Last year I took a buddy of mine down to the harbor. He was visiting from Cooperstown, New York where he’d lived his whole life, and where I had grown up. We stepped out of my car in front of the always formidable Dock Restaurant, and my buddy goes, “Whoa.” I thought he was expressing his shock for any one of The Dock’s unholy ornaments stapled to the wall or hanging eerily in the trees like the playthings of some horrible child giant. “What?” I asked.
“That smell,” he said. I drew in a breath and I knew what he was referring too. It was the smell of the sea. I guess it’s something I don’t notice anymore—the smell of water, of nets just coiled in from the deep, of guts, a briny, acrid smell, something both dead and alive. I had the reverse sensation when I travelled back upstate. Mine was a reaction to the smell of the living mountain, the torrential creek, and corridors of pine needles between the pines.
I didn’t say “whoa,” but it’s what I was thinking as the nostalgia soared in me like a hawk.
My friend Lonny’s reaction helped to ground me. The Montauk Harbor, in my opinion, is the thudding heart of Montauk. The sea smell is somehow stronger here than on Montauk’s relentless southern shore. The silvery bounties of the Atlantic are delivered here first. Locals are drawn in to be in the company of other Montauk lifers. You’ll find some of the best drink specials there, like the 4 p.m. happy hour at The Dock, when beer is $1 and good company comes cheap. It seems that visitors are even starting to figure out there’s even more to the Montauk Harbor than Gosman’s and Ben and Jerry’s, they just don’t know exactly what it is. It’s something palpable yet intangible. Visiting the harbor and being near the boats, one experiences the thrill of having entered into an old way of life that has not lost its connection to the earth and feels a loyalty, a pride for it without ever having lived it. In writing this I’m trying to understand my own attraction to this wild place. But I know that there will always be too much mystery here for me to ever unlock in a lifetime, which is fine, and I’ll remain in awe of it. I think there’s something fundamentally disappointing about figuring out a great mystery anyway. When something can be understood then that thing instantly loses all of its power, mystique and beauty, i.e. the Tooth Fairy.
The hype continues about the fancy bars in town but it’s all so superfluous to me. If people want to come here for that stuff alone then they can continue to miss the point. Montauk only opens herself up to the people who are sober enough to like her without her makeup on and so she will never be completely accessible, except to those who like her for her smell, and the way she looks in the winter, and early spring, and tolerates her rowdiness in summer. I serve people in a restaurant who like to tell me how long they’ve been coming out to Montauk. That used to annoy me when I was younger and angrier. But now it inspires “whoa” in me. It’s grounding when I am complacent.
At the annual blessing of the fleet, I watched a town convene in the harbor for one of Montauk’s greatest traditions. There was food and drink. A lot of drink. The deck at Swallow East swelled for Reggae Night as the band URI took charge of the evening. The boats unmoored from the docks and the party spread out onto the water, as if in celebration of it. Festivity could be spooned from the air like Cool Whip, and URI was taking it to the next level. I can only imagine what the band sounded like from the water. The snare distorted. The keyboard, too. But the bass thudding through intact, impervious, like the heartbeat of a town.