I served as Sag Harbor’s beat reporter in a decade between fires, but all those fires left a scar on the memories of those of us who spent our days on this bucolic Main Street, watching the world go by.
And today, fire once again changed the face of Sag Harbor.
It was a strange sort of forced reckoning with the past as I sat on standby with the Class A crew from my new hometown fire department in Flanders at Sag Harbor’s Brick Kiln Road firehouse this morning, watching the progression of the fire on my Sag Harbor friends’ Facebook feeds.
Main Street was burning up once again, along with places that have continued to exist vividly in my imagination as the years yawned by. I was trapped in a memory of everything that had once been alive on Main Street, while firemen from 19 departments braved the bitter cold, ice from their hoses caking their bunker gear, the barren trees turned icicle white from the hose streams from tower ladders, in a sickening twist on Christmas decoration.
The fire started on a back deck on the building next door to the coffee shop that used to be Java Nation just after 6 a.m., and by the time it was all over mid-day it burned through the neighboring clothing store, Compass Realty and the Sag Harbor Cinema, all the way through to the Brown Harris Stevens real estate office on the other side of the cinema.
It chewed up a wonderful fine art gallery, the Richard J. Demato Gallery, and the paintings in Armando Valero’s exhibition, titled “Pieces of My Soul.”
The cinema was planning to screen “Moonlight,” “Harry & Snowman” and “Things to Come” this weekend. But with much of its roof collapsed and the structural integrity of its façade in question, the things to come here are likely bleak.
I first came to this little town just five years after the Emporium True Value Hardware Store burned down on Easter morning in 1994. Sandwiched tightly between its neighboring buildings, it had been rebuilt by the time I arrived.
At the time, few Sag Harborites still remembered the Alvin Silver Company fire on Main Street on New Year’s Day in 1925, which began in Ballen’s Store on Washington Street and was fueled by a large cache of ammunition in Ballen’s Annex, which ignited the brick Alvin Silver Company, at the site of what is now the Conco D’Oro pizza parlor, just across the street from today’s fire.
As I envisioned the Main Street I’ve known, while waiting in the warmth of the firehouse, I thought of Sag Harbor painter Michael Butler’s painting of the Alvin Silver fire, “The End at the Beginning,” on display at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum earlier this year.
Today is an end and it is also a beginning, but is it a beginning of something better?
We can’t replace the history that was destroyed today, but the memories we’ve built in this place exist and are as real as the physical things that are now gone.
There wasn’t a morning during my decade in Sag Harbor that I didn’t walk into Java Nation, order a cup of coffee and catch up with the cranky old guys whose backs were snugged up against the coffee shop’s picture window on cold winter days.
Today the lovers’ spats I’ve engaged in in that brick alcove are as real as my son’s first training-wheel-free bike ride past the cinema. I spent September 11 watching the tears on peoples’ faces from this alley, and watched from here as Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter’s casket returned home, his classmates in shock.
Every first date I’ve ever gone on was in that funny smelling art house theater.
None of those things will ever happen again, and not just because of today’s fire. Time only moves in one direction. Until, some days, memory turns it around.
Some nights I still dream of Sag Harbor, a dream filled with the warmth of friends and coffee and art and cinema and light, the memories of a decade compressed into a few hours’ sleep, where I always awake, surprised that I’m no longer in that brick alley laughing with old, half-forgotten friends.
I can still feel the warm late spring air on the day the coffee crowd was sitting in that brick alcove when Brenda Siemer marched into our midst and recruited us to save the neon Sag Harbor Cinema sign, as a crew hired by theater owner Gerry Mallow worked to replace it with a garish new design.
We helped get the old sign hauled away to neon artist Clayton Orekek’s studio, where he spent months trying to refashion the iconic art deco logo before an exact replica was constructed that once again hangs on the Sag Harbor Cinema façade, even after what happened today.
Whether any of these artifacts will survive the days and weeks ahead remains to be seen. But what I do know, today, is that Sag Harbor will take care of the people who’ve lost their apartments to fire and smoke. Sag Harbor will take care of its first responders. And Sag Harbor will always honor and remember its history.