and acquaintances. Their antiques business, Bleecker Street Antiques, was taking off. Life was good.
In 2007, Aline and Gio moved to a second rental on Long Beach Lane, just around the corner from Long Beach, off Noyac Road. There was a large yard with a garden out back, plenty of room for lawn furniture, sculpture, and just lounging around. On weekends we had tag sales and cruised by antique and estate sales. We went to the usual spots for provisions, including a local favorite, “Fat Ralph’s Deli,” on Union and Division. Ralph’s claim to fame was being the first runner-up on Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen. He stocked the deli with creative sandwiches, oven-ready dinners like lobster ravioli, grill-ready thick, marbled cuts of aged beef, and a flourless chocolate cake to die for. A self-professed gambler, he would offer us “double-or-nothing” for our morning egg sandwiches. Ralph eventually left Sag, and rumor has it that he married Buffy, his long-time girlfriend, who lived with him in the apartment above the store.
With the Great Recession taking its toll even in the Hamptons, Aline and Gio decided to leave Sag in 2011. Caretaking jobs were not as plentiful, and sadly, Ramon, Aline’s long-trusted friend and conduit to the city, passed away, making her graphics design business difficult to maintain.
With the antiques business becoming their primary livelihood, and new markets opening up in Fort Greene and points north, they decided to relocate to Brooklyn. As painful as this decision was for them, I felt deep pangs of regret especially in summer whenever the Jitney made its way past my east side neighborhood. Their place in Brooklyn was nice enough, a limestone row house just two doors down from where portions of Saturday Night Fever was filmed. I slept on the same air mattress from Sag, but missed the bishop’s chairs and lamenting words of warning. Making its way into my consciousness though was “staying alive, staying alive…staying alive.”
This past December, Aline called to tell me about the devastating fire on Main Street. The Sag Harbor Cinema, designed in the 1930’s, and recognized for its iconic art deco sign, was destroyed. She said, “It’s gone.” We recalled some of the movies we saw there and wondered whether it could ever be restored. She mentioned that she and Gio had some jobs coming up in the spring and summer, and would I be interested in joining them. It didn’t take long to say, “Count me in!” I immediately began to wonder if the Jitney still stopped at the same location on 86th Street.
Aline fired up the grill this July 4th. We were back on Division Street staying at the Ginna’s who were out of town. The Ginna’s had been there since the ‘60’s and were Vivian’s next door neighbors. Repairs were needed at their dad’s house next door. Directly across the street was a new McMansion. It replaced an old, weathered eye-sore long past its prime. The McMansion was an imposing structure, white, wide and new, with a pool, sunroom and a two-car garage. It made the church across the way, home to the bishop’s chairs, look small and forlorn by comparison. Even the violet and yellow stained-glass windows didn’t have the same spark. Or so it seemed.
When I asked if Vivian would be joining us as usual, Gio said, “No, she’s gone. Sold her house last week and went to live with one of her sisters in North Carolina.” “At age 92,” added Aline, “it was probably best.” Even the fireworks would disappoint. It seems Sag Harbor had their display over the weekend, as did other towns and villages, and so going down to the harbor with our beach chairs was also cancelled.
Not skipping a beat though, another idea presented itself. We’d go to Sagg Main Beach in Sagaponack even though it was almost nine o’clock. We rode the long dark stretch to the beach, breathing in the sweet smell of fragrant wet grass along the way. Although it was pitch black as we strode onto the beach, we sat directly under a brilliant moon, drinking in the stars, and watching glimmers of light dancing on the water. In the far distance, little specks of color from Montauk’s light show were seen but not heard. We sat in silence until it was time to go home.
The next day was my last before returning to the city. I wandered around the village, enjoying the steady parade of parents and children negotiating purchases of surf boards, canoes, kites, and other beach accessories not necessarily conducive to city dwelling. The Sag Harbor Cinema, now a hollowed out construction site, was nearly half a block long. It’s new name, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, will feature “cultural and educational initiatives serving the community.” The restoration project has received an outpouring of support from many of the East End’s rich and famous. As for me, I’ll miss it as the place we went to see movies.
Sag Harbor has a unique history. Its past is well preserved, its artifacts remain. It’s present comes from the stories we tell. They are stories of our own lives, sorrowful and sweet, that inherently connect us with others. In some mysterious, amazing way, our stories and are lives are all tied together. We come to leave something behind, some part of ourselves.