I POINTED the car due west and gunned it. I was aiming for the fabled Hamptons, home of so many famous authors, ducks, mansions, potatoes, beaches, fabulous parties, wet swimsuits and tony, tawny, tan and tweedy women. I wanted it all. The sky was leaden, the air chill. But my heart sang, Hamp-Hamp-Hampton, it throbbed. I took a right on 34th Street and soon found myself in eastern Long Island.
And to think that only scant hours before I'd been a soot-covered drudge chained to a desk in a dank hovel in western Manhattan. I had not been outside since November 23 and held little hope of ever feeling sun or air again. Then came the mysteriously enticing call from the east. "The Hamptons," it whispered seductively and before I knew it I was out of control and scuttling crablike to the car rental.
Of Hamptons reality I had only meager acquaintance. Once I had held in my hands a raw Long Island potato and looked it square in the eye. As a child I'd once seen Lionel Hampton on "The Ed Sullivan Show." That was about it. But from the tales of returned travelers I was imbued with the Hamptons mystique and had spent in fantasy countless hours trading quips at Bobby Van's with Willie Jones and James Morris, frolicking in the golden dunes with Lauren Bacall and cracking open a zesty baked capato with Truman Patote.
And so it was that I hied to the Hamptons and roamed the highways and hideaways and escaped with only minor injuries and made it back alive to tell you what I saw. Which was this: 27 Divided by 27 Equals One
It's easy to find your way around the Hamptons because basically there is only one road there. It's called Route 27, although it's also called Route 27A. Sometimes they are two different roads and sometimes they are the same. And sometimes they are the Montauk Highway. Anyway, I soon found that by staying on 27(A) I would eventually pass every single town in the Hamptons worth passing and I would also pass Quogue. The only place 27 won't get you is Sag Harbor and for that all you do is turn left anywhere on 27 and in eight minutes you will be in Sag Harbor. A right turn anywhere on 27 will get you to the beach in two minutes and 40 seconds. Joe the Bartender
The bar's sign gleamed from out of the darkness of East Hampton. I pulled in because I'd heard you had to drink a lot in the Hamptons. Joe the bartender was off and talking immediately. He indicated with pride the splendid view of the harbor. I tried to appreciate it but outside the windows it was pitch black. Business was slow that weekend. Cold. Joe sang "Old Man River" as he poured fluids. In 10 minutes of smooth narrative flow, he told me his entire life story. He'd quit his airport cargo job and his big-city life and moved east. His wife was so upset she left him for a year. But she came back. He bought a small piece of land he was lucky to find what with the prices shooting up, a Hamptons tragedy. Hell, the very sons and daughters of the Hamptonites can no longer afford to buy land of their own. But Joe loves the freedom out east. His kid can go fishing after school. So much better than where they used to live. What urban squalor was that? Bronx? Jersey? Pittsburgh? Nope. Huntington. First Try, Beach
Another day. It still felt wintry, but there came a time when one knew one must beach. If you haven't beached, you haven't hamped. Warily, I circled Sagaponack like the great white shark, then drove straight for its soft, quivering, sandy underbelly. The beach was crisp and nearly deserted. A woman padded by carrying firewood. A small plane flew low along the desolate shoreline. It had the feel of middle Ingmar Bergman. What the hell. I went down and cavorted merrily in the sand like a demented oyster, not quite glad to be alive. Best I could do. It was too cold to shed clothes. I lay down on a blanket and closed my eyes, pretending to be in a Bahamas TV commercial. Actually, it was warmer on the sand. The wind wasn't working that altitude. I attempted to commit sunbathing. Perhaps my nose would tan. The sun copped a plea. It phoned in a few febble rays, then duckled behind a cloud, embarrassed by its impotence. I tried to read a newspaper to see if I could find one theater in the Hamptons playing anything other than "The Greek Tycoon," but the wind hunged for it. I think it wanted the classified section. We wrestled inconclusively. Then a sane word occurred to me: Enough. I left the beach. Open 24 Hours
Everyone talks about Bobby Van's but who tells you of the Holiday Grill? I found it myself. HG is located, naturally, on Route 27. It is the Grand Opera of diners. Forget the food; you go there for the sound effect.A feast of decibels. What clatter! What cacaphony! The cook crashes the dishes down at his little window, then a waitress crashes them down on the counter, where yet another waitress picks them up and crashes them down on her tables. There are at least three waitress per customer and they are all straight out of "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." They gripe. They wisecrack. The manager curses. "Where are the goddam home fries?" "Dolores dropped the juice." A woman patron cracks under the strain and blurts the obvious. "This is the noisiest diner I've even been in," she qvetches. "Ahhh, ya know ya love it," says a passing Alice.
Unbelievable. Don't miss it. Motel Notes
I stayed in the motels of the Hamptons. There was one in West and one in South. Both on 27. There is nothing to say about motels. Mine always have knotty pine walls and nubby yellow bedspreads which when even lightly brushed against deposit thousands of tiny yellow lint nodules on your corduroys. These cannot be casually whisked off but must be picked. One by one. There is nothing to say about motels. Moby Duck
The Hamptons are full of giant surreal objects. These pop out at you unexpectedly wherever you go, massive cartoon artifacts that can startle and cause you to go temporarily insane and veer off the road in alarm and possibly lose your life. The most common is the windmill. Windmills are found all over the Hamptons. I'm sure there's a good reason for this. The one in Sag Harbor is dedicated to John Steinbeck. I don't know whether John Steinbeck considered this a compliment or not, since windmills have a certain con-notation of futility in literature. The most bizarre big thing out there is the duck. It is hard to keep your mind on the road when you are passing a giant white duck. I figured it was too late to help and kept going. Near Westhampton I saw a large pink castle and near Southampton two large mock tempees. I heard there was a big white Famous Author in Bridgehampton but I never found it. Pomme Detour
Between Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor, I saw it. A potato field. True it was now naked but it would some day foment tubers. Oh to crumble in one's own fingers the rich, dark, God-fearing claylike loam of the Hamptoms, that which nourishes the honest, unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth L.I. spud. With a wild cry, I braked the car and raced soilward with childlike abandon.
Once scorned as a staple of the undiscriminating starving class, the potato has been redeemed by sour cream with chives and TV commercials that explain it doesn't contain as many calories as you may have though. Excitedly I careened down a steep, weedy incline toward the nude brown furrows, only to become entangled in the flora and crash full on my rhapsodic noodle. It came to rest on rough cloth, a sack of some sort. I focused and saw a potato bag. So help me, it read: "Goldeneye Brand . . . Maine Potatoes . . . Caribou, Me."
Staggered, I staggered back toward the car. Maine potatoes in a Hamptons potato field? What manner of chicanery was this? Is the Hamptons potato industry a hoax? Or is the Maine potato industry? Is someone smuggling hot potatoes across state lines on dark back roads? Grimly resolved to investigate this travesty I stuffed the incriminating burlap under my shirt. But it itched and I threw it the hell away. Let Jack Anderson pick up on this. I had smaller fish to fry. Aura of Calm
An aura of calm passed over me as I rolled down 27. First I drove past Soporific Bicycles in Bridgehampton. Then I came to The Complacent Cook. Finally, I went by The Quiet Clam. It was then that I fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a large windmill.The Hamptons can be deceptively quiescent. Arty Party
Beards hovering over chablis. There they were at last, the Famous Authors. In fact, one was wearing a nametag reading "Famous Author." This was at Elaine Benson's Gallery. It's on Route 27. She threw a party. What is it with writers and women named Elaine? I saw all the cars outside, I went in. They charged me $10. It was a benefit for a new library that can only be used by writers
The party was out back among the sculpture. There was also wine and cheese and books. The writers were autographing the books for people. First, though, you had to buy them. It was cold. The wine kept me warm. A woman asked me if I was a Famous Poet. I denied it. She searched on.
I looked at the Famous Authors and the widows of Famous Authors. They looked like they wished they were at Bobby Van's which is across the street on Route 27. I started to wonder what was wrong with me that I didn't have a famous book to autograph. I autographed a cheese. No one bought it.
You could see that the famous were being careful not to say anything obnoxious ar stupid because they knew the place was probably full of journalists and gossips eager to note any fatuous remarks and expose them to ridicule. Thus it was a dull party, except for one woman who told an artist that artists aren't bright and intimated to a newspaper guy that she found him ill-informed and stomped off in a huff. Doubtless there will be more of this sort of thing later in The Season but one had to be thankful for what one could get. Nobody's Perfect
I saw Bobby Van. He was sitting in Bobby Van's. Someone pointed him out to me. He was the one with the red checked shirt over the belly. He was sitting at the bar watching a fight on TV. They say he's a Juilliard dropout, but the question is, is he a celebrity? I think so. He's sort of famous for serving the famous.
I went into the men's room to visit the graffiti. They were sparse. Looked like a recent paint job. One said to me, "Lassie kills chickens." Another replied, "Nobody's perfect." Things You Can See In the Hamptons
People riding horses into town. People hitchhiking. People bicycling. Lots of ancient-looking cemeteries. Everywhere lie distinguished dead people. Houses on stilts. Water. Water is very big here. Inlets, harbors, bays, ponds, canals, bathtubs and Mama Ocean herself. If you don't like water, forget the Hamptons. Is this the kind of thing you want to know about? I'm new at Baedeckering.
Also everywhere are aliens. The thing is that virtually everyone in the Hamptons is an outsider. The husband of a Famous Author told me this. No one was ever born here except for Carl Yastrzemski and he moved to Boston. Everyone else first came for the summer, even the Shinnecock Indians, whose winter reservation was originally on East 64th Street. The newcomers, like the Normans of 1066, imposed their culture on the natives. The natives were ducks. The invaders rearranged Hampton society into an elaborately subtle caste system of sharers, groupers, daytrippers, permanent residents, permanent summer residents, temporary help and entrees with orange sauce. This is the way it was explained to me. Whathampton
But what is a Hampton exactly? After traversing them for days, this question arose. Obviously, East Hampton is one, as well as Bridge, South and Westhampton. But is Sag Harbor? Is Montauk? Is Hampton Bays? Also, why is there no Northampton?
While pondering these mysteries, I suddenly realized I had never actually seen Westhampton at all, even though I'd stayed in a motel putatively in that burg. But there was no "Village of Westhampton" to be seen. Apparently no great loss. No one in the Hamptons ever mentions Westhampton, so there's probably nothing to see there. Oh dear, I've gone and libeled an entire community. Well, it's their own fault. Why weren't they out on Route 27 when I drove through? Caesarian Section
Are the rich different from you and me? Certainly. They can afford to live in Southampton. I could afford to walk in Southampton. It was nice enough. There were benches on the sidewalks in case you got tired from the weight of your charge cards and there were charity women selling geraniums on the steps of the police station. Everyone looked kind of depressed because it was too early to get a tan yet.
I walked into Silver's not knowing it was a cigar store that serves pirozhki. In fact, I didn't know what was pirozhki. But I tried one and it tasted fine - Better than you could get in most cigar stores, I'm sure. Silver's seems run by a large family that counts the day's receipts right in front of you and also paints the pictures on the walls, though not while you're eating your pirozhki. Also members of the family like to come in and tell other members that they're not working today.
Refreshed, I strolled into Job's Lane, where the street signs say, "Opened in 1664, So Don't Try Anything Funny." I walked past stores that made my wallet bleat. The kind of stores where the name of the place on the sign out front is followed by names of towns: Boca Raton, Naples, Palm Springs, El Dorado, Shangri-La, Oz. That tells you everything. You Keep walking.
I kept walking. I walked into a garden next to a library and suddenly I was in ancient Rome. There was Caesar Augustus peering out into Job's Lane, apparently trying to hail a taxi. Sixteen regal heads sat before him in glum silence. The original cast, so to speak, of "I, Claudius." And behind the rest of them, next to a brick wall, was Julius Caesar, staring balefully at Augustus, probably jealous that Augie got top pedestal. What a find. What symbolism. Why this was more exciting than the Big Duck. I'd had no idea that the Caesars summered in the Hamptons. No one would tell me why Domitian's head was missing, though I thought I saw Caligula smirk. I jabbed a finger in his evil eye but he never blinked. The Hamptons are full of unfathomable mystery. Southern Comfort
Out beyond the stores and Caesars of Southampton was the Rich People's Housing Project. Big fat houses reclined behind tall sculptured hedges. The rich have greenhouses too and excellent grass and pastel trees, not the ordinary green. Signs on the roads say that the speed limit of 30 is strictly enforced, a hint that the long eye of the cop is on the neighborhood. I drove by the houses. They stared back insolently. They had good posture and style and dignity. They had breeding. They didn't have a thing to say to the likes of me. I saw two people raking a lawn. Outside of that, there was no sign of life whatever in the Rich People's Housing Project. Natives Are Restless
I eavesdropped consistently on the locals. They didn't know I was a tourist.The Season hadn't officially started yet, so they didn't expect me. This is why I'd gone early, to beat the rush. I heard it gets crazy in The Season. But my timing was nifty, for an amazing thing happened during my stay. Summer came to the Hamptons. I was there the instant it happened. It rolled across 27, like everyone else. Gray skies cut to blue and Big Sol discoed out into the open and in a hundred ponds the ducks quacked in glee and the spud seeds heaved tender shoots against the inviting earth. And a feeling of warmth spread over me. No kidding.
And the locals I was eavesdropping on in a cheesy-basket-healthy-snacky store in East Hampton (on Route 27) were talking about getting out before the season starts. About how awful it, would be then. Then traffic. The horror of it all. But then there was the sun. I went outside and everything was cheering up. And I thought, hey, the Hamptons might actually be a nice place to spend the summer, if you had a big house and a car and a bunch of friends to talk to fondle and you didn't mind occasionally being run over by zonked-out gestalt psychologist in a Subaru on your way across 27 to buy a sip of Perrier at Melon's. Or a slice of melon at Perrier's. Sun of a Beach
And so back I went. To Southampton's this time. Out Main Street past the Rich People's Housing Project, drawn irresistibly to the salt. To meet summer in person. It was out there somewhere beyond the high hedges and stately edifices. And I was it. "The Sea! The Sea!" as Xenophon once put it. (He was a sharer in Amagansett.) Blue sky, tan beach, blue sea, yellow sun. It was all there. The sunners were out and preening. A fat woman was leading toward the surf something white on a leash, either a tiny dog or a small marshmallow. Some kids were driving up in a van with two surfboards on top. The surfboards looked like sharks. They had dorsal fins. It was summer in truth if not on calendar. People were coming to see if the beach had come back for another year and it had.
And as I stood on those sunny sands, a strange sound came to me, barely audible over the Om of the zennish surf. I strained my ears and recognized the low murmur from the west. It was the sound of thousands of pale heads cranking in my direction, the sound of psychic ignitious turning over, of a myriad of winter-wizened wiseacres eyeing their chi-chi bikinis and Foster Grants. Their votes came to me from the upper East Side, from the saloons of Second Avenue, from Bloomies and Saks, from Center Moriches and Speonk and Yaphank and heaven knows where, and they were all moaning "Hamp-Hamp-Hamptons," with a growing urgency. Before you knew it, they would be upon us, just as the locals feared, stampeding across Route 27 to open water, chomping their way through Silver's pirozhki supply. "Hamp-Hamp-Hampton," they chorused. I knew it was time to get the hell out.