“Well, I was born in a small town / And I can breathe in a small town. / Gonna die in this small town / And that’s probably where they’ll bury me.”
Anyone who, like me, still listens to the radio while driving will recognize this song by John Mellencamp because our local stations love to play it, probably because it’s a paean to the many small towns and villages that dot the East End, the Indiana of Mellencamp’s birth, and so many other parts of our country.
I have been coming to East Hampton since 1980, yet another of the many “summer people” who have sought refuge from the city stress and heat here. Though only 8 at the time, and an utter stranger in a strange land, I remember feeling instantly at home here. I loved East Hampton from the start.
The first thing I did was learn to ride a bike. My sister and I would cycle up and down Hollyoak Avenue and the other roads that radiated off Church Lane, and soon met lots of neighborhood kids. Despite being “city people,” as they called us, they took us into their fold. On Friday nights we would arrive and immediately go to Patty’s house to play “home free” with her, Terri, Barbara, Tommy, Erin, Christine, Billy, and others. I still remember the thrill of walking unaccompanied in the semidarkness, breathing in the fresh air, no nervous parents hovering over us. This, I supposed, was life in “the country,” and I embraced it with the zeal of the recent convert.
Of my first years here, the memory of my friend Patty and her family is especially vivid. A few years older than me, Patty was the youngest daughter of a large Puerto Rican family. I remember summer afternoons hanging out in Patty’s frilly room, when suddenly her dad would return from a day’s work. He would open the screen door, walk in, and silently settle down in his easy chair. As we stuck our heads out to say hi, Patty’s mom would, also silently, deliver into his hand a frosty, golden can of beer.
I was usually too shy to talk much to Patty’s parents, but I liked them. They welcomed me into their home, always offered me a snack, and never asked pointed questions about my city life, as some parents sometimes did. In those days they were among the few — if not the only — Latin Americans in town. Part of the charm of going to their house was that there was always a twinkly-eyed, muscular older brother who would swing around from time to time, whirl their tiny mom around in a hug, and crack a joke or two with us girls. And Patty’s older sister was always trying out intriguing cosmetics and skin-care rituals. It was fun.
Sometimes Patty and I would ride up Accabonac Road, loop around, and turn onto School Street. We’d stop for a contemplative moment in front of the Springs School, where I would gaze longingly, wishing that I went there, too. Then we’d go to Barnes Country Store, where the lady behind the counter would stand, arms crossed over her chest, eyeing me as I browsed the penny candy and picked up a New York Times for my parents. Patty and l would watch as she rang me up briskly before turning to other customers with whom she would exchange Bonacker jokes and local chitchat that I couldn’t understand but wanted to. Before One Stop or the reopening of the Springs General Store, it was the only convenience store around, so I went there a lot, always hoping for a glimmer of recognition or warmth, which of course never came. Her many unspoken gestures told me — reminded me — I was an outsider.
As time wore on, we settled in. Patty got a job at a guesthouse, and I at Sedutto, where for several years I happily scooped ice cream with my sister and a gaggle of long-haired girls like ourselves. Well . . . not exactly. Among Sedutto’s staff, there was also a clear distinction between local and summer people. My sister and I fell somewhere in the middle because we always came out on weekends, and enduring those slow, cold autumn days, when customers dwindled to a trickle, earned us some degree of local credibility with our supervisors, two local gals who relished making city kids squirm under their command. I recall more than a few who balefully turned in their green aprons, banished from our kitchen club, because they were unable to cut the proverbial mustard. I think they ended up at golf courses or tennis clubs, and they always disappeared after Labor Day.
I, too, eventually disappeared. Sometime after high school and college, I left for Spain and then Latin America, where I have lived for over a decade. But so many years on, I faithfully return every summer despite the long and costly pilgrimage I must make from Chile.
Over the past several years, while I migrated to South America, a multinational Latin American community has established roots here. As I drive around town, I fiddle with the radio and keep hearing that old John Mellencamp song, but find myself becoming reacquainted with a new East Hampton. I see trucks and vans emblazoned with Spanish names, shops with Quinoa Pop and frozen tamales, different faces and accents and haircuts. Is this the same East Hampton I knew as a child?
No, of course it isn’t. Yet it is. And when I walk into the Latin American shops, I sometimes wonder whether to speak Spanish or English, and sometimes I am regarded with a suspicious eye. Who is the outsider and who is the insider now?
In the end, there is always someone who was here “before.” Before me were the Bonackers, before them the English settlers, and before them the Indians we call Montauketts. And then, when I ride my bike through Northwest Woods, I cross paths with deer and turkey that remind me that there are other inhabitants that may have a more rightful claim on the territory than any of us do.
So perhaps we are all guests in this great hotel of life. Personally, I love prowling through the Latin American markets here and finding real dulce de leche. When my phone screen shatters I can get it replaced quickly and amiably by the cellphone fixer who holds office hours on North Main Street a few days a week. I love seeing Spanish last names mixed in with the American ones in articles about local athletes and scholarship winners. These are real, concrete contributions to East Hampton that help to counterbalance the inauthentic, ersatz vision of America that is hawked at so many Ralph Lauren stores on Main Street.
It feels ironic that East Hampton, known to the outside world for the decadent pleasures of the mostly white 1 percent, has in fact become something of a melting pot. At a time when so many American cities are boiling over with heat, aggravation, and tragedy, as well as racial tension and mistrust, the thriving Latin American community here gives me a ray of hope for America — particularly the small-town America John Mellencamp sings about and says he can breathe in.
Just the other day outside the post office, I saw a lady who looked just like my friend Patty’s mom, sitting in the passenger seat of a car. She looked exactly as she did 40 years ago — if it was really her. Then, like a ghost, she was gone. And that image, along with those John Mellencamp lyrics, is what I’m thinking about these days in this small town.
Kristina Cordero is a writer, researcher, and translator who lives in New York and Santiago, Chile.