A Cynic Capitulates, by Sally Susman

“Sag Harbor is not the Hamptons,” Robin, my wife, chanted while scrutinizing the real estate ads, weighing the relative values of eat-in kitchens, working fireplaces, and water views. “And, it would be good for you.” 

I’m fortunate to have a spouse who devotes much of her time to what is best for me. She regularly makes home-cooked, healthy, gluten-free meals, suggests exercise options, and discovers cool cultural picks. I like fast food and sophomoric movies, and believe that internet surfing qualifies as a sport.

I was certain that a second home would actually be horrible for me: more bills and more aggravation. Why not just travel the world and stay in luxury hotels? My version of a long-term commitment is a three-night minimum. Why be tethered to one spot at the end of a Long Island Expressway traffic jam? The mere thought of fighting the hedge-fund masters of the universe for an East Hampton parking space or surviving the mean-girl yoga classes gave me a bad case of the jitters. 

I can make a mule seem flexible, and I was dug in. Robin persisted, equally tenacious and stubborn. It was a standoff.

For years I humored Robin, tromping through houses for sale while visiting friends on the East End over long weekends. I was a grumpy tagalong, since the only thing I hated more than looking for a house was being a houseguest — tiptoeing around the host’s routines, trying to flush the toilet quietly in the night, and feigning interest in their pets. Robin and I ran through dozens of open houses and exhausted more than one real estate agent.

“You’re coming with me,” announced a friend who had taken pity on us. She marched us into the Corcoran real estate office at the top of Sag Harbor’s Main Street and introduced us to Cee Scott Brown. Cee’s considerable professionalism and deep experience inspired my faith in his views and valuations. He also possessed the insight and sensitivity to see Robin’s residential dreams. Most important, Cee had the patience to deal with us both, bridging the marital divide. 

He showed us a sweet summer cottage on Madison Street in the heart of the village. It was impossible not to be smitten by its shingled simplicity. Under Cee’s guidance, I cratered.

Not only did we buy the house, but I bought into Sag Harbor’s magic. And, Robin was right — it was revitalizing for me to wash the city off at the end of the week, to quiet my jangled nerves, and to reconnect with long-lost passions. I dusted off my old bike and pedaled along the coast, feeling my lungs pumping salt air. I did something nearly impossible so deeply into my middle age — I made new friends. I found kindred spirits who cared little what I did for a living or about any other trappings of city life.

I also reconnected with my ardor for writing and reading. Many people know Sag Harbor is a writers’ village. Only some, however, are aware that John Street is one of its main literary arteries. Each morning, Robin and I would walk up Main Street and make the right onto John Street past the homes of literary agents, playwrights, and one particular former resident, the author E.L. Doctorow. 

Still fewer are privy to the fact that John Street connects to Bluff Point Road, which leads to Bluff Point Lane, where John Steinbeck’s writing cupola still stands — a hexagonal studio sited on a point under stately trees with water on three sides.

Four years after that first meeting and three years after he found us the little village house, we gave Cee a new and impossible challenge: to find a year-round home (fireplace and garage) that needed no renovation and was on the water in the sacred John Street enclave. Oh, and by the way, it had to be within our budget. The cynic in me — the one who never wanted to come here in the first place — wagered he’d never find it. 

Several months later, Cee called: “You need to come now.” We left immediately to see a house that had just come on the market. Walking through the front door was like stepping onto a boat. The sunny foyer led to a living room with views of Upper Sag Harbor Cove, a blue-green inlet that meets an indigo-gray sky. My legs wobbled from the illusion of being at sea. My shoulders unhitched, my mood elevated, and we made an offer.

Once the terms were agreed on, Cee recommended John Bjornen, a talented local designer who happens to be his husband. Aha! My cynic alarm sounded. These two must be in cahoots. Surely, it was a scam. I was reluctant to schedule the appointment, but my previous attempts at decorating had been not only expensive, but also embarrassing.

My dogged skepticism disappeared upon meeting John. With gentle spirit and good humor, he seemed lighter than air. John’s very presence caused everything to appear more beautiful, to make the mundane sparkle. He listened to our wishes for a warm, casual home and came back with drawings and design boards that brought our vague notion to life. He chose subtle paint colors that, along with the view, shifted with the light and shade. He recommended bold fabrics and bespoke pillows that formed perfect accents to our neutral palette. Daybeds and comfy chairs were arranged into seating alcoves for reading or conversation. All sofas were nap-worthy.

Our second winter on Bluff Point, we toasted Valentine’s Day with friends by the fire. Snow blanketed the neighborhood. The cove was frozen. Feeling toasty and a bit smug, I thought the house looked perfect. That Sunday night as we drove back to the city, I boasted about the beauty of our home to Robin and wondered whether we could get it photographed for a magazine. 

Later, after we had gone to sleep, the phone rang at 2 a.m., jolting us upright. “Ma’am, this is Scan Security. Your water alarm went off, and I’m standing in your basement. You’ve got damage. I’m shutting off your water,” the man said.

The snow was now coming down more heavily. The roads back to the house would be impassable. Despite the hour, we called John. Our friend and neighbor put his parka on over his pajamas and trekked over to our house to survey the damage. I was on the phone with him, directing him to our hide-a-key and listening as he entered the house. “Oh my God,” I heard him say.

John reported that water was pouring down through the light fixtures and the rugs were already saturated. I could hear his footsteps sloshing through our soaked house. Unable to sleep, we left at sunrise to return to Sag Harbor and survey the damage. Within hours, the water had devastated the place. Floorboards had buckled, appliances were damaged beyond repair, and walls were starting to sag. 

I wish I could say I’d had the good graces in that moment to be thankful no one was hurt, but, truthfully, I was just grateful for good insurance. 

The plumber showed up the next day and began to cut into the walls to find the broken pipes. Dozens had split and burst. Expanded ice had shredded steel. Robin picked up a few of the pipe pieces. Months later, when the shock had subsided, we took those pipe bits to a frame shop and had them mounted into an art installation that today hangs on a sunroom wall.

Again, with John’s help, we put the house back together again over the course of a year. We hadn’t wanted to renovate, but when one must, why not make improvements? Our bit of bad luck resulted in a lighter kitchen and wider floorboards. 

That Arctic vortex, with its razor-sharp winds, heightened my respect for Mother Nature’s capricious power. In fact, it is the intimacy with the outdoors that moves me most about our home. The house is oriented toward the cove. A north-facing orientation means each day is bookended with a sunrise and sunset. Robin and I watch the water as the tides take turns, the fish jump at sunrise, and the ducks pass by at dusk as if on cue. Migrating geese stitch a brown thread across a blue sweater of sky. Clouds move swiftly, and temperatures shift when the seasons shake hands.

I’m grateful to the cove for its endless bounty. I now see that my cynicism was merely a safeguard against fear and failure. In the end, I’m not that fragile. Houses can be rebuilt; people are resilient. And with love to my wife, who was right, this place has been good for me.


Sally Susman is a regular book reviewer for The Star.