“One Potato, Two Potato”

A Memoir by Susan Israelson

It was the sultry summer of ’66. Kelsey had the car of cars. A German job, ’63 Daimler convertible, low-slung, shiny, hot, fiberglass, custom, khaki grey. We’d been dating three months. 

He had the bright idea on a Friday. “Let’s take her for a spin early tomorrow.”


“Sagaponack. I’ve a cottage on the beach there.” 

“Saga what?”

“Sagaponack. Indian name. Hamptons.” Kelsey, handsome, wry, dry, braniac, the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

He’d said the magic word, fabled for Fire Islanders like me. Most pronounced it with a phony English accent, “Haaaamptons.” The new watering hole. All the cool writers like Joe Heller had fled overrun Ocean Beach, relocated there. 

It took me less than a millisecond to say yes. It wasn’t my weekend in Ocean Ridge on the island anyway, an alternate-week grouper. I had no idea what to expect. My only source of info was Women’s Wear Daily’s pics of celebs.

A long, long trip. It took almost three hours via an extremely complicated, convoluted warren of roads — Northern State Parkway to Veteran’s Highway to Sunrise’s jillion lights to 27, criss-crossing Long Island. Interminable. “No other way out, except the train that runs straight to Montauk.” Another Indian name — the Montauketts. If we’d been going to Fire Island we would’ve been there already — a minus. 

As if by magic, a blue-and-white-striped luncheonette on the corner of somewhere appeared out of nowhere. The Candy Kitchen. Kelsey identified the town as Bridgehampton. “Not much happening.” There wasn’t. “Some dentists have settled here.” We parked.

White and bright inside; an inviting sign advertised “Fresh Peach Ice Cream.” No jukebox like John and Ann’s, the Ocean Beach equivalent. A counter, swivel stools. We squeezed into a well-loved booth, ordered tuna fish salad. On the way out, plus peach sugar cone, Kelsey introduced me to the owner, Mr. Stavropoulos, tanned, portly, Greek, from the old country — charming. I felt at home — another plus. The minus? Everyone was wearing shoes, sandals, sneakers, loafers with no socks, Top-Siders. Worse, they were all dressed up. No bathing suits.

We ventured into the wilds on the back roads that lay behind, passed over a bridge. Well, not exactly. It was elevated a foot or so over the water, part of the road. Would have missed it at night. “This is the bridge Bridgehampton is named for.” We stopped in the middle, awed by the beauty, a finger of the sea reaching to infinity. 

We each took a penny, made a wish, tossed our coins backwards.

We motored on, hung a left onto a wide tree-lined street with farmland interrupted by saltboxes, what Kelsey called “Hamptons style.” 

“This is Sagaponack. Sagg Street.”

We stopped at a tiny post office in the same building as a general store, one big room, staples everywhere, post office boxes on the right. He opened his mailbox by combination.

“Good morning Mr. Hildreth,” he said to the owner and postmaster. “Beautiful day.”

The conversation ended with a no-nonsense nod. Maine-like.

Sagg, as Kelsey referred to it, was a hamlet, part of Southampton, its own ZIP, no legal status. 

“I saw some sunflowers down the road — a house present.” An oblong table held tin coffee cans and buckets filled with water, flowers rubber-banded. I spied six perfect suns. No one home, I used the honor system, stuffed three singles into a glass jar. 

We stopped at a graveyard. The stones were old, worn, barely above ground, from the 1600s. Mostly Topping, Halsey, Hildreth, Foster. Kelsey pointed to “Reverend Ebenezer White, 1648-1703, founder First Presbyterian Church.”

“The original settlers.”

Surrounded by history, the past seemed still present. 

And I’d been there an hour and a half. 

We wound around a horse ranch, split rail fences, jumps, an old barn with a sign saying “Topping’s.”

We turned onto a new road: “Daniel’s Lane.”

Suddenly the horizon was filled with wheat as far as the eye could see.

“Love the wheat. Kansas must look like this. What a beautiful photo it would make.”

“Rye. Cover crop after a potato harvest to hold the soil and replenish the nitrates — potatoes deplete ’em.” A Princeton grad, he’d switched to local parlance. Or was it that 150 miles had changed the dynamic from dynamo to down home? Peace. Politeness. How Fire Island used to be.

On the other side of the road was a vast expanse of squat green plants with tiny white flowers.

“What are those?”

“Potatoes. They grow underground. You’ve heard of the Long Island potato, I presume?”

“One potato, two potato. . . .” I made the time-honored fists and started counting, “. . . a jillion more.”

“These fields are owned by Polish farmers. The English tried to shaft them with salty earth near the ocean only good enough to raise the lowly potato, their main crop. The corn is for feed. They don’t have time to cultivate —  or care what it looks like, long as the horses and cows think it’s wonderful.”

A city slicker, I’d just had my first agriculture lesson. Fire Island was a sand spit — poison ivy, scrub pines, bayberries, and wild roses. No topsoil.

After a right angle, we drove down sandy, bumpy, lumpy, rutted Potato Road to the end. Kelsey turned off the ignition, opened my door with a flourish, and pointed the way up.

“My castle, mademoiselle.” A shack. No frills. He called it “beach camp” — a prefab ladies changing room from the early, modest 1900s. His first action was to raise the flag. Mine was to gape at the expanse of wide, white beach and ocean. Gorgeous. Glorious. This is the beach primeval. An extension of Fire Island. If you looked at the map they’d been connected in another era — ran east to west so there was sunshine all day. 

“Let’s take a swim.” We descended a private ladder onto, what else, Potato Beach. The fine white sand tickled my toes, the sapphire sea beckoned. I dove right in the warmed-up water, did horizontal laps, rode the waves, a water baby. The beach was the same — dunes, dune grass, seagulls, sandpipers, shells, driftwood; the ocean always different. Familiar territory at last.

Sandy, I needed a shower. We had plans later, a dinner party. Kelsey walked me downstairs, showed me how to turn on the water, and retreated, ever a gentleman. I followed instructions, stepped onto latticework. Suddenly an enormous frog hopped onto my foot. “Eek!” I shrieked, shocked by the slimy intruder. I hated frogs, had once failed biology when I had to pith one. Rumor had it they caused warts.

“What’s the problem?” He could hear me from upstairs — sound carried through single plywood.

“There’s a monster frog in the shower.”

Kelsey laughed, “Oops. Coming right down. Brek-ek-ko-ex-ko-ex-ko-ex,” he said — the frog chorus from Aristophanes’s comedy.

A laugh replaced the scream. I toweled off, rescued my modesty. My hero helped me out. His fault. He’d forgotten to tell me they lived under the lattice. Les grenouilles had squatter’s rights. 

Calm regained, Kelsey appeared in a pink jacket and madras Bermudas. I panicked. What do you wear to a Haaaaampton party? He was dressed a la Newport. Forget ethnic. I rummaged thru my bag, discarded jeans, headbands, and T-shirts, finally found a crumpled white cotton off-the-shoulder number. I put it on, wrinkles and all, with my one pair of Bernardo sandals; prayed to the party gods I would pass.

Just before we turned onto Daniels, a fabu red convertible, top down, sped by. A shortish blond man with aviator sunglasses waved. “Hi, Kelsey.”

 He waved back.

“Who was that?”

“Truman Capote. Lives in a garage a few houses down. Tru borrowed the name Golightly from a neighbor who lived nearby on Cemetery Lane. Miss Golightly.”

I’d brushed with my idol. New trivia to boot. Super plus.

The party was in Water Mill, yet another in a strand of towns, each with its own flavor, so far mostly vanilla, connected by a string — Route 27. 

The 200-year-old house was set amid the fields of Hayground Road, “North of the highway,” he told me, as opposed to “South of the highway. Like the West Side to the East Side.” Everyone was dressed to the nines. Caftans abounded. Kelsey’s arm candy, I was ignored. Totally. A newbie, no longevity or pedigree. I accepted my fate. Same as it ever was anywhere; new blood was unwelcome. Got it. I’d have to make my bones. I was up to the challenge.

As we drove back in dense fog, top up, unexpectedly chilly, I had to borrow Kelsey’s pink jacket. He talked of our Sunday agenda: Southampton, which he described as “major WASPy mansions, hedges”; Sag Harbor — “the only real old whaling town, cramped, cheap, perfect for writers, typewriters”; East Hampton’s “swan pond”; the Springs, “Pollock’s grave, deKooning’s studio, wide open spaces for artists to spread out for a song.” If we had time, “Lobsters at Gosman’s Dock and fishing boats in Montauk.” 

I weighed the day, tantalized by tomorrow. Laughed. In the pink. 

Susan Israelson, a poet who travels between the Hamptons, San Miguel de Allende, and Paris, and the author of “Lovesick, the Marilyn Syndrome” and “Water Baby,” an unpublished novel, wrote this story in memory of a late friend, Kelsey Marechal.