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Small-Town Nonsense

Mon, 07/08/2024 - 11:57
East Magazine illustrations

One day last summer my friends M and J approached their usual dune-of-choice to lounge, scroll, chat the afternoon away at the sliver of East End oceanfront beach that stretches for over 30 miles from Montauk to the Shinnecock Inlet. They habituate their bit of choice sand out of sentimentality and proximity; J’s single mother raised him along that beach, having designed and built a small cottage for them a mere Wiffle ball’s throw from it (back when small East End beach cottages cost in the loose vicinity of a Wiffle ball), and he and M now spend as many summer hours there as possible.

As the couple approached, they noticed a small collection of rental-type ballroom chairs set up on the sand, creating a narrow center aisle, leading to a driftwood huppah festively adorned with wildflowers. M and J stopped to read a large handwritten sign taped to the back of the ballroom chair farthest from the huppah: “I am genuinely sorry to inconvenience you, but our son grew up in this neighborhood and is getting married today, and my gift to him is being married on our glorious beach. Please forgive our intrusion. Thank you for allowing me to give this gift to my child.”

M and J were touched by the romantic setting and heartfelt note. J, having lost his mother years earlier, found particular resonance in the moment, as they relocated a handful of yards away from their usual spot in order to give space to the ceremony.

One year later, M and J meet a neighbor on that same beach who mentioned her son grew up and got married there. Realizing who she must be, M explained they had seen the setup a year earlier and were deeply touched by the sentiment and gracious sign.

The neighbor was appreciative to meet with belated well-wishers, because, as she went on to explain, at the actual wedding a year earlier she was met with repeatedly annoyed beachgoers, giving her a hard time; one calling her “audacious.” Although the wedding ceremony elapsed in less than an hour and encompassed only a 30-by-12-foot stretch of sand, those voicing their disgruntles that afternoon were upset about inconvenience: stepping a few feet out of their way to reach the surf.

I sometimes share this story with folks who don’t frequent the Hamptons, who are uniformly dumbstruck. Yet the readers of these pages will likely recognize the familiarity of the situation, acknowledging it with head-nod eyerolls. Or, as a dear friend familiar to these parts best articulated, “Yep, small-town nonsense.”

I didn’t grow up in a small town. But in the megalopolis where two misguided adults thought it a good idea to raise me, there was plenty of nonsense. There was the woman in 8E who unscrewed each menorah bulb in the annual holiday lobby display, insisting the religious candelabra’s blaze (tantamount in wattage to my Easy-Bake oven) was a fire hazard. There was the Madison Avenue Baskin-Robbins employee sporting a tight hair net tamping down the dense curls tangling atop his head, who plunged his scooper so deep into the drums of ice cream his matted arm hair emerged each time coated in Rocky Road, Pralines n’ Cream, Snickerdoodle. . . .

Look, people anywhere can behave oddly, but East End nonsense flies a unique flag. This aesthetic paradise, cut off from diverse civilization at one end by a long, often onerous roadway and kissing the Atlantic as it flirts with Scotland on the other, self-amplifies its inherent cachet. Once here, you are simultaneously stranded and delivered.

To stumble upon enough good grace to be here, one unconsciously dons rose-colored eyewear — the indescribable natural beauty drowning out, initially at least, the incessant leaf-blowing, traffic, surge-pricing, and other inconveniences. Examine any positive closely enough and the negative begins to bleed through. Leaves fall from trees, so to luxuriate beneath the shade and majesty of a grand sycamore you need to deal with the removal of their inevitable detritus. But is this not the Side B of any wonderful? The attenuated negative?

Nonsense, however, is a different animal.

Nonsense is the otherwise-avoidable negative. One neighbor of my first house in Bridgehampton invited me over for cocktails while I was still unpacking boxes. Happy to meet the strangers sleeping a mere 10 yards from my bedroom, I ambled across the invisible property line separating our yards, merrily passing back and forth a bottle of that year’s Beaujolais between my hands as I went. The meet-and-greet happened quickly, dispensing of first and last names but not arriving at occupations, before I was ushered speedily to the back, to “address” some trees in my yard growing higher than my neighbors had, apparently, ever imagined.

I gazed up as they pointed accusing fingers at their increasingly blocked view of sky. As they spoke, I listened to the birds rustle and sing within the reddened leaves. The neighbor pulled out a scrapbook of sorts; an album comprised of bushes and shrubs they offered to purchase for me if I agreed to remove the glorious copper beeches I had planned to string a hammock between. This was my first home out east, my first encounter with such nonsense. “Trees grow. . . .” I mumbled, heading back to my house — my still corked Beaujolais orphaned on the front porch of neighbors I spent the next years avoiding.

If you’re not careful, avoidance becomes a recurring theme in these small-town settings. When I signed my son up for T-ball, his coach, an affable middle-aged owner of the car repair shop servicing my red Chevy pickup, asked me out on a date, while I froze momentarily in that breach of church and state, directly after the first game. I recovered, ascribing his forwardness to the fresh 1-to-0 win he had shepherded the 4-year-olds to moments before. I declined, for personal reasons I didn’t share, assuming that would suffice. Yet after every game and subsequent practice the coach made his way to the parking lot before I was done buckling my son into his car seat, each time suggesting we get a drink, or dinner, one time inventing “an ice cream date” as he called it.

“Do I have to tell Coach X I’m queer so that he stops asking me out?” I’d imagine writing to The New York Times Ethicist. “No — why should you have to come out just to say no, ” advised my pal D (whom I often use as a moral barometer instead of actually writing to the Ethicist). Was my lack of interest in Coach even due to my being queer? It was not. It was that I simply had absolutely nothing in common with him except an evaporating interest in my offspring hitting a ball perched atop a stick. Toward the end of the season, the coach turned sour in my direction, suggesting I find a different place to get my truck serviced. Really? Fortunately, there is a plethora of auto shops in the area, and I was able to avoid the coach for enough years that when he next saw me in public, we both had wives.

I chalked it up to more nonsense.

I have a friend who beat someone in a swim race when she was 9 years old. Thirty years later my friend takes her poodle for a checkup at her veterinarian’s office to find the breaststroke opponent she’d bested at day camp, now the receptionist. Trying to say hello all these years later, the receptionist stared blankly, and ... wait for it: REPEATED THE SOCIAL AMNESIA EACH SUBSEQUENT TIME MY FRIEND HAD AN APPOINTMENT. Whenever my friend called to schedule, the receptionist required her to spell her name. Twice. Nonsensical? Maybe. Nonsense? Entirely.

I don’t recall any of our kids being in swim races when matriculating through their various East End day camps (perhaps because they were raised in the unfortunate anti-competitive era of the participation trophy). But one hot August Thursday when I arrived at end-of-day pickup at the camp (that’s also a school whose name rhymes with “boss”), I noticed counselors scurrying, their eyes wide and unblinking, no one returning my smile. The director of the camp, whom I knew well, explained that Celebrity Parent S had shown up to collect her kids only to be told by a fledgling counselor whose humor lacked either judgment or delivery, that her kids were “misplaced”— but she shouldn’t worry because “they usually turn up before nightfall.” Celebrity Parent S went berserk. Eventually finding her progeny, she immediately un-enrolled them. Asking how the comedic counselor was being dealt with, I was told, “Are you kidding? Do you know who his father is?”

Celebrity culture is just part of the nonsense out east; businesses keep the Jimmy Fallons happy because people want to eat their sushi where Jimmy Fallon eats his sushi. If you ask me, the nonsense comes into play when “celebrity” is stretched like a balloon before a clown tries to inflate it. Last year a case was settled over a local parking lot brawl between a 32-year-old and an 18-year-old in which the younger man suffered head injuries requiring hospitalization and stitches. The facts worth examining in the aftermath pertain to the imbalance in the ages, socioeconomics, and race of the two men. But the singular reason the case vaulted from the police blotter to national front pages? The older guy was the nephew of Meryl Streep. Nonsense. . . .

Another story malingering in the news, for over five years now, is the dispute concerning the monuments placed along Sunrise Highway by the Shinnecock Nation. While the uproar was often camouflaged as an aesthetic issue, the utter nonsense of this is such thinly veiled racism as to be translucent. There’s abundant other signage and advertising (and some oversize replicas of action heroes) along the heavily trafficked stretch of roadway entering the Hamptons; this is commercial Long Island, not billboard-free Vermont or pristine Montana wilderness. The monuments have drawn controversy since their inception, though the local businesses advertising on them produce revenue sustaining Shinnecock youth programs, elder programs, and a preschool. Many people aren’t aware Native nations operate independently — having to finance their own infrastructure, including roads, bridges, housing etc. One person who is aware of this though is New York State Attorney General Letitia James, who has not ceased her legal battle against the Shinnecock Nation over the monuments.

Which perplexes, because during the pandemic the state enlisted the monuments constantly for free-of-charge public service announcements disseminating information, promoting social distancing, and facilitating vaccines. Post-pandemic, Ms. James commenced suing — costing the Shinnecocks hundreds of thousands of dollars that should otherwise be going toward their infrastructure and social services. And who pays for James’s continued litigation? New York State taxpayers, which include the Shinnecock Nation members! So, examined more carefully, only the Shinnecock double-pay for the lawsuit; they are financially liable on both sides of the case as defendants and taxpayers. Say it with me: nonsense.

Local businesses navigate the nonsense by catering to those expecting to be catered to. There’s the gym that turns all the TVs to CNN during one high-level member’s treadmill time and conversely to FOX News during another member’s time. Noticing this bizarre practice unfold, I asked the manager why they didn’t consider PBS or History Channel as a nonsectarian solution, only to be met with an exasperated you-have-no-idea eye roll. A restaurateur friend constantly fields the looking-for-a-discount, “What are you going to do for me?” question. An East End pharmacist I know shares his examples of nonsense with me by texting real-time direct quotes from his customers:

“I’m sending an Uber for my prescription; I need someone to meet them outside.”

“I know you’re closing in five minutes, but wait for me, I’m in traffic.”

For several years my spouse and I owned and operated a boutique motel, where we were ticketed for stringing blue lights around a tree to keep drunken drivers trying to feel their way home from crashing into it. We repeatedly fought the tickets, saying the lights potentially saved lives, before ultimately being told we could only keep the lights for the holidays. When we cited other businesses near us using Hollywood-premier-level voltage year-round, a village official told us, “Well, there’s religious freedom . . . we can’t
dictate how long some people celebrate the holidays.”

Property is so valuable in our little towns, home ownership can outperform one’s actual business. A rich advertising honcho I know told me, “The most money I made in advertising was when I sold my East Hampton house.” Though flouting local ordinances to do so, operating an Airbnb is how many non-billionaire locals make ends meet. One notable artist friend told me that if they were prevented from renting out their garage-turned-guest-cottage every summer, they would be forced to move away. “And yet,” my friend exclaimed, waving her paint-stained hands about, “I’m among the ‘names’ real estate agents mention, enticing their clients to consider multimillion-dollar homes in my neighborhood. Make a decision: You want me here or not?”

Eschewing the Airbnb pratfalls, my spouse and I endeavored to sell a small cottage and adjacent plot of land we owned that we no longer used (the cottage had served as a studio for our film business back when camera and editing equipment didn’t fit neatly within a millennial’s knapsack). We were surprised when a newspaper reporter called to say he was writing a story about the “graveyard” on our property. Concerned that the misinformation would delay or inhibit a sale, I endeavored to share the facts with the reporter: In the 1800s, before a town cemetery was built, a family buried seven of its deceased members in a vault on their property. After the cemetery was completed, they exhumed and relocated all seven. This was a not-un-common practice of the era.

Unfortunately, no version of this simple truth pleased the writer. He sought “a ghost story,” as he said, and tried getting me to conjecture if “spirits might haunt” the property. “Have you never imagined a bloody hand reaching up from the yard?” he asked. I said we’d owned the place for 20 years and the only spirits were remnants within broken whisky bottles we cleaned out of overgrowth when making space for our kids’ trampoline. The reporter insisted he would “warn the public about potential ghosts.” The reporter trespassed on our property to take photos on his phone but said the resolution wasn’t high enough to use, so he ran a stock photo of an old graveyard instead, not identifying it as stock. The publication and perpetuation of the story made it next to impossible for us to sell our cottage. “You need to sue the town,” all our friends said. “If my life span were 200 instead of maybe 95, I’d consider suing,” I’d say. We eventually sold to someone who lives far away, who thankfully wasn’t afraid of ghosts, or nonsense.

My friend E lives in one of the very few remaining neighborhoods out here where a humble cottage requiring a cosmetic redo can still be grabbed for under a million dollars — a charming enclave of small angular lots abutting one another, with mismatched abodes exuding simplicity and individualism. E meanders through her neighborhood daily, posting photos to her Instagram account requiring no hashtags: a parade of gnomes, a miniature toothpick drawbridge, wind chimes crafted from vintage Pepsi bottles, weather vanes with characters donning Santa hats in winter and sunglasses in summer. A practice the neighbors within E’s enclave have is leaving things they no longer want on the outermost edge of their front lawn, signifying FREE (no sign required). It’s how my friend got rid of her kid’s outgrown boogie boards and how she procured her mini firepit. Now there’s a petition to ban these items being placed on lawns. Isn’t it the right of every homeowner to leave a 1980s Trivial Pursuit game on their own property? Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

When my spouse and I blended our families and moved our two youngest kids to the public elementary, we were clear and open about what our family looked like and what our children call us. Nevertheless, our kids were constantly told to take things home to their “mom and dad.” Meeting with their teacher, we cited their previous school sending home things addressed to “the family of x,” thereby covering single-parent homes, grandparent-headed homes, etc. The teacher smiled and nodded in our direction but refused to evolve her practice — so we met with the assistant principal, a Technicolor Ward Cleaver type, who updated the policy, and our kids felt a little more seen.

I never thought about the classroom teacher who struggled to acknowledge the shape and texture of our family after the school changed its correspondence format, but that teacher never ceased thinking about us. As a subsequent member of the local historic preservation and architectural review board, they once stalled our painting the exterior of our house mid-primer coat, saying we had not adhered to the Benjamin Moore historic-color-within-the-historic-village rule. We had. My spouse showed up before the town board, color wheel and paint chips in hand, to prove we were within our rights. Before the chairperson removed the stop-work order and allowed our half-painted house to be completed, the former teacher leaned over and made one more attempt, shaking their head and saying the color still looked “off.” For the record, our house was painted Benjamin Moore HC-151, also known as “Buckland Blue.” But our family will forever call it “Lesbian Blue,” as our private jab at the magnitude and outsized power of small-town nonsense.


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