The third in a series of essay readings by nonfiction writers at the Southampton Inn took place in the middle of a snowstorm last Saturday night.
The event, part of the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize competition for 2014, began at 5 p.m., about seven hours after a huge nor’easter hit the South Fork and began to dump what would be half a foot of snow on the area. Plows were out. Traffic was slowed to a crawl. The police and fire people were out attending to several fender benders nearby on the Montauk Highway, but nevertheless, at the proper time, the people came.
They settled into the grand living room of the Inn, just beyond the front desk, where a lectern had been set up in front of a roaring fire for the three readers. There was a free hors d’oeuvre table and a cash bar off to one side. People came in the front door, stamped the snow off their shoes, and it began.
The first reader was Mark Chapman of East Quogue, who read his essay “Journey to the East.” Chapman comes from Scandinavian stock and his father had been a seaman during the Second World War. Chapman’s essay sketched his teenage years when his father first took him out to the eastern end of Long Island from their home on the Great South Bay in a tiny 13-foot lapstreak sloop. It was a day sail and they got as far as Shinnecock Bay. Chapman recalled what the East End looked like from the boat as they skimmed across that bay, passing fishing boats and pleasure boats.
Five years later, in a much larger boat—his father had been successful in, among other pursuits, editing editions of Roget’s Thesaurus—they took numerous trips beyond Shinnecock Bay in their boat named The Saurus, which the family had hoped his father would not persist with but did. They explored Gardiner’s Bay and the various harbors, and on one occasion they anchored in a becalmed ocean off Amagansett and Chapman went ashore for supplies in a rubber boat. His description of the people talking on the beach, the sound of portable transistor radios and the happiness of ocean bathing were the further subjects of his essay. Today he lives in East Quogue next to a marina that lovingly restores old sailboats.
The second reader was Kristen McConnell of Brooklyn, a registered nurse, who in “Stitches” described a time when her very young daughter fell and needed stitches while they visited the author’s parents in the Hamptons. The daughter had fallen not once but twice, and in the end required 17 stitches in her face and head and 7 stitches in her lip at a hospital emergency room visit here. As a nurse, she was fully covered by insurance, but as she soon found, there was a discrepancy between what the insurance paid—which was $4,000—and what the hospital and doctor billed, which was an additional $10,000, that the insurance company said it would not pay. “This is how people lose their homes,” she said. In the end, the insurance company did pay it, but it took a year of negotiating, and the episode highlighted for her the very out-of-whack situation in medical costs today.
The third essay was called “Full Circle” and it was read by its author, Dr. Nick Kardaras, who teaches in the Psychology Department at Stony Brook University. Kardaras described growing up in the city and graduating Bronx Science High School and then going into the restaurant business in New York. It was a world, he said, of drugs and bad people, and at one point he almost died from an overdose. Recovering, he decided he could live or die, and he decided to live. Having made that decision, he went on through college, got a masters and PhD, got married and had twins—both his children, now 7, and his wife were there to hear this essay.
At one point about two years ago, he got an email from someone who said he had found Nick’s high school ring. Nick said he barely remembered ever having one, and he thought he lost it during a night of partying upstate. Now, apparently, here it was.
It turned out that it was found by a man with a metal detector at a crime scene, outside a retail establishment where a murder had taken place. The man had been looking for shell casings. He found the ring, with Kardaras’s name on it, in three feet of dirt. At this point in his reading, Kardaras held it up. He wondered why this ring had come back to him from his wayward former life he would rather forget.
And then, a short time later, he experienced another lost and found. He had been swimming in the bay and, while swimming back to the steps of a dock, the wedding ring he’d had on his left hand fell off. He was in four feet of water. He dove down. He could not find it. He returned again and again to the spot, diving down to no avail. He did this for another year. His wife told him to give it up. But he persisted. Finally, he happened to meet a man who owned what Kardaras said was “the most powerful metal detector on the planet,” who he persuaded to go to the spot. The man found the ring in 10 minutes. And Kardaras held his hand up to show us. There it was. What did it all mean? He raised this question when his first ring was returned. But he knew what it meant when he got the second, and with that, he ended the essay.
Further Dan’s Papers Literary Salon readings will be held at the Southampton Inn this spring. The next will be in March, shortly after the 2014 Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction opens for entries. The winner will take home $5,000 and two runners up will take home $500 at an awards ceremony to take place at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton on August 24.
To see highlights of the 2012 and 2013 Dan’s Literary Prize awards ceremonies, go to literaryprize.danspapers.com.