Four Stationary Walls: The New Nomads of the East End
by Kara Westerman
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is a story about falling through the cracks.
My first real job in 1994 paid $25 an hour, and aside from two weekly teaching gigs, that is still my hourly wage today — a good wage in The Hamptons— 23 years later.
The things that fall by the wayside — health and dental care, housing, food, transportation — have now become luxuries. And I’m constantly juggling.
Those of us who followed artistic or socially responsible paths are totally in denial when we think we are middle class. The middle class were able to thrive. We are only surviving. To call us elites because of our education and cultural savvy is laughable.
I grew up thinking I was middle class, but I have been surviving on a poverty level income and a poverty mentality for a great portion of my life.
Here are some stories you might never have heard about the new nomads in The Hamptons — people with oodles of education, who are so close to falling between the cracks that their lives are lived in a state of near emergency.
This story was originally a podcast that had a difficult time finding a home. It was a little too touchy. It found a second home in print when the editor of the East End Beacon recognized herself in the story, and I asker her if she would add her secretly shameful tale about living out here against all odds. She seemed relieved to finally be able to tell it.
What started as an audio piece about three amazing women I knew turned into four, five if you count me in — women who were managing to thrive despite the housing shortage and despite having modest incomes.
It started by asking a simple question: How were they managing to survive?
All of these women are beautiful, smart, and have a self-deprecating sense of humor that has undoubtedly helped them through many a crisis. Living on the South Fork without earning partners, saddled with education debt, struggling to succeed in their careers, trying to find places to live, to keep up this false front, and falling $100,000 dollars short of their “middle-class” peers is exhausting.
There is a lot of shame involved in talking about this, and most of them did not want their names used.
I came to this story because I had been falling through the cracks and I couldn’t figure out whether it was me or the amped-up, hyper-capitalist system I was attempting to live in.
But this story is also about our worst fears. I’ve nailed down my worst fear. It’s being that lady pushing the shopping cart with all of her stuff.
When I started working on this piece, I lived in a ten-by-ten foot room. I am 54 years old, and this story got really personal.
Beth: “If you think I have a Hamptons lifestyle, then you don’t know me.”
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome twenty years ago, as a young single mother who had to leave her partner, there weren’t many choices available to Beth, at least she didn’t perceive them at the time.
She has deep roots here — her ninth great-grandfather founded the Town of Southold in 1640 — and it never really occurred to her to go somewhere else, where life might have been easier.
“I had a job, and a son…and then, spring came, and I was in a winter rental,” she says.
This is an all-too-common tale.
A sailor in Sag Harbor suggested she live on a boat during the summer, since she couldn’t afford the summer rental prices on her salary writing for the local paper.
“I found a boat in Rhode Island in horrible condition, but they only wanted a thousand dollars. I put it on my first credit card and enlisted my father to help me sail it back to Sag Harbor,” he says.
Neither of them knew anything about sailing, but somehow they made it back alive. It was a 1960s 24-foot fiberglass sailboat with two bunks. They could only afford a mooring, so she and her six-year-old son rowed out to it in a dinghy in all weathers.
“It leaked like a sieve around the toe rails, up top — it didn’t sink, but you got wet,” she says.
She didn’t want anyone to know, she told me — letting her position be known would only make her more vulnerable. But word got out.
In town one day, someone told her, ”I saw you wake up this morning from Long Wharf!”
Beth cringed as she remembered how she suddenly realized how visible and vulnerable they were.
Everyone she has told since about that period in her life thinks it was some sort of romantic adventure, “but it was a really hard way to live.”
She did this for eight summers, and was going to Columbia University part-time for her degree in journalism.
I am amazed at the guts it took to raise a son alone while working full-time and studying and shuffling between winter rentals and a sailboat.
“This is me pretending this is a Hawaiian adventure,” she laughs as she shows me a blurry picture taken by her son of her standing on the deck. Even through the blur I can see her sadness.
What part of that emergency mindset and situation twenty-some years ago did she create? She says she beats herself up about it a lot because her now grown son didn’t enjoy the experience, and had she had the perspective that comes with age, she could have made things easier.
“He pretended he was OK with it, but later he told me those were some of the worst days of his life,” she said.
Aside from realizing that life gets a bit easier as you get older, she doesn’t know what she learned from the experience.
“I was a pretty crazy kid, I guess,” she chuckles. “Whenever I get a minute of downtime I look around…The sky isn’t falling!? I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that feeling — it’s especially strong this time of year, when I used to have to move out by Memorial Day.”
R: “The Hamptons is a graveyard for divorcees and widows!”
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y second ingenious woman, R, is hopping from abode to abode every six to nine months. Her rootlessness goes hand-in-hand with being partnerless.
She is in her mid 30s, lovely and soft-spoken, and Yale-graduate smart. She was so reluctant to share her feelings and thoughts on this housing problem — we all feel it is our fault! — that it took me months to get her to agree, and even then there were some tears involved when we got onto the subject of being single. The storyline about there being a dearth of men out here to form partnerships with is just too much of a cliche. We stay clear.
“I have a decent income and I can’t find a house that I can afford,” she laughs, but it really isn’t a joke and we both know it. “After 15 years of renting out here, finally a friend and broker in my town tells me there is no year-round housing in my budget out here, period.”
She thought she was building a career that would be able to financially sustain her, and allow her to live in a place she loved.
“I want to set up a house. I just want to set up a house! I will live in a 30-by-12 foot box,” she says. “I just want to be able to paint the walls and know that I’m not going to be displaced, that my landlord can’t come along in a year and break my lease and raise the rent by a thousand dollars a month!”
Everybody is really in the same boat out here if they make less than $150,000 to 200,000 a year, she says. And that is a very high income to a lot of us. She has a Master’s Degree from Yale and sees herself as making a fairly decent income, but it just isn’t enough to compete with those friends of hers who started out in the same place when they graduated from college. They followed their parents’ advice and went into real estate or the financial industry.
“They’re making millions. But I still don’t want their lives. They sound boring to me,” she says.
She suggests we call this story: Whining in the Hamptons:
“Poor little girl, she’s whining in The Hamptons!”
Real estate is a big part of the economy out here and most of us are ambivalent about it, even those of us making our living by renting or selling it as homeowners or as real estate agents.
“Every bit of property out here seems to have been bought up as an investment, and all of the small houses are being torn down and turned into large houses. You used to be able to at least find fixer-uppers,” says R. “We’ve hit the end of Long Island. We can’t go any further east. This is what the local fishermen’s children said 20 years ago. It’s the same old story, and now it’s my turn to be displaced. I will probably have to leave. And then I’ll go displace farmers’ children on the North Fork!”
But she’s also reluctant to talk because she knows so many people are having an even harder time.
“I have a friend who hasn’t seen his family in ten years. He hasn’t seen his son in ten years! He’s an illegal immigrant, so he can’t just leave and go back and forth,” she says. “He’s trying to make enough money so that he can have the house as well. So, I really don’t want to be whining about my situation. I’ve made the choice to be out here and there are sacrifices I am making. But I don’t have to drive two hours to get here, I can go swimming every day at 5 o’clock if I want to.”
I understand her reluctance to whine, but nobody is talking about us, and especially the women in this class.
She’s a bit embarrassed when I ask her about last summer, when her landlady moved upstairs with her.
“Yes, I was sleeping on an air mattress in my living room to make money,” she says.
It’s a bit more extreme than that. Her landlady, who lives downstairs, offered R free rent for the summer if she could stay in R’s upstairs apartment, while she rented out downstairs to summer tenants for a huge chunk of change.
But her landlady failed to tell her that she was coming upstairs with her own winter tenant, and now there were three of them living in a one bedroom apartment and R was moved to an air mattress on the floor.
In the end her summer rent wasn’t altogether free, and her landlady informed her she was going to break the lease and raise the rent by $1,100 per month that fall!
Despite our earlier resolution, we can’t escape from talking a bit about another luxury — marriage and babies. How can one of these women ever afford to have a child?
“Most women my age would be married and not in this situation,” says R. “I wonder if this is something new to my generation — to my income level.”
Kara: “I didn’t want to tempt fate by impersonating her.”
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his image of the shopping bag lady started to haunt me in my late 40s, because life hadn’t worked out for me the way I perceived that it had for others. Before returning to East Hampton in 2012, I spent the previous few years wandering and trying to find a more affordable and fitting place for myself. I moved to Berlin to try to make a new life. What I had gone through was not only a financial crisis, but a crisis of the soul.
In Berlin I started seeing my specter on the streets, and she wasn’t much older than me — I think that’s what scared me so much. I would cross the street to avoid her. Her eyes were dead. She was slim and quiet, and she was really scaled down from the New York bag ladies. I imagined that this was a woman who had once been a risk-taker like me. I saw her in church soup lines at my next stop in Savannah Georgia.
I was in a state of financial emergency and my childhood friend offered me some work in New York City, moving her family from one Upper West Side apartment to another. She was paying me to pack and paint and organize. And then, one day, she wanted me to push an old shopping cart with loose ends from her old apartment to her new one. It was a distance of maybe five or six blocks and it would take maybe four or five trips, but I melted down on my first try. This shopping cart had a broken wheel and in my mind I was quadruply conspicuous pushing this thing down the street, and up and down the curbs. I stopped in a little park and had a really good cry.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t do it — I didn’t know how to tell my friend that I couldn’t push her stuff across the city in a shopping cart because I felt so close to this. I felt so close to my specter and I didn’t want to be tempting fate by impersonating her! How would she ever understand what it was like to live without any backup behind her? She never would.
This piece originated as a podcast for Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest Of Us Live, online on Soundcloud below:
T: “Just because you’re living Tiny doesn’t mean you can’t live fabulous!”
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne woman living in the Hamptons has almost totally sidestepped my worst fear by embracing the transitory. She is staying mobile. T is an attractive blonde in her late 30s, with a crazy infectious laugh, a vivacious style, and a determination to stay out of the cracks. She has three degrees.
She introduced me to her new love, Homer, a 1992 Gulfstream camper with a Ford Econoline front. She bought Homer in an Ebay bidding war last year for $2,750.
Her shower will become an aquaponics experiment. Her solar panels and her composting toilet will allow her to park in parking lots. She also has a mandatory rack of high heels on her bedroom door. The Hamptons winters are brutally cold and work is scarce, so she expects to take Homer on a southern road trip ending in Florida every winter to buy things for the nursery where she works. It’s an ingenious solution and one that is psychologically beneficial, if I can judge by her laughter. She tells me this is a Tiny House revolution.
“This is the new American dream, everybody’s doing it!,” she says. “I’m going to Florida this winter. I’m living the dream, Kara! I’m 39 and I’m Snowbirding!”
When I ask her about her reticence, she tells me the first and obvious reason is the East Hampton town code, which is very strict. The beauty out here does come at a price.
The other reason she is reluctant to tell her story is because of scarcity — if she revealed her identity and location, soon everybody would want a cool spot. How many people did she she think would need a place for their RV?
“Everybody…Everybody wants it,” she whispers.
“I don’t object to having four stationary walls,” she tells me. But her father was in the military and she was raised on the road, never having had a sense of a permanent home or an attachment to a place.
“When you move every two to three years, there are things you just don’t get,” she says. “Some things just take time and I’m from the right-now culture. It’s now or never — oh, I’m not getting this thing now? Maybe it’s in California or Mexico? But that’s now how things work. You have to stay somewhere.”
One of the major reasons all of us are choosing to live here is because of the beauty, natural and man-made, and the relative safety. The Hamptons are wonderfully tended, and still wonderfully wild in places.
“Out here is magical. I don’t lock my doors!” says T.
She and I share a love of swimming in the bays, although I haven’t tried it her way yet, swimming naked at night under a full moon.
Is it our choices that create these circumstances? I muse about the choice to be an artist, the choice to mortgage and sell a perfectly good house to follow my dream of higher education.
“You didn’t make the choice that art should be done for fun and for free and that investment banking should pay more money than teaching? Those aren’t choices that you made,” T reminds me.
I thought this would be a story about women falling through the cracks but…she wasn’t falling through the cracks! She seemed to be truthfully enjoying herself. But, she reminded me, “One false move and I will slide right down! I have one foot on each side of the crack!”
L: The shame she felt because of what others might think of her.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] couldn’t convince my third ingenious woman to talk to me on tape. But she had no trouble explaining to me how my worst fear had actually turned out to be an advantage for her.
She is probably in her early 60s. The first time we sat down to talk, she confessed to me that she had lived in her car out here in The Hamptons in order to be near her grandson. She took a job cleaning some of the wealthy houses out here and would shower there, and then lived in her car.
I had finally met somebody who was actually living my worst fear. I was fascinated. She had always been a visual artist and clothing designer. She was sitting next to me talking vivaciously and thoughtfully about her life’s twists and turns, with a lovely, clear detachment.
What she said to me was astonishing. Living in her car was really the greatest freedom that she’s ever experienced. She didn’t owe anyone anything or have to put up with anything. Suddenly she wasn’t involved in human transactions.
And then she got lucky and her name came up for the elderly apartments at the local church. She was terrified, she told me. How would she manage to live again within four stationary walls?
She solved this problem by never really moving in. She has no real furniture and she couldn’t buy a bed. She sleeps on a mat under the window so that she can be close to the sky, the air, the rain, and so she doesn’t have to hear the low rumble of all the TVs in the cubicles that surround her. It’s a noise that she finds absolutely terrifying.
Kara: Finding Home
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] no longer live in a rented room! This is a huge development for me. It has taken an immense amount of work on myself to stop the habitual emergency mindset I had been living in — a very scary regime.
But that alone might not have changed my life radically if external circumstances hadn’t also changed. I found part-time work doing something I was good at and loved, and then a teaching job, and then a writing job. Staying put was essential because I finally met the love of my life. We now have a beautiful place to live and there is finally room for me!
Nothing ever seems to turn out the way you imagined. Poverty was not what I had imagined, nor was being a writer, or aging, or being a hairs-breadth close to homelessness. We are so defined by our worst fears, often without even knowing it. I was acting out an age-old pattern of not having a place to call my own, and until I was up against it and confronted it I might never have moved forward.
I might have been that woman pushing the shopping cart.
Kara Westerman is a published fiction author, teacher, podcaster, oral history facilitator, and fearless leader of Amagansett Writer’s Collective. She produces and hosts a podcast called Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest Of Us Live. She lives, works, and teaches in East Hampton, New York.