Gripped with the sort of panic that seizes just about any man left alone with his kids, I take Dempsey’s hand and lead him into the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton.
An artist from Bali is exhibiting his newest collection, and I want to hear him discuss the work in person.Who brings a three-year-old to an art opening? I have visions of him rubbing his chocolate-covered hands all over the artwork, climbing the mounted stones on the canvas frames, pulling down the tablecloth that serves the wine, and crackers and grapes and bottles of Perrier. I have visions of millennial art enthusiasts casting judgmental looks and sucking their teeth at him. At me!
I walk in anyway. And here’s why.
My father drove a coach for the Hampton Jitney. One of the few perks of driving those runs in the thick of summer weekend traffic that begins at the bottleneck in Hampton Bays and extends all the way to Montauk (there was only one lane at the bottleneck in them days) was that he could let his family ride for free. He used to offer it to me every weekend. I was 15. As teenagers do, I yessed him to death (not today, but yeah, totally some other weekend, Dad).
I should mention I look identical to my father. Maybe I kept brushing him off because I was scared passengers would see the resemblance and I’d be “the bus driver’s kid.” Maybe I was feeling a bit of that illogical shame ingrained in poor people—the self-conscious paranoia that our every move is being watched.
Whatever the reason, my father never relented and finally, one sunny Saturday in August, I acquiesced. I caught his bus route at the western-most stop—in Manorville—and rode in the seat behind him all the way to Montauk.
I got a history lesson as can only be told through the eyes of a bus driver.
“Here’s where I almost ran over Robin Williams,” he boasted. “He skipped in the air and did his little Popeye thing before he saluted me and finished crossing. Here’s where I saw the first break-dancer I ever saw in person. He had a piece of linoleum but the cops quickly moved him along. Over there in the red dress. That same woman meets that same man at the same time every Saturday and they go into that building together.”
Along Main Street in Bridgehampton a couple kids my age ate ice-cream and lounged on the benches and wore flip-flops and pastel-colored shorts.
When I climbed off the bus in Montauk I was greeted by a hive of people speaking different languages. French and Italian, German and Swedish tourists snapped photos and took inventory of their backpacks. I followed a small crowd of them to the ocean. A side-street abruptly turned to sand and we walked between a pair of high dunes that seemed deliberately parted by God. This is how all dead ends should look.
On the stretch of beach just outside of town in Montauk the wind swirled west to east. It carried with it a mist of warm salt. I watched the crowd disperse along the strand, staking out small plots of rented space for their towels and sandals. Two boys immediately went to work raising a volleyball net. Most headed for the crashing surf.
I took off my shoes and waded out into the water. The tourists were better prepared. They had surfboards and wetsuits. They were diving headfirst from every direction, and I watched the sun make speckled diamonds of their bodies as they cut through the rolling waves. Seagulls circled overhead. One landed on the wet sand just beyond the reach of the waves. I waded toward him. Tested how close I could get to nature before it flew away from me. That’s where the projector in my mind runs out of tape and freezes. The sun beginning to drop as a seagull lifts into the air and sails over the heads of
two Swedish men. They are kissing—embracing each other in anticipation of the next wave.
My dad is gone now. I’m forever grateful that he persisted in asking me. That he held me to my promises and told me something about his daily life. That he did the only thing parents can do: he showed me a doorway and gave me multiple chances to step through and experience, for myself, the heartbreak of beauty.
At the Tripoli Gallery, I recognize myself in Dempsey’s resistance. He wants ice-cream instead of artwork. One of the girls at the gallery graciously hands him a printed card that features one of the works on display. Dempsey wanders through the gallery space trying to match the card to the original on the wall. When he finds it, he squeals and calls me over. When the excitement wears off, he is back to wanting ice-cream.
On Jobs Lane Dempsey and I set out to find an ice-cream store. Just outside the shop where he points to every single flavor as the one he wants, I notice the cover of one of those free magazines that are stacked near the steps. A woman is wearing a white, flowing gown. She’s seated criss-cross on the beach, holding her dog. She’s looking directly at the camera, smiling. Her hair is windswept dramatically over her shoulder. Behind her a pair of white dunes swell toward a cloudless blue
sky. We’re supposed to know who she is, but I’m more struck by the dunes. They are beautiful and familiar.
I decide to make a day of it. In a moment of inspiration I strap my son into his car seat and head out to Montauk. We make it there before sunset. I pull into Shagwong, where we park for free, and follow the dirt road all the way to Block Island Sound. From there I hold his hand and we walk to the inlet rocks. On the journey, he runs his fingers through the sand and holds up tufts of seaweed to show me, as if I’m also seeing it for the first time. We watch sailboats slide home to Gurney’s against the reddening sun and we sit on the rocks. Well… I sit on the rocks. He takes years off my life by leaping the rocks in a deadly game of hop-scotch. I look around. Along the white dunes and slim stretch of sand, campers light fires and a large family throws a birthday party on the beach. For a moment I try to guess where the woman on the magazine cover was sitting when the photo was snapped. Not too far from me, children climb an abandoned lifeguard stand and pretend to be King of the Beach. We are all kings of the beach.
Every so many months there’s renewed talk about privatizing the beaches out here. Shutting it off as personal property. I watch Dempsey play upon the rocks and try to imagine explaining this scene to him. Teaching him about beaches or showing him Google Earth images. There is no way
to teach this. There’s no “White Dunes” in Rosetta Stone. He can’t listen to this in the car.
He points to a fisherman casting for blues on the other side of the inlet. He asks what he’s doing and when I tell him, he says he wants a try. A rogue seagull sails into view and lands on the rocks to grab up a piece of abandoned bait. He takes flight once again as the sun drops on the horizon about half way into the water. The seagull frames the picture in my son’s eyes. It sails on the wind with a full belly. Dempsey has chocolate ice-cream around his mouth. Among the three of us, I think: we will never be as wealthy as we are right now.