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The Mast-Head: July Fourth Gauntlet

Wed, 07/10/2019 - 11:44

Sometime after 10 p.m. on the Fourth of July, the brake lights from stopped cars on Montauk Highway curved west from where we stood on the sidewalk outside Pizza Village. Like thousands of other spectators, we had come to Montauk for the fireworks, and now everyone it seemed wanted to go home.

People say it every year: Montauk is more crowded than ever. A police officer standing on the highway near John’s Drive-In, with whom we spoke, agreed. He had never seen it like this.

We arrived toward dark before the fireworks without much delay. Though all the parking lots and streets close to the beach were full, there were spaces not far away. We spread our blankets on an open place in front of one of the nondescript downtown motels — from the beach I could not tell which it was.

A young couple with a massive 1-year-old cane corso named King sat near us. King liked kids, and, it turned out, was not afraid of fireworks. What bothered King was the crowd, we found out later, when we saw the couple trying to squeeze onto one of the few stairways off the beach.

As part of the Army Corps “restoration” following Hurricane Sandy, a wall of sandbags had been scattered on the beach and a handful of wooden stairs installed to allow beachgoers to get over them. They now became alarming chokepoints as hundreds of people clustered around them. Noticing the couple, and King’s obvious distress, I sort of blocked the line so they could cut in and escape.

If the beach stairways were inadequate, Montauk’s two roads out of town were worse.  Eating our pizzas and salads while seated on a sidewalk planter, we were surprised that traffic was not moving at all. To kill time, I went for a stroll as far as the Plaza with one of the kids; when we got back, the same cars we had seen when we started walking were in exactly the same places.

The cop laughed loudly when we asked him if there had been an accident. Two women asked how long the delay would be. “An hour or two,” he guessed.

“If there was an emergency, we’d be in trouble,” Lisa said. “That’s right,” the officer agreed.

Figuring out a shortcut, I got away from the downtown impasse, slipping past the Montauk School to avoid a backup on Second House Road. By 11, we were rolling west past the recycling station.

But vehicles were backed up again near the west overlook at Hither Hills, as officers ahead let alternating streams of cars merge from the old and new highways. An ambulance came by with a small black car tailgating it; I swerved my truck off the shoulder to slow the knuckleheads in the car, effectively boxing them in with the rest of us as the drivers in front of me also pulled out. There was no one ahead of us when we turned onto Napeague Meadow Road, and we continued on our way home without incident.


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