I remember what he said as if it were yesterday and think about it often. I was a youthful helper to a true craftsman. I was about 18, and we were installing a low bookcase in an oceanfront Shingle Style palace in Water Mill. As I struggled to scribe the top board to fit the slightly uneven wall, my boss, Sandy Bainbridge, looked over, paused, and then said, “Don’t eff it to death.” Only he did not exactly use the word “eff.”
What Sandy meant was clear enough, though, and has stayed with me to this day: There is a point of diminishing return in every aspect of everything that we do, and once crossed, especially obviously with wood, you risk actually doing real damage. I doubt that he had meant to give a life lesson; more likely, he thought I was about to screw up his pristine work and he was calling me off, albeit memorably. But it was one of those little moments when something someone casually says can change your trajectory for good — an accidental mentor.
I have been thinking about the big ideas that we unintentionally pass on to younger people a lot. Over the past several months, I have been part of meetings between the Plain Sight Project and the Guild Hall Teen Arts Council about how to memorialize the enslaved and formerly enslaved people of color who lived, labored, or died here in East Hampton Village from the mid-17th century well into the early republic of the United States.
The students who meet at Guild Hall regularly are taking an increasing role in the work. This week, I hung at the back of the room while J.J. Veronis, an artist who works in metal and who has come aboard to guide them in making individual bronze plaques with the names of the enslaved, taught them how to stamp letters into metal using individual punches. Some, it seemed to me, had never even held a hammer before.
What these young people took away from that, J.J. and I will probably never know — at this point, the kids might not either. Yet there is a chance that some half-sentence, some passing thought, could change the arc of their lives ever so slightly, the way Sandy did for me all those many years ago.