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The Shipwreck Rose: Scratch and Sniff

Wed, 09/28/2022 - 18:04

Maybe it's our Puritan heritage, I don't know, but East Hampsters as a collective are accomplished at not talking about unseemly things. I've mentioned my own attitude toward this semi-Calvinistic semi-prudery in a previous column: Being a curmudgeon, I am actually an advocate of it, in general. I don't think it was an improvement to society when Americans, circa 1993, began boastfully talking in public about the amplitude of their farts, their armpit stenches, and things they had deposited in toilets with their trousers down. As I'm always admonishing my children: Drop "S" bombs all 'round yourself and the smell of doodoo-caca will eventually start clinging to you. 

Sometimes, though, a smell is more than just a smell, and we need to lift up the rug and see what's festering. One such stinkeroo — and, my point is, I find it curious that no one talks about this topic, and that's why I'm bringing it up -- is the pong that radiates down to the village from Dump Mountain when the wind is from the north.

Last Thursday was muggy at midday just before a hard rain began to fall, the temperature falling fast, and the aroma of dump hung like a miasma over the village as I navigated my Honda through the traffic on Newtown, having picked up a salad-bar salad at the East Hampton Market on Race Lane. Perhaps you don't know what I'm talking about, but . . . have you ever noticed an unaccounted-for, unpleasant, somewhat sweet and sickly smell hovering over North Main Street or Main Street, a smell that made you stop to look at the soles of your shoes or cast a glance around for, perhaps, a decomposing raccoon by the roadside? It is not a strong smell, but you cannot really miss it; a whiff akin to the one that seeps from under your kitchen sink when a scented bin liner fails to mask the odor of three-day-old chicken-dinner scrapings? That is the dump. That is the lightly fouled air coming from the East Hampton Town Recycling Center, some 2.2 miles north-northeast of the intersection of the Prada and Versace boutiques.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the dump and am not trying to lodge a complaint about it. I’m just marveling at our capacity to pretend that eau de dump isn’t a thing. (Just as we never speak of the population of rats, rattus norvegicus, that inhabit our most expensive neighborhoods.)

Being oversentimental about almost all aspects of the hometown of my youth — another weakness of East Hampsters, as we all know, nostalgia, is a propensity to indulge in (ahem) long-winded nostalgic reminiscences — I have fond memories of the dump, actually. When I was a kid there was a sort of smaller Dump Mountain, a dump hill, on which people threw larger pieces of junk that sometimes really were treasure, and you were allowed to crawl up the hill to scavenge. I once retrieved a beautiful, turquoise-colored bicycle from the 1950s that had a functional battery-operated headlight and horn. Another time, a vintage enameled prewar bread box in flawless condition. Other families of our upstreet social ilk might have shuddered publicly at the thought that their children might go spelunking at the dump, but not mine: “Old things, ipso facto, are more valuable than new ones”: That’s the motto in Latin on our heraldic family crest (which features, at the top of the escutcheon, a broken Federalist-era armchair that no one will throw out above a harpoon that pierces a right whale below, on a checkered field of teal and marine blue).

For a long time you could bring your unneeded-but-still-serviceable goods — your ceramic-clown lamps and ugly 1950s colonial revival rocking chairs, the ice skates and Parcheesi boards the family never uses anymore because the family is plugged into TikTok and Netflix on an intravenous drip, 24/7, instead — to an exchange area at the East Hampton Recycling Center, but word around town is that this exchange enclosure will remain closed indefinitely because habitués were hanging out there all day long, hovering like vultures, coming to blows over pickers’ rights to the junk, and backing their cars in and out recklessly, endangering the health and well-being of other dumpgoers as well as employees. That’s really a shame.

Circling back to the eau de dump, now; there certainly is a metaphor here.

Because the dump’s neighbors on the “wrong” side of the tracks, in the triangle between Three Mile Harbor Road and Springs-Fireplace Road, are treated to this aroma on a near-daily basis. Whether anyone else within about a three-mile radius — residents on the “right” side of the tracks — can smell it depends on wind direction and (a totally unscientific survey says) on the air quality, humidity, and dew point. Not to beat you around the head with it, but, to plainly spell it out: We — the well off, the well insulated (insulated from ugliness, insulated from hunger and pestilence), we in the cushioned seats — have the luxury of simply ignoring the mess we have made of the environment with our catastrophically excessive habits of consumerism and waste, but not everyone has that luxury.

Most of the time we can go about our business blithely and willfully ignorant that something is rotten in Denmark and Freetown. But sometimes, when the barometric pressure falls, the smell spreads.

No one called the north end of the village “Freetown” when I was younger, but apparently that’s what it was called back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and whoever assigns names on Google Maps got a hold of this factoid sometime around the year 2000 and revived the geographic designation, so we see “Freetown” again on digital maps. Freetown, which — and I’m no expert, but so I’m told — is the area from the Long Island Rail Road tracks running north up in the direction of the dump. It was called that because in the days of slavery, free Black and Native American people were not allowed to live near the grassy, green, and leafy commons at the center of the village, but were shunted away to the sandier, less lush and loamy north end of the village. And naturally, this less than prime real estate, populated by those without much power, is where the dump was sited. It isn’t a coincidence that when the Long Island Rail Road opened the Montauk branch in 1898, it ran the tracks along this previously invisible boundary line.

(It’s almost mystical. We are all subject to these invisible forces and powers. Maybe more under the influence of the invisible forces of history when we don’t speak of them or even acknowledge they are there. But isn’t it amazing that, hundreds of years later, we continue to take this dividing line for granted, as something natural, as the way it should be because that’s how it always was? We take it as a matter of course that any less-than-savory — any smelly, noisy, or disruptive — business or industry should be sited in the area of Freetown, well north of the village green. Car wash to be proposed? Put it by the gravel pit. Bus depot? Ditto. Affordable housing? Shunt it to the north of the tracks. Hmm.)

In the winter, when the trees are bare, you cannot just smell Dump Mountain when the wind is right, but actually see Dump Mountain, quite prominently, rising up in the vista behind the Hook Mill. Have a look, when the leaves have fallen at the end of November. Think of that! Hook Mill, the actual emblem of our village, embroidered on hats and emblazoned on stationery and municipal seals, has a mountain of refuse rising behind it. That is either a travesty or hilarious. Let’s go with hilarious.

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