It's Saturday night in the Village of East Hampton, and scores of summer people in Bebe tube tops and Armani blazers are stepping out of Porsches and BMWs at N.V. on Three Mile Harbor Road. As valets scramble to take their cars, doormen scan the crowd for anyone they need to hustle past the line to the VIP entrance.
Four miles away, in a part of East Hampton known as the Springs, a grease-daubed auto mechanic named Vito Sisti walks into a joint named Wolfie's, waves to Gino the bartender, and orders a vodka tonic.
The Springs -- just plain "Springs" to locals -- is one of the five hamlets that make up the town of East Hampton, now the most star-studded of the Hamptons. But at Wolfie's, which was originally called Jungle Pete's, the regulars drive pickup trucks rather than SUVs, and the bartender keeps a baseball bat behind the bar instead of a VIP list.
Five one, 110 pounds, sharp-faced and bespectacled, the 39-year-old Sisti could never get past the velvet rope into N.V. or Conscience Point Inn. But he moves with a swagger that plays perfectly in the Springs.
"I was in the Coast Guard in 1988 when I got transferred to Montauk," Sisti says derisively. Born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, he was surprised he took to the small-town camaraderie of the Springs, where he rented a house. "My brother came out that first year and he sees everybody sayin' hello to me. He says, 'What the fuck? Are you the mayor out here?' "
"We don't ever go out on Saturday night, and we make sure to do our shopping in the middle of the night at places like King Kullen in Bridgehampton."
Every year, Sisti puts up $1,000 of his own money for the art show he curates at Ashawagh Hall, which starts the weekend after Labor Day and runs for two weeks. The first year he held the show, in 1989, he named it "Fine Arts and Auto Parts." All year, Sisti travels from studio to studio selecting pieces for his show. And though there are plenty of artists in the Springs, not every one is a genius. "There's a lot of bad art-school art around," he says. "If I can't use a piece, I just tell the artist, 'It's not for me.' "
Another drink and Sisti shows off his edge. "It gets so boring here in the winter, we had a beard-growing contest and I lost to this jerk," he says, pointing to a six-footer bellied up to the bar. "I'm not kidding. I paid him with $50 in pennies."
"Lighten up, Vito," Gino advises.
Sisti heads toward the door. "There's a reading at Ashawagh Hall tomorrow," he blurts out as he leaves. "Original works."
An eight-and-a-half-square-mile peninsula north of Main Street, the Springs is the most densely populated of East Hampton's hamlets during the summer and by far the least affected by wealthy weekenders. While the population of Wainscott, for example, quadruples from 500 to 2,100 during the summer, that of the Springs only doubles, from 4,600 to 9,500.
It's also the most diverse area of the Hamptons. Pristine forests abut shimmering salt marshlands and streets lined with homes so plain that a lost Levitt owner would feel perfectly at home. Beer-bellied landscapers live cheek by jowl with second-home owners. Famous artists buddy up to locals -- known as Bubs -- whose families have lived there 350 years and speak with an antiquated New England accent ("By Jesus, yes"). And everybody sneers at the "summer people" south of the highway.
Nobody ever paid any attention tothe Springs until Jackson Pollock packed up his paint brushes and headed 100 miles east of Manhattan back in the forties. Pollock is long dead -- his convertible spun out of control on a summer night in 1956, spewing empty cans of Rheingold into the oak forest -- but the home he shared with his wife, fellow Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner, is now a museum, as well as the only reason tourists ever venture into the area.
Even today, New Yorkers who start out looking for a place south of the highway are more likely to settle for Northwest Woods than the Springs. "It's a matter of taste and image," explains Andrew Hart, a broker at Cook Pony Farm. "Many buyers don't want to mix with the local people. "For that reason, the Springs is the last bargain left in the Hamptons, the only neighborhood where a middle-class person would be able to build a home in the woods or purchase a small house with a heartbreaking view of the misty blue-green Accabonac Harbor.
But all that is changing: As the potato fields in the rest of the Hamptons fill up with trophy homes, real-estate prices in the Springs are headed through the roof. Over the past three years, prices have risen 20 percent, and they've continued to rise even as the stockmarket has fallen. For example, a water front half-acre lot in the Clearwater Beach sectionof the Springs now goes for $500,000 to $600,000 -- pricey, but cheap compared with south of the highway. "Springs is like the fat girl at the end of the bar," a local real-estate broker explains. "As the night goes on, she starts to look really good."
The Springs has its disadvantages. The local contractors and plumbers have larger families (read: more school-aged children) than the investment bankers who own second homes across the highway, which, combined with the absence of retail stores in the area, gives the Springs the highest property taxes in the Hamptons. Crowded with skateboarding kids and lined with one-story ranches, some streets would send the swells on Lily Pond Lane reaching for their Xanax.