A Shiny Car Doesn't Mean Much

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 /by

Montauk_lighthouse Before we go over to tennis 24/7 and kiss the summer goodbye, here’s a quick recount of a little time I spent at the beach last week.

The word—vacation—doesn’t do justice to its meaning in the end. What’s intended as nothing more than brief break from reality ends up, as the years go by, becoming a defining element of our lives, the time when we look back and feel that we were most ourselves. It’s hardly an accident that such a high percentage of photos in family albums come not from our working life, but from our vacationing life.

This was brought home to me most potently at a cousin’s funeral a few years ago. His older sister eulogized him by describing the ritual that he performed every year when he traveled to Cape Cod, where their family had gone each summer when he was a kid. At precisely the same spot on the highway in Massachusetts that leads to the Cape, he would pop in the same beaten old Cat Stevens cassette and croon along joyfully to the same song (which one it was escapes me), as if all his cares were in the rearview mirror. From there, he would choreograph every part of their approach to their beach house—he had to drive a certain way, stop at a certain place, listen to a certain song, arrive at a certain time. I doubt he was alone in this: For many people, returning to a place where we were most carefree as kids is a powerful, and maybe even melancholy, experience.

As I I’ve written here, my family went to the Jersey Shore every summer when I was younger. It’s easier for me, living in New York now, to head straight east and avoid all forms of tri-state traffic. So before the Open commences each year, I spend a week in August at the very end of Long Island, in the town of Montauk. My idea of a vacation is to sit on a beach and read—nothing more, or less, than that is necessary. But that’s a deceptively basic description of the trip. The simple act of entering an environment that’s both strange and familiar calls up all kinds of new sensations and inspires all kinds of new observations. With that old line, ‘what I learned on my summer vacation,’ in mind, here are four of them.


  1. Roads: Like my cousin, each time I go to Montauk, I recognize a moment when the everyday world, three hours behind me and stuck in the city’s steaming concrete, finally recedes for good. It happens when I turn off the main route through eastern Long Island and onto the single-lane Old Montauk Highway. It’s not even a full turn, just a slight bearing to the right, but here is where the salt-water smells come through the passenger seat window; sand dunes, topped by high grass, rise and fall and rise again on the right; the ancient, ungraded road, like a road through a Caribbean island, ascends and descends so quickly that for a split-second I feel like my car could be flipped all the way over on its back. Anywhere else and this might cause me to be carsick; here it’s a gentle thrill ride.


  1. Cars: They tend to be invisible in New York. They’re everywhere, so you end up not noticing them. Plus, that’s part pf the point—you don’t want your car to attract any kind of attention in the city. The opposite is true everywhere else in America, and the opposite is true in Montauk. The first day I’m there I cross paths with a classic while I’m walking to the beach, a light-brown 1976 Cadillac convertible. Now I remember why big cars were once called boats: The Caddy, seemingly as wide as it is long, appears to rock back and forth down the road. Both driver and passenger rest their elbows on top of the doors next to them. All around Montauk are similarly bright and happy relics: a light-blue convertible Beetle, a maroon Mustang, a lean and unadorned Ford Falcon, a curvy yellow Stingray. After all the sullen and status-heavy black and silver SUVs, Beemers, and Hummers that dominate the roads throughout the Hamptons, these stylish little vehicles are like holidays for the eyes, living memories of a more open, democratic, confident time in this country.


  1. Front Yards: I stay at a beachside bed and breakfast each year, a small place with a view of the ocean. I walk into its compact front yard on the first night and, for the first time since I'd been there the year before, I see a significant number of stars in the night sky. Watching them blink, I'm overcome by nostalgia, not for anything in particular, but for that sense of wonder you have as a kid. Jonathan Richman got this feeling, which is one of relief, exactly right: “It’s so good to see the sky clear up this way/There’s the stars, we haven’t lost them.” Next I notice their sonic equivalent, the crickets in the hedges, which are another nostalgic trigger—when I moved to New York, I had trouble getting to sleep without them. Now they seem to chirp in rhythm with the blinking stars—night’s timekeepers. Finally, I notice the thing that’s closest to me: the telephone poles and wires that roll like small waves down the highway in both directions. Of all these new and unfamiliar sights, these are the strangest: these poles and wires surround you; they almost threaten to strangle you, and yet they’re all but invisible, the original element of a man-made landscape. In the morning, I read the paper on the front porch and see them again through early day mist. The birds that perch on the wires are dimensionless in this mist, which allows for no depth perception. They look as if they’re made out of construction paper.


  1. Books: I tend to over plan my book selection for a vacation. The process start in my head weeks in advance. On this trip I brought four novels, eight old New Yorkers, a stack of unread New York Times stories dating back three months, and, for good measure, a book of classical poetry I thought I would pick up before I went to sleep. As usual with poetry, classical or otherwise, I watched TV instead. But I did make it through virtually everything else. Sitting back in my beach chair and holding a New Yorker up to block the sun on a scaldingly hot afternoon, I tried to imagine a world without paper. As convenient as it might have been to have all of these various printed products in one Kindle, I liked switching from one to the other. A book isn’t merely words; it’s a thing as well, as crafted and individual as any other product—a Trollope book should look and feel and even smell different from one by Evelyn Waugh. Then again, maybe all my planning was useless, anyway. The guy in the room below mine, a New York City lawyer, picked up a biography of Bob Hope from the messy stack of paperbacks in the inn's kitchen when he got there. He never stopped reading it, as far as I could tell, and finished it by the end of the week.


  1. Music: My cousin put on Cat Stevens; on this trip, I put on Soft Machine. How have I missed those guys all this time? It never ceases to amaze me how much timelessly good music was produced from about 1967 to 1972, the years in which this British psych-jazz-rock outfit was pushing their ideas outward—forget Pink Floyd, these guys were much more accomplished and thoughtful. Their bubbling landscapes make for an appropriately ethereal night-driving soundtrack along a beach road.


During the day, I went back to an old favorite, the Drive-By Truckers, a Southern-indie band whose lead singer, Patterson Hood, would be the Bruce Springsteen of his day if anyone cared about rock and roll anymore. Perhaps his finest song is called “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” In a scratchy falsetto, he tells the story of his uncle, George A., a World War II vet. Hood describes how his uncle enlisted after Pearl Harbor because he “believed in God and country/things was just that way.” As a boy, the singer watches an old war movie with his uncle and asks him if that’s the way it was in real life. George A. says he “never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima.” The song finishes by describing George A. today, still living on his farm. The singer sums up his attitude to life with these final lines:

        He never drove a new car though he could easily afford it

He’d just buy one for the family and take whatever no one wanted

He said a shiny car didn’t mean much after all the things he’d seen

I listened to this song driving out of Montauk. I passed the hipster beach, the locals-only bar, the miniature golf course, and all the big status cars on the Old Montauk Highway. Where Ocean City, NJ, is a vast upper-middle-income morass as far the eye can see, with very few class differentiators, Montauk and the Hamptons are woven together out of layers of discreet classes, all of them, in their own way, snobbish and smug. It’s a beautiful place, and you can find your niche away from humanity much more easily than you can on the Jersey Shore, but I wonder sometimes how you would even begin to afford a house there or drive one of those shiny cars. Thank you to Patterson Hood for helping me keep it in perspective:

    He said a shiny car didn’t mean much after all the things he’d seen


I'll be heading to the qualifiers tomorrow at the Open, and will be back later with a preview of the draws.

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