JT’s Wharf was a small luncheonette that stood on the eastern side of Shinnecock Canal just before the locks. In the morning groups of fishermen would sip coffee and wait for charter boats, but by afternoon it became a hang out for young people — college kids from the city, firemen, cops and nurses—who made their weekend migration to breathe in the freedom that came with the landscape. After more than a few beers and several inter-collegiate boasts, the better swimmers in the group would dive in and race across the canal. Looking back I see it, but I still wonder how could they have done it in a current that is so swift it can throw mega yachts up against the bulkheads like toys in a tub. If I could have looked into the future, I would have seen this simple shack transformed into a restaurant with glassed in dining rooms overlooking the canal.
Back then the Hamptons were isolated, a place of incredible natural beauty that could be reached only after a long journey. The LIE ended around the present exit 60 and the extension to Sunrise Highway had not yet been built. The last few hours of the trip wound down dark country roads, and it was during that part of the ride that the pressure of studies and jobs would melt into the freshness of the night air. It was never a day trip, always a weekend, then a long weekend. First one person would stay too long on Sunday and call in sick that Monday, then another would take a leave from work for a week, which could become a summer. Some would reconsider their lives entirely, abandoning their city jobs and lifestyles for a freedom that meant more than their responsible existences.
We came to the place to meet people, more people than we had ever seen, part of a network that promised infinite possibility and fascinating variety. While the Hamptons themselves were stratified into layers –the bikers, the city kids, the executives, the well to do –they were also a place to be introduced to everyone. In group houses and at open parties, students from all of the colleges, big name schools and small schools, met and bonded. They came from each of the inner-city boroughs and from places outside the New York area.
The Hamptons seemed to be a charmed place where hippies and cops and vets all mixed and kidded but never confronted. It was a peaceful place, much more peaceful than it is now. Even with the amount of beer consumed there were no fights. We all knew each other from New York neighborhoods and shared a bond which was yet to be tested by the choices fate had in store for us. The Viet Nam War was still new; deep division was something we could not have foreseen.
The center of energy was Tiana Beach, now eroded down to a strip of sand but back then a popular meeting place which stood out because almost everyone was standing in groups large and small and talking. Crowds gathered, drank beer, and joked, networking together each weekend so that by the end of the summer everyone on the beach knew everyone. As late afternoon approached, the crowd would drift to beach clubs, then to the houses they shared, then out again. By late Sunday afternoon, a sober melancholy would take hold as beachgoers headed for their cars and the long trip back to the city.
Who could have foreseen that the sea would reduce that beach to nothing or that those surrounding beaches that survived would become the habitat of families and retirees? Who could have predicted that remnants of the old Ponquogue bridge, a modest wooden structure practically at sea level, would one day lie in the shadow of a soaring cement causeway which looked like Robert Moses had built it? Who would have foreseen that lobster, once so plentiful near Shinnecock Inlet, would retreat further from shore or that the scallop harvest in Peconic Bay would cease because there were no more scallops?
If the Hamptons I remember seems like Camelot, it is because it was. The romance that defined this place was the charm of introduction and courtship. Relationships, consummations, and marriages would wait until later, until the fall and the winter when the connections made over the summer blossomed into serious relationships. Once dating or married, couples never returned to the place they had met, as if they too knew that it was a place of promise not fulfillment. The romance at the heart of the Hamptons was more medieval courtly love, than modern reality show. At its core it was innocence not sex, love not lust that drew men and women together. The fascination of meeting so many beautiful people in a summer would have been adolescent if it did not contain the promise of finding one other person more important than the group, one relationship that meant more than this lotus land.
Each year it seemed like the popularity of the Hamptons would die out, but it never did. After each summer, I wondered why I had been spent so much time in the same place, not in Europe, or travelling cross-country. It was a dissipation that was addictive; a cyclical revisiting to a mating ground, but was it real? To some the Hamptons are a place, to others an idea, a myth. Beneath the suburban sprawl and new highways, the myth embodied in the sense of place endures. The migrating birds over Peconic bay in the fall, abundant deer, wild turkeys, and schools of fish remind us of where we are, but the sense of awe has diminished. The beauty and vigor of youth has been supplanted by a landscape of middle-aged people in expensive cars trying to reclaim what time has taken away.
I live here now, but they say that you do not really belong in the Hamptons unless your ancestors are buried in the local cemetery. Last summer my wife wanted to buy a cemetery plot so that family would visit her grave after she was gone. She chose an old cemetery close to the local Seven-11. The whole idea did not appeal to me. The vision of grandchildren enjoying a slurpy on my grave was not comforting. The cemetery would only allow plaques, not the huge carved angel I hoped might guarantee my immortality What’s more, the only grave available was next to a drainage run-off, and the idea of listening to running water ad infinitum seemed its own kind of hell.
We bought the grave, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that was a mistake. What I really wanted to tell her was that the Hamptons are not a place to spend eternity.