Do you want to know what year people stopped smiling and saying “hello” as they passed one another on the sidewalks of East Hampton? That would be the year of our Lord 1994.
I know this because I boarded a Malev jet home to J.F.K. at the end of my expat sojourn in Budapest in 1995, and — as a prodigal returning with a new (jaded) perspective — was in a position to notice that a few things had changed along the roadside. Someone had added irritating extraneous words to the names of businesses down the length of the Long Island Expressway: “Quogue Corners, a Country Inn” or “Mein Hair, a Unisex Salon.” There were confusing advertisements on the bus driver’s radio for things that no one had felt the need to produce ads for previously, like Claritin antihistamine tablets and The New York Times. Silver maple, tulip tree, American elm, beech . . . the trees still joined arms in a hallelujah chorus arch as you rounded the corner to Main Street. But new lampposts with brighter bulbs had been installed, making the highway look, from the windows of the Jitney night bus, like an airport landing strip. The change I was most affronted by was a subtle shift in manners that revealed itself in the morning as I walked upstreet, jetlagged and in search of a John Papas iced tea: None of the well-dressed strollers out for a perambulation or dog walk returned my nod or smile. No one said anything politely inane in greeting (like “It’s going to be a hot one!” or the unanswerable “How are you?”).
Our demographics had tumbled over the tipping point in 1994, which was evident in these small non-gestures. The average person out walking along Main Street was now operating, in 1994, not by unspoken and unconscious Bonac codes of public-space civility, but by Manhattan codes: Look down and avert your gaze, as you do on the subway. Don’t make eye contact. Only crazies talk to strangers.
How to manage this disruption to the good manners of Main Street, I still haven’t quite figured out . . . and nearly 30 years have passed. For a long time I’d persist in smiling and nodding, idiotically and perhaps a little passive-aggressively, at the person passing, who often did not return the nicety but kept their attention fixed on the shrubbery. I still frequently say “Good morning!” to someone who cannot hear me because they are wearing podcast earbuds and want to be left alone with Michael Barbaro.
Main Street, between Town Pond and Hook Mill, is my songlines. (That’s a Bruce Chatwin reference. Do you know his book “Songlines,” about human wandering and how we build stories into the landscape, creating a map and narrative as we move? I suspect I have said this before. Oh, well — perils of writing a weekly commentary! You should read it.) I plied a daily route up and down the west side of Main Street from about the age of 8, thwacking fences with sticks and throwing horse chestnuts still in their pronged and needle-sharp casings at my brothers, chatting with fellow classmates on the hoof. I knew the texture of the bark on every tree and could anticipate every ramplike split in the concrete of the sidewalk suitable for catching air when pedaling a 10-speed. Some of those personal landmarks from the late 1970s remain, some do not.
The houses along Main Street are all still there. As is the mailbox in front of the Star office, on top of which I perched to watch the Fourth of July parade, though I don’t think a child has cooled the backs of their thighs on its metal in decades. The silver maple into which someone carved my initials and those of Milo McFarland in the 1970s, on the northwest corner of Dayton and Main, died several years ago and I’m told a Princeton elm will soon grow in its place. On the southwest corner of Dayton and Main, the tree I crashed into while attempting “no hands” on my bike — to impress a party of diners headed into the 1770 House restaurant — survives. The white-shingled Huntting family home opposite the Presbyterian church, where my great-grandmother was raised on Victorian novels and molasses cookies, looks the same (if you can spy it through the thick screen of rhododendrons). Every time I pass that place I think of the Ouija board we employed to conjure ghosts, sitting on the floorboards of one of the upstairs bedrooms. We never made contact with my late great-great Aunt Minnie, but spoke at length to a chatty spirit who said he loved Hawaiian shirts and had died in a car crash in L.A.
Memory preserves vignettes that cling to most of the commercial buildings on Main and Newtown. A teenage prank gone wrong at Mark, Fore & Strike at 87 Main (now Intermix). The mood ring I bought with allowance money in the wonderfully atmospheric Whitman Gallery at 53 Main (now Compass real estate), where you could buy a floral china service and porcelain knickknacks or have your mantelpiece clock repaired. The Star had a charge account at Marley’s Stationary Store at 51 Main (now Corcoran Group real estate), and I stopped by after school to charge a Chunky chocolate bar or a cherry Charms Pop and perhaps some Double Bubble or an Archie comic book. That went on for years and no one ever said a word.
East Hampton as a community is known for overindulging in nostalgia, and it can be annoying.
My topic here is a bit annoying.
Our sophisticated friends aren’t entirely wrong when they point out, wearily and with a flick of metaphorical Gitane cigarette ash, that nostalgia for the world of your childhood is stupid, and that things almost certainly weren’t actually better back then — that nostalgia is a trick of psychology, puerile, et cetera and so on.
Even so, call me a cornball, but I will persist in believing that public life, life on Main Street, was better — friendlier, balmier and palmier, more fun — in the 20th century. Most of us who are old enough to remember the community feeling of Main Street didn’t ask for its transformation into an open-air marketing zone for international corporations. The changes were a byproduct of tourism, a vertiginous rise in property values, and “economic development,” but, I.M.H.O., that mode of business development is outmoded and old-fashioned. While it mightily benefited a few property owners, financially, it didn’t do much economically or socially for the rest of us. It just left us feeling angry and alienated.
Since I first wrote about the Anchor Society, the nonprofit I founded in the spring, 72 readers and strangers have taken the time to get in touch to voice their support for our scheme of founding a general store — with not just 5-and-10-style merchandise but also services like shoe or small-appliance repair, or tailoring — in the heart of the village. Seventy-two! That is a large number, if you stop to imagine the bother involved: putting down the newspaper, putting on reading glasses, squinting at the printed page, and typing the Anchor Society address into an email.
The motto of the Anchor Society is “Fostering commerce that serves community.” I don’t think it’s naive to believe we actually can do this. Take off your black beret. The general store concept is not about stepping backward to some fantasy of the past. It’s about going forward — onward into a future where the needs of human beings are part of the retail equation. It’s not nostalgia. We are going to buy a building, and find an operator for the general store. You will like the general store. There will be morning nods, neighborly smiles, and “It’s gonna be a hot one!”s all over the damn place. If this sounds good, please join the Village Preservation Society and the Anchor Society this evening for an important update on our progress at 5:30 via Zoom, using meeting number 883 1691 8915 and passcode 510949.