Stranger in a Strange Land

By Francis Levy

Generations of summer residents have expressed abhorrence about the changing demographics and mores of East Hampton. They revile the crowds of strangers in odd dress on Newtown Lane (this year’s crop seems to sport a return to formality, with women appearing in high heels and dresses in the middle of a summer afternoon), while forgetting that they themselves were once neophytes.

The other day, with the Vita Coco van ferrying the nouveau something or others through the center of town, the scene was reminiscent of Rome, yes, the Via Veneto of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Imagine how the townsfolk, for whom East Hampton has comprised both home and work for generations, must feel! Of course these latter are chastened by the reminder that tourism rather than progress is East Hampton’s most important product.

One must always remember that except in the most advanced astrophysics something is generally not considered to emanate from nothing. So we have to have respect for this new class of vacationer, no matter how affluent and devoid of this or that trait that might have been displayed by earlier generations of sojourners.

So what that there are likely no budding Jackson Pollocks, Lee Krasners, Willem de Koonings, Barney Rossets, James Joneses, James Salters, or George Plimptons in the crowd! So what that the heroes for a new generation of Hamptons summer residents are hedge-fund honchos like Carl Icahn and John Paulson, whose financial machinations form the template by which a whole new generation is able to pay ever-escalating rents. So what that East Hampton is no longer an artists and writers enclave, but the watering hole for stock market tycoons, real estate moguls, film executives, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. It’s still good old East Hampton.

Remember Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”? In that sci-fi classic a human who was born on Mars comes to Earth. But old-timers who were born and raised in East Hampton or vacationed here for decades might experience a similar effect. The windmill is still there and so is White’s Pharmacy (though in slightly spruced-up form), and institutions like Sam’s still provide the illusion of continuity. And after all there is still an Artists and Writers Softball Game and you can still find a few heavy hitters on the rosters of both teams.

Heidegger and Freud shared an interest in the concept of Unheimlichkeit, which means estrangement, literally not feeling at home. So if you’re an alumnus of the ’60s and ’70s, when East Hampton emanated a different kind of class, it’s easy to walk around town on a summer’s afternoon with the latest wave of summer vacationers and feel like you’re living out a scene from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or “Night of the Living Dead.” In those movies familiar faces become zombies.

There’s also Capgras syndrome, a neurological condition in which one suspects that the familiar face is a stranger, or its sister condition, prosopagnosia, in which the sufferer fails to recognize faces. If you’re a repeater you might experience one or all of these symptoms when strolling through town today.

But be assured, that’s how the ancien regime felt back in the ’60s when they spotted you rolling into town in your Day-Glo-painted VW bus packed with Gibson and Fender guitars, paintbrushes, and a Royal typewriter loaded in the back.


Francis Levy, a Wainscott resident, is the author of the comic novels “Erotomania: A Romance” and “Seven Days in Rio.” His blog is TheScreamingPope.com.