Mayor Kenneth Wessberg, a man with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, was the first local who befriended me when we arrived in East Hampton from Pittsburgh in 1979. As mayor, he had a vested interested in the success of the Maidstone Arms, the venerable inn we had purchased, and he also had a special fondness for the place. When he was young, he and his friend Shep Frood, whose parents owned the hotel during the ’30s and ’40s, used it to expand their body of knowledge. Others might have frowned on “window peeking” had they known what the boys were up to, but Kenneth and Shep thought of their activity as being strictly educational.
After learning of my planning background in the heavily Democratic city of Pittsburgh, he warned me that locals controlled East Hampton politics, and locals were Republicans. Tapping my chest with his middle finger, he clarified: “You’ll never become a local. If you join the Republican Party, that’s the closest you’ll come to being a local. Someday you’ll need a variance for your hotel, and, in East Hampton, Republicans get variances.” Then he reiterated, “Even if you give up being a Roosevelt Democrat, you’ll never, never be considered a local.”
When you’ve been excluded from a club, it makes you want to join, even if it’s a club you’d never aspire to get into under normal circumstances. But it wasn’t possible to be a local so I lived with the longing, while at the same time I adjusted to the fact that I was an outsider.
Years after my conversation with the mayor, after we had sold the Maidstone and bought the J. Harper Poor Cottage, on a Sunday evening in August, my wife and I pulled out of the inn onto Main Street, forced to travel southwest when we wanted to go northeast. The traffic going the way we wanted to go was bumper to bumper. Drivers were hunched over their steering wheels with enough menace to prevent any attempt to crowd in front of them, so I drove our dented station wagon to the first left turn at the head of Town Pond, where I’d have only one line of traffic to buck, and furthermore where I’d not have to ask anyone to give up 12 feet of asphalt so I could be in front of them.
We sat there with the turn signal blinking. Annoyed drivers behind us honked then slid into the ditch to pass on the right. I tried to make eye contact with the approaching drivers, but they avoided me to make sure no one, especially me, violated their right to that 12-foot piece of tax-funded pavement.
Then a silver sport coupe was in front of me, and the driver was looking down — tuning his radio, stroking a small pet; I’m not sure — and he failed to claim his part of the roadway so I swerved in front of him. He looked up just in time to see the rear of the station wagon, with a taillight dangling from its wires, drive over his space. In the mirror, I saw him stand up in the seat, poke his head out the open sunroof, and, with his middle finger thrusting toward heaven, he shouted, “You fucking goddamned local piece of shit!” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was stunned.
“What did he say?” I asked my wife.
“You fucking goddamned local piece of shit.”
“That’s what I thought.” I slammed the steering wheel with the heel of my hand. It vibrated like a guitar string as chills went up my spine. “Do you know how long I’ve waited to be a local? I wish Mayor Wessberg hadn’t died. I’m going to his grave tomorrow and tell him what that guy said.”
“That driver’s not really qualified to confer any status like that,” she reminded me. “He has Jersey plates. He’s from New Jersey.”
“I know, but still. He thinks I’m a local.”
By then we had made a second left turn and were headed north in a new line of traffic beyond the green, where Main Street becomes four lanes wide. The houses and stores facing Main had been set back on purpose by the original locals so their cattle, herded communally, could be driven down it and kept at night in the pasturage around Town Pond.
“Look, there’s our boy,” I said to my wife, pointing at the coupe five or six car lengths ahead. “I wonder if I could get him to say it again.” She looked skeptical.
“That is so not you,” she said. “You don’t like confrontations.”
“Yes, you’re right. I had no idea he’d react that way when I turned in front of him back there. Totally out of character of me to do it on purpose.”
By then, we were only two car lengths behind him. My heart fluttered; I felt a little sick in my stomach, as if I were being possessed by another power. And just like that, we were beside the coupe. From the corner of my eye, I saw the driver looking down again, and then there was the 12-foot gap, and, as if the devil himself were driving, the steering wheel jerked left, a foot pressed the accelerator, and the station wagon jolted over in front of the guy from New Jersey in the silver sports car. I put my head out the window so I wouldn’t miss a word.
“You piece of local dog shit!” he shouted. I pulled my head back inside and slumped against the headrest, closing my eyes for a few seconds as the traffic moved ahead and the horns honked behind me. I couldn’t believe how good I felt.
In East Hampton Village there are no leash laws. So Ruxford, a dog of mixed heritage owned by a man who was then head of the planning board, often visited Main Street and has his paw prints in the sidewalk near the fancy shops because he failed to observe the sign, “Wet cement.” Every two or three years, some outsider in a new pair of Guccis stepped in a little dog doo-doo, got riled, and started a petition to control dogs, but so far those efforts have been defeated.
When asked why he opposed a leash law, one local board member responded, “If people insist on being people, I believe dogs should be allowed to be dogs.” The fact that I was not just a generic piece shit but a piece of local dog shit seemed to magnify the honor given to me by the guy from New Jersey. I opened my eyes in time to see him open his car door.
He was a heavy man, late 30s or early 40s, red-faced, in a suit and tie, undoubtedly on his way to a fund-raiser. He could tell his compatriots how some “goddamned fucking local piece of dog shit” had delayed him. And everyone could have a good laugh and agree that all you needed locals for was to fix your air-conditioning, clip your privet, and take your unwanted guests into the hospitality of their B&Bs. Some of the people around him might secretly check their soles to make sure they had not stepped in anything, because what was that odor, anyhow?
“You better get out of here,” my wife said, “he looks really mad.” But it was too late. He was outside my window. Before he could say a word, with more ferocity than I thought possible for a timid man, I blurted out: “Thank you, sir, for the honor! I’m proud to be a local!”
I gunned the old wagon, and she did not hesitate. We rounded the curve toward the post office, squeezed in front of a dark-green Bentley, and headed out Accabonac into the heart of Springs, where the locals live, where I felt welcomed, although I was still an outsider. Where no one in a silver sport coupe would find us, no matter how angry he was.
Gary Reiswig is the author of the novel “Water Boy” and “The Thousand Mile Stare: One Family’s Journey Through the Struggle and Science of Alzheimer’s.”