As I sit at my desk, with winter playing its cruel hand outside my warm cocoon of a Southampton home, a story pops into my head.
It’s about a local man who works with the rod and the reel, and the only way he can afford his 46-foot downeaster (a name given a style of northeast lobster boat due to their hull design) is to sell his house. The boat is called the “Alexa.”
Fishing is all he knows. He’s a Bonacker, and his father before him was a Bonacker. But he can’t make a living as a bayman anymore, so he heads for deep water and sleeps little.
Depletion of the fish stocks and increased regulation make it harder to make a living, and now he has to troll far out in the canyons of Atlantis.
It was a tough decision, but there is no other way he can pay the bills and feed his children. As he says, “Like all the locals here, I’ve had to sell my home.” He adds, “Too proud to leave, I’ve worked my fingers to the bone.”
Maybe it’s true that the East End has gotten too expensive and the only ones who can afford it seem to be the rich and famous. He so eloquently states, “There ain’t no Island left for Islanders like me.”
Of course this story played out more than 25 years ago. Can you imagine what it must be like for commercial fisherman today?
By now you probably realize I’m referencing “The Downeaster Alexa,” the third song on Billy Joel’s eleventh studio album, Storm Front, which reached number one in 1989. The name “Alexa” refers to none other than the Piano Man’s daughter Alexa Ray Joel.
On July 28, 1992—just a couple years after releasing his ode to East End commercial fishermen—Joel was cited for participating in a protest supporting our local baymen in Amagansett.
Sometimes on these cold winter days it’s nice to sit back and remember the past. So maybe it’s just a song by one of my musical heroes, but I think it’s so much more. It is a representation of where we have been and what we have become, and a warning for the future.
This song reminds me that we should honor the hard work and sacrifice of the fisherman who live and have lived this difficult life. In cemeteries up and down the East Coast, there are numerous headstones of fisherman that bear the words echoed in the song: “I Still Have My Hands on the Wheel.”
Hey, Billy—thanks for making me remember not to forget.