Standing beneath the hot July sun, only a few feet away from where he parked his Dodge van, Ronald Grzybowski gazed up at the Intuition II, a gleaming blue-and-white yacht from the Cayman Islands, anchored right at the edge of the Sag Harbor marina. Expressionless, with his hand over his brow, he watched the deck hands scrub the boat and then glanced back out towards the parking lot.
“Even if I could have one of those, I wouldn’t want it,” he said.
Ronald is no stranger to the cul-de-sacs of McMansions, the traffic on Route 27, or the seasonal parade of city folk to Hamptons yellow-sanded beaches. The son of a potato farmer, he grew up in Southampton and spent his childhood hunting pheasants and helping out on his grandfather’s farm. But over the years, his family’s land, which once spread out across the fields of Mecox and off of Hampton Road, has been sold off parcel by parcel. Ronald never made his living as a farmer nor did any of his six siblings. He’s spent the last 37 years working as a carpenter, building decks, kitchen cabinets and whatever else his hands could do in just about every pocket of the Hamptons: north of the highway, south of the highway, in the woods of North Haven, in and around Sag Harbor, and out farther east, towards Montauk.
There have been good years and bad years. He’s watched money pour into his town, and money means new additions, renovations and repairs. It means work seven days a week, and the work means income and stability.
“We wouldn’t have the quality of life we have here if it wasn’t for the big houses and the people,” said Ronald. “We’ve kind of survived a lot better than most. In some parts of the country if a factory leaves or something gets set down, then the town dies. We’re fortunate we don’t have that. We have the people, the beaches, the water.”
Ronald tells me this over a sandwich at a picnic table by the harbor. He has light blue eyes, an angular nose, and mottled skin from years of working outside in the sun. His thoughts are expressed plainly, matter-of-fact, without resentment. Nearly every other sentence could be followed by, “It is what it is.” A Zen-like acceptance of the circumstances.
“I have no problem with the changes. There is no way I can stop it. Do I miss all the farmland? Yes. But the town has gotten pretty smart with them buying development rights so not every bit of farm land will be like Levittown.”
Even with 80 miles between New York City and the town of Southampton, Ronald has felt the impact of the recession. Soon after the economic crisis, construction slowed down and work dried up.
“When the stock market went down, it came to a real slow crawl.”
Ronald says it isn’t only the economic crisis that has hurt his business, it’s also the competition he’s facing from illegal immigrants from Central and South America who are bidding lower on jobs. While he sees this as a serious issue for the town, he also understands the cyclical nature of immigration. His own grandparents had emigrated from Poland and arrived in Southampton in search of work during World War I.
“I don’t blame somebody for coming to this country and work hard,” he said.
A few minutes later, Ronald paused and added, “If you want to work, there’s work. Sometimes you go dig and scratch for it and look for it, but there’s work.”
Ronald lives in a house he built himself in the woods north of the highway. It is a veritable patchwork of his handiwork. Beneath his deck is a large pile of lumber he cut from an oak tree that he found in Southold.
He walks over to a smooth tabletop that he just finished sanding. It is blond, unintentionally modern, with gentle curves that resemble a wave. He hasn’t quite figured out the right legs for it. After nearly four decades as a carpenter, Ronald is transitioning into a new line of work. He’s trading in houses for furniture design and stained-glass work.
“I like the carpentry but a lot of it is getting harder to do because I am not 22 years old anymore. And the competition is very competitive, and working alone—my son is helping me on occasion—but there is a lot I can’t do. Stained glass I can do rain or shine, doesn’t matter. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I like the thought process behind it,” he said.
In Ronald’s living room and bathroom, stained-glass panels of landscapes and of women washing each other’s hair hang on the wall. By the kitchen are two long tables made from a cherry tree that he cut down from his father’s yard. The tabletops rest on old Singer sewing machine tables in place of conventional legs. He’s begun selling his furniture and stained glass at fairs and is now thinking about how to make this his full-time job.
He wonders if it would make more sense to relocate and pursue the furniture and stained- glass work somewhere else. Maybe down South—somewhere that is easier to maneuver, somewhere that is less expensive.
“To get off the Island is a process here, whereas if I were to move to Delaware or Maryland and set up a shop down there, I have a lot of outlets I can reach in a short amount of time.”
But Ronald can’t imagine leaving the Hamptons for good. It’s where he grew up and raised his kids. It is where he has worked his entire life.
“There are a lot of places I want to go, but there’s no place I really want to move to,” said Ronald. “No matter where you go, there’s going to be issues. It doesn’t matter what part of the country, what town you go, what city. There are going to be things people like and don’t like.
I think we’ve seen the best of the best out here and now it is not so much as it was.”