Once upon a time there was Brooklyn. Until I was 17 I lived in Bensonhurst about a mile from Sheepshead Bay, a part of the borough still so remote it hasn’t even become hip yet. Most New Yorkers think of that area as just a place on the way to Staten Island. When I lived there it felt like the center of the world.
Women in my neighborhood were carefully coiffed and manicured, wore the most stylish coats and the foxiest shoes. The energy on the corner of Bay Parkway and 86th Street where we hung out crackled, blazing with the combined life force of trophy winning high school football players and cinematically gorgeous cheerleaders. The butcher had the best meat according to my discerning granny, who frowned at 99 percent of the melons she’d ever squeezed. Sandy Koufax went to my high school. I think Barbra Streisand grew up nearby, but no one had heard of her then.
When I moved to Manhattan, I looked on a map to locate Bensonhurst, my home town that felt like the center of the universe. And I saw it at last for where it really was. It was remote! The Tierra del Fuego of Brooklyn!
The urban blight in my universe was gritty and extreme. Lafayette High school was so overcrowded there were actually students whose “assigned seats” were the window ledge. The graduating class had SEVENTEEN HUNDRED students. No wonder I couldn’t remember who’d graduated with me.
We smoked pot and drank beer under the “el” on Bay Parkway. It was the late 1950s. No one there arrested anyone for doing that back then, not there. I think the patrolmen were relieved we weren’t being abducted in dark side streets. The alleys were shadowy crevices where rapes were not uncommon and knifings in the schoolyard were a close second.
Ponds? Swans? Ducks? Daffodils? Tulips? Windmills? BUNNIES??? White picket fences with pink roses climbing them? Ivy covered cedar shingles? Dwellings for which Miss Muffet herself would apply for a mortgage? Habitats of this sort were the stuff of illustrated nursery rhymes. This was exactly my impression when, for the first time, we made a left on 27 to pass Town Pond, the striped awnings of the Maidstone and the sloped roof of Miss Amelia’s Cottage.
This is a tale of how I fell in love with the Hamptons and the man who brought me here and where I remained when we parted. I do believe it was the Hamptons with which I was having the deepest romance. This love letter to the Hamptons began unfolding in 1975 and continues to be written in my heart as of this day.
It all started because I was a rich man’s plaything. Well…not involuntarily! I welcomed the opportunity to be taken care of in extravagant style by someone I so truly loved. He was generous with his fortune and with his many talents. He had a passion for entertaining, could create feijoada for 14 people, and arrange to have musicians play Brazilian music.
I loved his capacity for joy. His enthusiasms were many and would crescendo in response to ordinary moments. The angle of the light slanting across Fireplace Road making the asphalt sparkly and purple thrilled him. He took delight in such simple things. First thing each morning he’d look out the window at Accabonac and say, “These are the halcyon days.” (I’d never heard anyone else actually SAY the word “halcyon.”)
In addition to having ensconced us in the waterfront house and a big Daysailer we sometimes slept on, he taught me about gardens. The first time I saw a Kwanzan cherry tree blooming in front of Ashawagh Hall its pink fluffy gloriousness changed my breathing. I needed to have one. He got me three. I became intimate with the varying purple and blue shades of veronica, and delphinium, and learned the Latin names of foxglove and hollyhock. I’d never been within sniffing distance of lavender or sage. Who from Brooklyn knows from lavender and sage?
On weekends we shopped at Richard Camp Antiques in Wainscott for 100-year-old pine furniture shipped over from England and Wales. Camp is there no more. This was in the days when there was a shop on Main St. in East Hampton called Pets Painted with Love, which was right next door to where one of the big Ralph Lauren spaces is now. (In that big Ralph Lauren space was the LVIS Bargain Box! Yes!)
I received gifts of stunning Art Deco jewelry. Enchanted by the charm of the Topping Rose House as we drove through Bridgehampton, the shady canopy of dogwood blooming over Old Stone Highway, and the lushness of the duck pond on David’s Lane, I did not, at first, notice the coincidence of the presentation of the jewelry with his late arrivals home from “work” before leaving Manhattan on Thursday nights to avoid the weekend traffic bottle-necking at Manorville.
I was content. The swans breakfasted on eelgrass at the edge of the marsh, friends joined us for nibbles from Dean and deLuca. Years later, there was Barefoot Contessa offering Moroccan spices with which to cook chicken tajine. He taught me the names of the waterbirds: skimmer, heron, osprey, tern. “One good tern deserves another,” we’d joke cornily. “Miss Otis Egrets she cannot join us for dinner at Georgette’s.” Remember Georgette’s on Three Mile Harbor? Even the most crouton-phobic models couldn’t resist the bread.
We’d spend long dreamy afternoons lazing around in the sun on the sailboat on Gardiner’s Bay. They were halcyon, those days…until I left him.
No one in my family wanted me to leave him. My practical Greek grandmother who grew up penniless in a small mountain town on the northwestern border of Greece only inches from Albania was horrified to hear of the plans for divorce, pointing out that he’d given me beautiful places to live and had bought me thirteen pairs of shoes on our honeymoon in Italy.
I had the trappings of what immigrants would define as safety. But I felt trapped in the fairy tale that this was a “true” marriage. Miss Muffet had grown up, wanted out of the nursery rhyme.
So leave him I did and it was torture. I had no money and no car. Living at the end of Fireplace Road in January of 1986 in the dinosaur days of no computers, no cell phones, no Facebook (and with the loss of electrical power, no landline) was beyond understanding as I think back now. “Oy,” as the Brooklyn girl that I am would say, and did.
However, I owe my former former spouse (yes, two husbands back) my gratitude. Without him, I would not be living in East Hampton on Fireplace Road at the edge of Accabonac Harbor among the egrets and herons, blue claw crabs and dragonflies, in the warm embrace of a community I imagined existed only in the heartland of the midwest.
The small townish quality of the village brings a sense of coziness to the simplest encounter. At the IGA check out counter it’s a pleasure to talk with Julia about her son who is serving in the army overseas as she bags coffee and apples. The folks at Sam’s Auto take care of vehicular breakdowns preventing emotional ones. A year-rounder is appreciated as a consistent visitor to retail stores, and it is wonderful to be recognized, welcomed in each one.
I laughed when I read the police blotter in my first copy of The East Hampton Star. It was hilarious to read accounts of the “crimes” here. One report said that someone had broken into the pizza place in Amagansett and 35 cents was taken from the cigarette machine. The Fort Pond Boulevard home of a woman had been burglarized. Missing was one frozen chicken. Huh? These were crimes? Adorable was what they were.
I couldn’t care less about beaches. There are beaches all over the place. But none of them are blessed by this demographic. With its appeal to visitors from all over the world, I can meet exotic people from everywhere without having to go anywhere. In the Hamptons, exotic people come to me. Therefore, I love “the summer people.”
Even with its intimidatingly wealthy inhabitants who own private jets and several cars each of which cost what a house would in “normal” regions, our town has not lost its innocence. I still don’t know what a tuffet is, but I know what hummock when I see it. There is still not a single day when, driving past the pond and the historic buildings at its edge, I don’t marvel that I live in a fairy tale village. No corporate retailing can ever destroy my love for the beauty of this place, or diminish the sweetness that fills my heart when making that (sometimes in traffic, long-awaited) left turn.
This essay, “The Life and Times of Miss Muffet: A Love Letter to the Hamptons” by Eve Eliot, won the 2014 Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction. To read more entries from contests past, visit literaryprize.danspapers.com.