BAREFOOT IN PARADISE
Admiralty law rules the high seas and all the slow-maneuvering ships which ply them. It features a concept, the agony of collision, which is the time between a crash appearing inevitable and the actual crunching of metal that spills everyone’s drink. There’s ample opportunity for agony all around, but hopefully enough warning for passengers, crew, and even the captain to jump overboard, hire a lawyer, or just reflect on some boyhood dream of running a ranch in Montana.
Most pleasure cruises don’t start with a collision, of course. One generally hears bon voyage on a beautiful morning, with sunshine reflecting off turquoise-blue water, seagulls frolicking in the sky, and a grinning steward setting out the first of many delicious buffets. The part with the life preservers is later.
Gurus steer us away from judging events good or bad. They recommend that we experience them, mindfully. But memories still make their way into files marked “cherish forever” or “forget this, quick.”
When things begin one way before changing course, the system gets really flummoxed. Mental paperwork scatters everywhere. Along with delight, there’s disappointment, and embarrassment.
A was great, but why didn’t I see B coming?
Our challenge – a big one – is hearing conflicting testimony without swallowing the gavel. Hanging on to pleasant times which preceded calamities.
Thirteen years in New York were capped by a final one, a hundred miles even farther east, a real riches-to-rags Hollywood ending complete with movie stars. I came as close to celebrity and celebrities as I would ever get, and it cured me of my childhood naïveté about their world and ways. I also worked through some minor character flaws, like being delusional.
That last pleasure cruise, when treats turned into tricks, departed, appropriately, on Halloween. Continuing New York’s urban motif, somebody stole our candy.
That evening, as the miniature Butterfingers lay waiting for little goblins to ring our bell, we heard a commotion. Some big kids (that is to say, a bunch of local hooligans) had opened our front door, grabbed the sweets, and were now running away.
This was so wrong I proceeded to sprint down the street after them, shouting You little bastards! Bring back our candy!
Sometimes you’re on the edge without realizing it.
But this heinous crime was just symbolic of a time to move on, and for a much different reason. Laurie had just given birth to our second daughter.
The latest recession had made my own income unreliable, and a family of five needed Dad to find something, somewhere, and promptly. The closest possibility looked like a job – no, an opportunity – in The Hamptons.
Being a regional landmark, this location meant not much to a Chicago boy. I was only vaguely aware of what The Hamptons was, or were, and would have guessed wrong at exactly where.
For the record, they’re a loose collection of towns on the southeastern tip of Long Island. But that bland description is misleading. It’s one of the most exclusive spots on the planet. Where, among other things, the rich and renowned hide from those who aren’t.
There’s no Midwest equivalent, unless it’s a secluded lake in Michigan or Wisconsin, only the cookout is hosted by some Grammy nominee, and that guy casting off the pier owns Revlon.
The Hamptons are unique, and historic. English emigrants came ashore there in the 1600s when native Long Islanders were already fishing the harbors. Their descendants still live in close-knit enclaves and 200-year-old houses, and the locals all seem to be someone’s third cousin. None of them ever got completely comfortable with luminaries and tycoons moving into their neighborhood, but the extra income turned out to be handy.
This idyllic area became an artists’ colony, where creators of all stripes and pathologies, from Kurt Vonnegut to John Steinbeck to Joseph Heller, migrated. Jackson Pollock dripped his paintings in a leafy neighborhood called the Springs, where my family and I also lived, three decades later, before wrapping his car around a tree right down the street. (Maybe it’s a good thing we missed each other.)
Mostly the Hamptons keep thriving as an idea, and a compelling one. Wealthy people have earned the right to live and play in their own exclusive neighborhoods, without the less-well-off around to distract from their privacy and fun. Except the ones who cater parties and tend the landscaping.
I hadn’t known many rich people before we went out there; my experiences were with the non-rich variety of American. But a third, socially and economically hopeful group was also in residence between the upper crust and those who facilitate their lifestyles. These folks shared a philosophy: wealth is contagious.
Or so seemed the idea behind a new radio station which a group of investors planned. With so much disposable income and off-duty bling flashing there, at least in the summer, a sharp operator could just hold out his hat and the doubloons would tumble in. They thought they’d discovered a big payday, and an easy one.
I knew the money men only by reputation. But they probably had the capital, even on them. Their fait was almost accompli anyway. The overstuffed staff was already hired, the paneling was up, they had a logo.
All they needed was a morning host.
Tempted, intrigued (and increasingly desperate) I still would have passed simply because it was such a leap, relocating all of us to some uncharted destination, even if Alec Baldwin did live there. And I would have declined, except for two little words.
The entrepreneurs asking for my services confided that Billy (another East End resident) was one of their investors. A minor partner, but a participant nonetheless. With that implied imprimatur, I just couldn’t hear myself saying no. If Billy was in, wasn’t that good enough for Garry Lee?
(I eventually met Billy and interviewed him, like the fan I was and am. That he knew his name had been dangled to lure people into the morass which followed, I can’t believe. He’d have been aghast. For all I know, he may have taken a hit himself and had to borrow some cash from Elton John.)
The first leg of our own tour was all applause. We settled into a rented house just as the station was going on the air. Live coverage included Laurie trying to keep the movers from setting furniture down on the baby.
The station’s ramp-up and grand-opening buzz was intoxicating. The studio faced main street with a big picture window. As congratulations and well-wishes arrived, a dozen bouquets of flowers had accumulated. “We’re off to a great start,” I noted. “It’s starting to look like a Mafia funeral in here.”
The New York Times even did an article about the new venture, with plenty of bold-face names, and one ringer.
“The emphasis on news and community programming is what station officials hope will separate WEHM from the rest of East End radio. That and the standup comic they hired as the morning personality. ‘Let’s have a weather report,’ said Garry Lee Wright, a former comedian and talk-show host on WMCA-AM and now the morning man on WEHM. Mr. Wright walked over to a thermometer in the window. ‘It’s 54 in East Hampton,’ he announced. With the station on the air two months, Mr. Wright has been interviewing many townspeople. ‘Tomorrow an interview with my barber,’ he said.
“Will Mr. Wright’s guests and themes change when the rich and famous are in town? ‘I’m not doing this show for Kim Basinger,’ he said, ‘I’m doing this for the people down the street.’
“Actually that is not an exact quotation. Mr. Wright first mentioned Barbra Streisand as the person he was not doing his show for. But when you work at WEHM stars like Ms. Streisand could be listening, ‘and I like her,’ he said. ‘So cross out her name and put in Kim Basinger.’ Oops. Not that he doesn’t like Ms. Basinger, he added. Ms. Basinger could be listening, too. ‘Better put in a dead superstar’s name,’ he said.”
If I sounded intimidated in print, you should have caught me live.
But I did interview some praiseworthy local residents, among them a young Martha Stewart, whom I admire. In our chat, though, she couldn’t seem to get off the phone fast enough. Maybe she was nervous. I know I was.
As inventive in public controversies as in her kitchen, Martha took heat on Halloween when a photo shoot concocted by her staff led to a local cemetery. A few townspeople, whose ancestors had been interred there for 300 years, bristled when Martha posed next to some great-great-grand-something’s revered headstone, showing off a spooky pumpkin.
The reflected limelight continued. I even chatted up the sitting Vice President of the United States, the honorable Al Gore.
He was actually standing at the time, as was I, across a rope line on some donor’s meticulously groomed lawn at a Democratic fundraiser. (Thinking back, the Secret Service must have approved me, which should make all of us feel a lot safer.)
I couldn’t come up with anything good to ask him, so I tossed out a softball question about the baseball strike. Would he arbitrate?
He looked puzzled for a moment, then said he’d be willing to give it a try.
I’m rarely mistaken for Brian Williams.
Not all stars shine gracefully. On Fourth of July Laurie played my tireless producer, scouring the beach in search of glitterati to put on the air. She approached Chevy Chase, who was rude to her, an offense I bring up every time National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is on TV.
But I got to meet genuine and gracious East Enders like the Baymen, one of the last generations of independent family fishermen, an endangered clan then fighting corporations, government, and time. Their quietly charismatic leader (who introduced me as being from “up the island”) could have stepped out of the Old Testament.
So I was honored when they let me into their lives one pre-dawn morning, taking me along as they caught squid. The sailor’s life probably isn’t for me; I got seasick. But you’ve never tasted calamari like the sweet, tender fruit of the ocean gathered (just as the sun is coming up) by someone in waders whose grandfather harvested the same waters, maybe in the same waders.
The most memorable conversation I had that year was with Edward Albee. Yep, the globe’s greatest living playwright happened to have a home there. I tried to sound blasé by asking, as he prepared to get another commendation, if he’d gotten tired of such events. “If they’re going to give you an award,” he replied, “you might as well show up and accept it.”
What humility. And what a line.
A little modesty would have helped me too. But I was getting caught up in my sudden glamor (i.e., the irresistible tsunami of attention after all those lean years in New York) and it went to my head. I tried too hard to be the star everyone seemed to want, and I’m afraid I came off as arrogant, not the nice guy I play much more convincingly.
But this is hindsight. At the time everything seemed to be made of gold, like they’d promised. I wanted the ride to last forever, so much so that I convinced myself it would. Reasonable people predicted differently, but I was drunk at a free bar.
In fact, the investors’ lawyer (call him Eddie, the one who had dazzled, courted, and hired me) even urged us to buy a house. This, he said, would ensure our standing in the community, and keep things rolling. We scraped together every nickel we could, and did it. Eddie even handled the real estate deal. The seller seemed to be a friend, more uncanny luck.
Summer begat autumn. Autumn begat winter. But after the in-crowd which ignites the Hamptons’ one-season economy high-tailed it back to Manhattan and Malibu, it suddenly became clear that this time each year the small town they left behind ran out of begats.
The jet-setters’ amusement park became a sleepy Elks hall. Without summer money, the eastern end of Long Island ceased to be The Hamptons and went back to its roots like any other isolated outpost, hunkering down for another nor’easter. Inevitably, the radio station began to fail. By Christmas the holly was hitting the fan.
You may know that many December traditions date from pagan observances. Ancient Europeans couldn’t quite get their loincloths around the idea that the day gets shorter after the summer solstice, then stretches out again at year’s end. Our yule log might come from those forefathers hedging their bet, gratefully igniting the woodpile to celebrate their relief – and asking the Sun God to please keep coming back.
Even without loincloths, my employers’ business model didn’t apparently include the concept of “winter.” I guess they were indoors then.
But not the station’s staff. Soon to be tossed into the snow like ballast from an overloaded icebreaker, they had been fighting with management and each other since the cables got connected, and as the snips now glinted in the setting sun, espirit de corps hit something of a low point. During one tense meeting, a hungover colleague called me an asshole, an indication that the good times might really be over.
The agony of collision began. In January the owners announced they would not be renewing my contract; I was off the air that day. It made local news, and two of my children were into reading age. This was the other side of fame.
Some manager conceded I “had a following,” but whoever those hardy souls were couldn’t save me or the rest of us. The guy that the investors brought in to get rid of everybody told one host that they “felt real bad.”
Laurie and I were getting a little queasy too. Preparing to evacuate, we couldn’t sell the house. Wrong market, wrong everything. Its mortgage kept humming along though, a problem when my income stopped. To top it all off, our desperate financial maneuvering to become homeowners then spawned a huge, unpayable tax bill.
From toasts of the town to bankruptcy, in a year.
Reeling, I turned toward the northeast end of the island, the North Fork, which is what the shoreline does there as it juts away from the Hamptons, like Barbara Bush making a left turn at Barbra Streisand.
But they’d both like the small farms and wineries.
One station, whose owner we’ll call Al (“Psycho Al” to staffers) ran a satellite music feed awkwardly interrupted by a truncated local morning show. This wasn’t exactly seamless. More like cutting into a bowling alley’s background mix to say that lane four hadn’t returned their shoes.
Al hired me to upgrade this production and I supplanted their current host, a sad-looking man my son said sounded like he was broadcasting from a dark room.
It’s never pleasant to push someone aside, but I may have lengthened this guy’s life. He’d had a couple of heart attacks and was seen around the station wincing and rubbing his chest. I asked how he enjoyed living and working there.
“Afternoons, I go out in a boat with a bottle of whiskey.”
Here’s to Vasco da Gama.
Our navigator, Psycho Al, was the most maniacal manic depressive I ever crossed polarities with. He was running two businesses (the funky station and some executive search firm) simultaneously, and both apparently onto a sandbar. Through his open office door everyone could hear him promising the undeliverable one day, and telling them to shove it the next.
This included clients, customers, and of course my long-suffering coworkers, a jittery group of secret and not-so-secret drinkers, the perennially unlucky, and people who just went looking for the ocean one day and found themselves at a place where the road stops.
I plunged ahead. There were unique local issues (a legally mandated dearth of McDonald’s) plus unique people living real-life dramas. One nail-biting segment let my listeners hear the first-person story of an air-sea rescuer who’d just plucked someone out of Long Island Sound.
But none of this, unfortunately, could rescue my family. Our nut was too big, the station paid too little, and Laurie, holder of an MBA, couldn’t find anything in the wilderness to contribute income but a pre-dawn route distributing newspapers.
To wit: The year before, I had been quoted in The New York Times. Now my wife was delivering it.
In the early hours (a full one each way from home) there was time to contemplate agony and collisions. One commute will live in infamy.
On the way to Psycho Al’s plantation and encounter group one morning, I was running late, almost out of gas, had maybe five dollars on me. After the show I was about to miss, I’d need to cash my paycheck to even make it home, the one on which we were defaulting.
And I had to go the bathroom.
In a poignant touch, the drive took me past a strawberry field, just like the one where my flying thumbnails had once been worth 10¢ a quart.
In a movie all you’d see would be a fidgeting driver and a speeding car in the middle of nowhere, nothing but strawberries and moonlight. You’d have to know how the plot had evolved to imagine what he was thinking.
This was it:
I’ve now disgraced my family, lost all our money, can’t even get to work, and in about five minutes I’m GOING TO WET MY PANTS.
At disheartening times in life, we often hear someone spin a hopeless situation by saying (or even better, chirping): “Things could be worse!”
I use this phrase too. But since that morning I can point to the exact time and place when they were.
I won’t spoil the suspense. We gave up on the ill-fated house, stubbornly refused to declare bankruptcy, went back to our Midwestern roots, paid off our debts, and eventually wound up as solvent, solid, property-tax-paying citizens again.
This took 13 years including the citizenship part.
I’d gotten us into this debacle by losing my perspective, and we got past it the way you survive all upheavals, embracing reality as bravely as you can, and trying to keep your sense of humor.
The last Eastern Seaboard fundraiser we attended was with the Internal Revenue Service. In the grimmest, most depressing office you’ve ever seen. No one knows what they do with our tax money, but I can tell you it’s not squandered on decorating.
Barren walls, a metal desk, some functionary who undoubtedly knew we didn’t have any dough, including theirs. “Thanks for seeing us,” I told her, pulling up a plastic chair for Laurie.
“And by the way, I love what you’ve done with this place!”
The absurdity of disasters, even self-inflicted ones, leads to laughter. What else can you do?
After I got canned, the editor of East Hampton’s Independent, Tom Clavin, asked if I’d like to write something while I was cooling my heels. So in the same paper where “Wright Off the Air” had been a headline, a feature appeared in the back with the same title and my attempts at English.
The Long Island Press Club, apparently lowering their standards that year, cited the columns (soon dubbed News Junkie) for an award in humor. The certificate still hangs on my wall, a reminder of our year at the top.
And in an appropriate touch, my name was spelled Gerry.
But rather than seem ungrateful (I figured if I made any trouble they’d just take it back) I landed a drop of White-Out in middle of the e and framed it.
You can barely tell.
HOLIDAYS AT THE DAILY PLANET
When even the news needs a break
“Excuse me, Mr. White?”
“Yes, Jimmy? What is it?”
“Something strange is going on. No one came to work at the paper today.”
“Everyone is off until January. I just came in to use the bathroom.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s the holiday season. End of the year. We’re on a news hiatus.”
“A news hiatus? But what if something happens? Who’ll report it?”
“It won’t. Never does. See, everybody needs a break. All the big newsmakers take off this time of year. Vacationing, partying, sobering up. No one’s in any mood for a pushy interview. So they don’t do anything, and we don’t cover it.”
“What about the volatile international situation?”
“Here’s your headline: ‘War going fine, say top officials.'”
“Run that tomorrow?”
“For the next six weeks.”
“What do we put in the rest of the newspaper?”
“The usual holiday stories. We run the same ones every year.”
“We do? I never noticed that.”
“No one does. End-of-Year Amnesia Syndrome.”
“Exactly. Something happens to everyone’s memory right after Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s the L-tryptophan in the turkey. But they never seem to notice when last year’s articles pop up again.”
“Wait a minute – like, every season we ask some guy at a Christmas tree lot how to keep them fresh, and he always says, ‘Make a new cut and put it in water.'”
“Bingo. We’ve run that since World War II and people still hang it up on their refrigerator. Two years ago it won an honorable mention for investigative reporting.”
“And no one ever catches on?”
“Never. Someone ran a picture of Santa wearing an ‘I Like Ike’ button once, but our readers are comatose through New Year’s, so no one complained.”
“And nothing new actually happens?”
“Nada. We run our annual story about dangerous toys, our annual story about not groping coworkers at company parties, and then our big annual story about holiday safety. ‘Don’t set fire to your house with frayed Christmas lights!'”
“Does that still happen?”
“Not since 1947.”
“Shouldn’t we update it?”
“Here’s your lead. ‘Organic eggnog and botulism are a recipe for holiday stress.'”
“And that’s really it for the whole season?”
“We look up when Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are, then it’s bring on the BarcaLoungers.”
“But what about those shopping surveys? How do we keep them current?”
“Make up the name of some mall. ‘Valley River Orchard,’ ‘Canyon Creek Meadow.’ It’s always land formation, body of water, plants. Then quote somebody named Betty saying, ‘I’m on a budget, but golly, it’s Christmas!'”
“So there’s really nothing that needs doing this time of year?”
“You could write up some weather forecasts.”
“Can do, chief! Any particular slant?”
“‘Jack Frost will be nipping at our noses.'”
“Great. See you around Valentine’s Day.”