It wasn’t until I was a mid-ripe teenager growing up on the North Fork that I first heard the phrase “Tumbleweed Tuesday,” but that phrase has come to define so much of all of our lives around here in the decades since it first crossed my pubescent ear.
Back then, it conjured visions in my head of a washed-out, windswept wasteland, a place for outlaws and noble deputies and noble outlaws and other such stuff of spaghetti westerns.
I hadn’t experienced, first-hand, the way South Fork towns cleared out and became shadows of themselves on the day after Labor Day.
I was in the sixth grade at Cutchogue East Elementary School before my teacher even shared the idea that we lived in a rural area with his students. That classroom lecture shook me to the core.
Being a North Fork native, I had only been west of Riverhead on a few rare occasions — visiting relatives in Coram or my Aunt Jennifer who lived in exotic Chelsea on the west side of the island of Mannahatta. I thought everyone in the world was as bored as kids on the North Fork were back then. I had no idea that the real problem was that there’s nothing to do in rural areas.
I had a choice. I could embrace our rural-ness and put on a cowboy hat and learn to plant potatoes or I could turn my back on everything I knew and yearn for some place that offered more for everyone to do and be.
But it was a false choice, because the island of Mannahatta has poured its masses down the length of Long Island, shaking loose Brooklynites and Queensians and Nassau moms with baby strollers, a tsunami of humanity that every coastal community braces itself to receive during the month of August. You don’t need to leave the East End. The city comes to you.
Now, that’s all well and good, but there is one problem. There is a war on here, and I see it all over all my friends’ Facebook feeds, and some of the feeds of my friends’ friends, who probably don’t know that Facebook is making their feeds available for everyone in the world to see.
It seems everyone I know is snappy and angry and fed up and basically just road raging on social media because it doesn’t do any good to road rage in your car in a traffic jam when someone might road rage back at you. This happens every year, and I remember the feeling well from my last few years working every day in the Hamptons. I just can’t stomach it any more. I have to look away.
The East End was never designed to handle the strain of the masses of humanity who come here in the month of August. The South Fork has been drowning under this onslaught for decades. The North Fork is just beginning to understand how it feels.
When I first up and fled from the North Fork as a late teenager, I only made it as far away as Sag Harbor. What was beautiful about Sag Harbor was that it had been a port for so many centuries that every new wave of people who came to its shores was seen as an exotic new opportunity for the town. The waters of a port attract the ocean rivers of humanity from every edge of the horizon.
Without ports, we would all be like Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Amazon villages, separated by mere miles, but each reinventing the wheel because we’d never learned anything from collaborating with our neighbors.
I had read about that idea as a young teen in Mattituck, trying to decide whether to embrace isolation or head out in the world to seek connections. Bill Clinton was talking about it a lot. He would soon be our president. I heard he hung out on the South Fork. I wouldn’t have known, though, because other than Sag Harbor, I’d never really been there.
But now Sag Harbor, where I first experienced a true South Fork Tumbleweed Tuesday, isn’t even recognizable as the friendly whaling village I’d once called home. It’s a luxury car parking lot surrounded by a small-town movie set for at least three months of the year. I miss what it was so badly that sometimes I dream that it still exists in another universe inside the multiverse. I hope that dream is real. I’m counting on it.
Now, nearly a quarter-century later, I’ve worked in just about every nook and cranny of both the North and South Forks. I’ve been to rowdy public hearings over upzoning and drunken partying that spilled into the hallways of the old East Hampton Town Hall and the parking lot of the Montauk Firehouse. I’ve been stuck in the middle of Mill Pond in Water Mill breathing in the stench of rotten fish, killed by heavy phosphorous loading that brought on dense algae blooms.
I’ve heard women in Speonk talk of miscarriages and migraines from living in basements surrounded by solvent plumes. I’ve watched the way the North Fork rallied again and again to protect farmland, to protect Plum Island, to protect beaches, dogs, baymen and other such things that are worthy of protection.
All of these issues exist 12 months out of the year, but they become unbearable at times like these, when our little part of the world exceeds its carrying capacity by an order of magnitude.
These issues of carrying capacity keep rearing their heads, and each of our five East End governments keeps trying to stick the genie of our maddening seasonal economy back in the bottle just enough to make life bearable for people who live here year-round. But that genie is already everywhere in the ether. It’s too late. We need to adapt to the reality that is upon us.
A good friend of mine contacted me last week to ask how I was. She lives just five miles down the street, but we haven’t seen each other all summer. That’s the way it is for most people who live here year round. I told her I’d been busy.
“But this is the life we chose!” she said. She’s not from here. She thinks the North Fork is all vineyards and farm-to-table restaurants and maybe an occasional celebrity sighting.
I got mad. I didn’t chose to live here. I live here because I was born in Central Suffolk Hospital and I want to be near my family when we are all old. That might be a cop-out way to live one’s life, but it’s not really a “lifestyle choice,” as so many people are fond of describing their lives these days. It’s about prioritizing family and friends over everything else. No matter what.
But who do we include when we think of our family and friends? Do we include Manhattanites and Nassau stroller moms? Do we include the people who wash our windows and pick up our garbage? Do we include the refugee who used to be a doctor but is now suffering from PTSD up the street? We probably still include the victims and families of victims of that horrible thing that happened in Manhattan 15 years ago this Sunday. But how do we rate suffering in global terms? Is the coffee line at The Golden Pear more than you can bear?
How big is our village? Can it survive? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But they keep me up late at night. Happy Tumbleweed Tuesday.