Paradise Lost

Memorial Day weekend nowadays signals the beginning of the inevitable Super Summer Season, wherein clubs, restaurants, grouper houses, ritzy name brand stores and real estate agencies embrace a frenzy that is basically self-invented in the hope it will be self-fulfilling.

For many of us who call the East End our home, we have to hearken back our childhoods to recall exactly what it was that made this such a special place, and we recall those simpler times to stir the embers and rekindle that flame.

For a kid from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the wait was a long one. Having been weaned in Sag Harbor, it was difficult to return each Labor Day to the inner-city turmoil that was Brooklyn, especially being accustomed to the rural simplicity that still can be experienced here, during the winter, at least.

From our modest whaler’s home in Sag Harbor, Enrico Forcucci, my grandfather, would walk down to Sag Harbor Cove a few yards away each morning. There, a cornucopia of treats awaited that found their way to our table – conch, spit clams, eels, crabs and whatever fish was running: flounder, striped bass, bottle fish, snappers and waves of weakfish, which would stream in by the hundreds for a few days and disappear just as suddenly.

That all came to an end when the mayor and his cronies dredged the cove to create solid ground for their new nightclub, and in the process ruined Sag Harbor Cove forever.

On his modest one-acre land Enrico had a goat, chickens, grapes (and thus wine), apple, pears, figs and a full garden. As he got older, he eventually was forced to shut the house down during the winter to live with my aunt in Brooklyn. That transition was made to facilitate his failing health, but I fear it only hastened his death.

Like a fish out of water, Papa floundered and died a year or two later, his heart ripped out by old age and the cursed bad luck of being stuck in Brooklyn. He and I, both making the best of a bad situation, were kindred souls in Flatbush, much like the summer he agreed to tend to me so I could stay in Sag Harbor while my parents worked in the city–he sensed my love for the old homestead.

My time in heaven began anew, like a blooming lilac, each May. I lived for that first trip home to Sag Harbor, enduring countless fistfights, bullies of every description, perverts and con men, and every other type of sordid character that made Brooklyn Brooklyn. It was not pretty. When I think of Brooklyn I think of the stench of urine for some reason, because the buses, subways and alleys all shared that characteristic.

The first day back was tear-jerking. The old homestead, then and probably now, smelled like Papa. Within the old beds, cold and damp, lurked the danger of any number of assorted insects, though I never found one in my sheets. As summer drew near mosquitoes, wasps, gnats, flies, hornets and wood ticks, and later in the summer, the ever-present crickets, lived side by side.

I remember waking early and going outside. The dew was moist. Birds chirped. I’d take “the long way” around the block to my friend Bobby’s house, rather than cut through the brambles in the backyard, to savor the smell of the bay and the freedom the country offers. My baseball mitt, oiled and tied with a ball in the pocket, had already been uncoiled, a forlorn night in February rendering my vow to keep it wrapped all winter wistful in its hopelessness.

We’d walk up to Mashashimuet Park where the others were waiting to play. Everyone in Sag Harbor had a nickname, which made the characters more memorable. Chet “Mondu” Page, Teddy “Buoy” Babula, Craig Larsen (the legendary “Bull”), John “Blimp” Pino, Joe “Lit” Burns, Gary “Rama” Simonson, Dan “Chicken Little” Sabloski, Bob “Screamer” Ratcliffe, and so many others. The names were mostly disarming, not like Brooklyn, where sinister types were named “Snake Eyes” and “Razor” and other ominous monikers.

The first time I uncorked the baseball was orgasmic: the first time I caught it back, the sound of cowhide meeting cowhide echoed like a timbale.

Later we’d hit The Paradise for a soda and an “atomic hard roll,” grab a Newsday–it came out in the afternoon then–and check the box scores.

When it got dark, we’d sit outside and listen to the ballgame while the adults drank Manhattans and talked about the old days in Sag Harbor.

I still sit outside on my deck in East Hampton most every night during the season. I can still smell the water. I can still hear the crickets and see the bats, which I tell my city-bred wife are birds, knowing she will recoil in horror should she learn the truth.

I can’t recapture my youth. But I can help, in my position, to preserve the little magic that is left, that feeling that we are in paradise, we are blessed to live in a place most people only see on television.

I was a tough little Brooklyn punk with a foul mouth. I had to be, because I died inside every day of my life there, knowing utopia was a dream away, and it was going on without me. I had to be tough to survive or the despair would have broken me.

I haven’t caught a baseball in 30 years. I used to run like the wind–now my knees creak when I bend over. The old homestead is gone and most of the family members who lived there and loved it are dead, buried together at St. Andrew’s cemetery. It’s been 50 years since Papa died.

Enjoy the summer. Forget all the tourists and visitors and remember why you’re here. Trust me, it’s a fleeting joy.

Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

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