The Mast-Head: Litter, Twice Found

We thought ourselves collectors of the highest order

   People don’t throw things along the side of the road the way they used to. This is a good thing; nobody really likes to look at litter.
    That wasn’t quite the case when I was a kid growing up on Cranberry Hole Road in Amagansett. In those days, my cousin Cleo, who lived just down the road a piece, and I would walk the grassy margins hunting for discarded matchbook covers.
    We thought ourselves collectors of the highest order. We would carefully unfold each matchbook, removing the single staple that held it together and throwing away the double cardboard butt where the matches themselves had once been anchored.
    This came to mind Sunday when my wife, Lisa, and I decided to get at the papers and various and sundry items that had fallen, or been placed, behind a tall kitchen hutch. Working on the opposite side, Lisa called, “Do you want these?” In her hand were three pages of matchbook covers that Cleo and I had taped in orderly rows onto lined paper and stored in a three-ring binder.
    Did I want them? To me, they were solid gold.
    The collection, if anything, seem­ed as good as it did more than 30 years ago. Among the graphic gems were one in brown block letters on pale yellow (how ’70s!) from the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, a barely legible silver-and-white one from Lenhart’s Motel and Cottages in Montauk, and one from the Bridgehampton National Bank when it had but one branch, for crying out loud.
    From out of town, there was the promise, “You’ll be dynamite. Learn electronics, create a new career, enjoy a whole new life style. Build your own CIE color TV.” One  matchbook offered, “Valuable pos­tage stamps from 77 countries! Free!” Another advertised a Rand McNally road atlas for $1.25. Yet another offered, “15 ways to get ahead.”
   The crown jewel of the collection, as far as Cleo and I were concerned, and a sentiment probably shared by those of us who grew up around Amagansett at the time, was from the M & P Diner, which had been in the building that now houses Art of Eating catering. This matchbook cover never made it to the three-ring binder; instead, it was given a place of honor in a small gold-tinted metal frame. On one side is a photograph of a topless woman covering her breasts, her hair alluringly tangled. The other side advertises steaks, chops, and cocktails.
    As far as I know, the only people who ever went there were kids to whom Mike, who ran it, supposedly would sell beer with no questions asked, and a few cops. Cleo and I were ecstatic when we found it.
    The drinking age was 18 when I was in high school, and the story was that kids would follow the warrens of dirt- bike trails that in those days wove through most of town to get to the M & P Diner, which was known uncharitably as Maggot Mike’s. Then, after a hurried transaction with the vaguely intimidating man behind the counter, they would ride away with a six-pack cradled between their legs. I never went in the place, which made me nervous even as I drove by years later. I thought about it though, and now I have a matchbook to remind me.