Fine Arts and Auto Parts

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.

Then there are the tracts of untouched forest, and houses with sweeping views of Gardiners Bay or Three Mile Harbor. On a midsummer day, when the Village of East Hampton is clogged with Land Rovers and the beaches are overrun, you can still find some empty sand at Barnes Landing or watch the world go by from the porch at the Springs General Store.

But that’s changing, too. Dee Raley, a chef at the store, points out a pack of passing cars one Saturday afternoon. “That’s the Pollock traffic,” she says, referring to the tourists who, inspired by last year’s Jackson Pollock movie, flock to the artist’s former home nearby. And as the world of the Hamptons noses its way north into the Springs, as the BMWs of the summer people and the pickups favored by the Bubs come grill to grill, tempers sometimes flare.

Ask local real-estate broker John Wiltshire. The six-foot-four former model hopped out of his Mercedes to argue a point of vehicular courtesy and ended up gushing blood from a Bub head butt. “There’s a lot of anger out here,” Wiltshire says.

No place in the Springs seems farther from East Hampton than Wolfie’s – sometimes called Club Bub – where the menu is simple but the social order is not. The rising prices haven’t driven the artists out of the Springs because most of them own their own homes, but it certainly has driven them into the arms of the Bubs at Wolfie’s, where a beer is still $3.25. The summer people who do wander in here keep their voices down and give wide berth to the chortling contractors, flush from the rousing building boom.

Everybody gives wide berth to the Bubs. Wild Bill, a handle bar-mustached follower of the famous Maidstoners softball team of artists and local builders and landscapers, puts it this way: “The Bubbies have lived here for centuries. The Millers, the Lesters, the Kings. They got streets named after them. Somebody in a Mercedes is gonna cut them off on the road? C’mon.” A local recommends I talk to Ed Hults about the area’s history. A block away from his Shingle house, I pass Ed Hults Street.

The Bubs have a style all their own. They eat Bub burgers (peanut butter and butter on a hard roll), drive trucks with black Labrador retrievers in the back, and even have their own Bub salute on the road. “It’s a sharp nod, like this,” demonstrates Raley, who owns a house on the Springs’ windswept Gerard Point.

The truest locals are the baymen, or Bonackers, fishermen who have given the area its character and the East Hampton High School sports teams their nickname, but whose livelihood has been strangled by commercial-fishing regulations. Many of the baymen have been driven to bankruptcy and drink. Most have given up the water, moving into the building trades. Less than a dozen die hards still motor onto the bay each dawn.

Most residents ignore the tension and revel in the mix of people. “This is the real Hamptons, “announces an elderly woman at the eighteenth annual Springs Improvement Society’s Members’ Art Show in whitewashed Ashawagh Hall on Old Stone Highway. “Those other people,” she continues, jerking her head toward the Village of East Hampton, “they’re not from the Hamptons. They’re from … Hollywood, I think.”

Indeed, Hollywood may be coming to town. Billy Joel has been looking to buy a place on Three Mile Harbor.

A couple hundred yards down the road from Ashawagh Hall and the Presbyterian church, past the library and across a small bridge that separates Accabonac Creek from Pussy Pond, Sharon McCobbp resides over the General Store. “People pull up and ask me, ‘Where’s the town of Springs?’ ” says the winsome, dark-haired store owner. “I tell them: ‘Right here.’ “

Built in the late 1800s, the General Store looks like it hasn’t changed much since Jackson Pollock traded one of his paintings there for groceries and beer. In the parking lot, three rusted, inoperative gas pumps stand beside six weathered barrels festooned with pink verbenas and pale yellow petunias, and the sprawling front porch supports half a dozen Adirondack chairs. Out back, a snowy egret steps through the marsh grass. Inside, McCobb’s blonde 5-year-old daughter, Lena, grins from the back room, where a counter holds a coffeemaker and a tray of freshly baked cookies.

When McCobb took over the store five years ago, it was a true Bub joint like Barnes Country Store a block away, where the shelves are lined with cans of baked beans and the most popular items are hot coffee and cheap Budweiser. A couple of years ago, though, she began catering to the burgeoning second-home crowd, serving up veggie burgers and curried chicken salad. Recently, Raley offered a tofu sandwich to a Bub friend of hers and he waved it away in disgust. “Where’s the real food?” he wanted to know. Now the homemade corn chowder is better than any south of the highway, but it’s harder to get change back on a $20 bill.

People show up at the store in shifts. At dawn, a convoy of vans and pickups sits in the parking lot while a line of sinewy men pour themselves tall Styrofoam cups of coffee. Some are Latino laborers drawn by the well-paying construction work, others subcontractors, local men riding out the biggest economic swell of their lives.

An hour later, John Griffith passes through on his way to his job at a building-supply company. At 47, Griffith displays none of the Bub irritability but speaks with a lilt that tells you he comes from the old stock just the same. He refers to Accabonac Creek as a “Crick” and remembers the days when a boy could drive at 14 and make a dollar plowing a field in the Springs while eating handfuls of fresh strawberries.

“I don’t ever go downstreet,” he says, using the local term for the Village of East Hampton. “We don’t ever go out on Saturday night,” Raley says, “and we make sure to do our shopping in the middle of the night at places like King Kullen in Bridgehampton.”

Around breakfast time, the summer people begin filing into the General Store to buy their newspapers and muffins. Later, a blue pickup with a five-foot woodcarving of a fish mounted on the side panel cruises down Old Stone Highway. “That’s George the Fishman,” Sharon McCobb explains. “Supposedly, if he doesn’t catch a fish, he goes home and carves one.”

Lounging on the porch over lunch, Vito Sisti greets Charles Waller, a tousled, bespectacled artist in khakis and a faded blue work shirt who pulls up in a white Jeep. In New York City, Waller made good money illustrating dozens of covers for magazines like Time and Sports Illustrated, “but all I was looking at were fax machines, FedEx men, and messengers,” he remembers. So five years ago, he drifted out to the Springs and began making assemblage pieces out of jar tops, mousetraps, and pieces of tin. Devil Dog, from his 1999 “Dog Show,” is made of license plates tinted red and hammered into the shape of an upright hound wielding a garden rake as a pitchfork and sporting a bullhorn for a phallus.

One of the few residents who do go downstreet, Waller has shown his work in Manhattan, London, Japan, and the former Morgan Rank Gallery in East Hampton, and his “sarcastic folk” artworks sell for $5,000 to $10,000 apiece. Now he lives in Maidstone Beach, a bustling artists’ colony that’s home to painter Tim Tibus, sculptor David Gochenour, and photographer Tim Lee, and rents a studio-gallery on Springs Fireplace Road festooned with his latest creations.

“I used to drive by Wolfie’s and I was reluctant to go in,” the mild-mannered Waller remembers. “But then I got to know everybody and it was cool.” Waller’s obsession with finding unusual objects to work with often draws him straight to the town dump down the street from his gallery. “The dump is the great equalizer,” he says. “You see the rich people throwing things out and the poor people waiting to snap them up. Then you see some of the people in their Mercedeses doing some foraging of their own.”

“It all changed so fast. If I step off my boat onto the land over there, somebody will call the police. I don’t mind if the people move out here. But don’t ruin my life.”

Nobody has more right to anger over the Hamptonization of the Springs than the embattled baymen. Starting at 5 a.m., a handful of the remaining baymen walk into the Barnes Country Store and pour their own morning coffee before heading into the water. Even the order in which they arrive is all but public record, says the man behind the cash register.

The first to arrive is Willie Kromer, a wiry middle-aged man in faded jeans and a worn cotton work shirt. His face is brown up to the middle of his forehead, pale above where the bill of his cap blocks the sun. Kromer doesn’t feel like talking. He says the baymen have talked themselves sick, “but we talk and we talk and it always comes out wrong.” Year after year, their world continues to shrink.

As he sips his coffee, he can’t help stating his case one more time. Every other party in the fishing world receives due consideration, he says – the sport fishermen, the commercial fishermen who haul in thousands of pounds at a time, and even the fish themselves. Billy Joel championed the baymen’s cause and raised money for legal battles they hoped would change the fishing regulations that have pushed them to the brink of extinction. But recently, the lawyer for the Baymen’s Association in effect advised thegroup to stop throwing good money away and give up.

Outside the store, the air is as still as a tomb and none of the other baymen have arrived to chat. Perhaps because nobody wants to make his last stand alone, Kromer agrees to take me clamming. So he drives his lumbering pickup to the one-story ranch where his wife and strapping 16-year-old son are still fast asleep. The boy won’t follow his father out to the water on this or any other morning.

“I’ve been fishin’ all my life,” Kromer says. “Like my father and grandfather. Only thing I wanted to do. Asked for a pair of knee boots for my birthday when I was 10. “But last winter, on the same day he got his yearly fluke license in the mail, he received a notice that the fluke season was already closed. “My son seen that,” he says. “For along time he’s been seein’ my life go down.”

Kromer hooks his pickup to his twenty-foot sharpie, a wooden boat he built himself in three days, and heads out to Montauk Lake to spend the day clamming for littlenecks. Because of the maddening labyrinth of catch limits and seasonal restrictions, that’s the only seafood he can harvest this week.

For twelve years, Kromer worked on a 100-foot dragger boat that fished the rough water off of Montauk. Then he bought a 40-foot boat and fished it alone. “The first year, it was great,” he says. “The second year, I bought a net and DEC Department of Environmental Conservation closed fluke down totally out of the blue.” Kromer had to sell the boat.

Out on Lake Montauk, cormorants skim low over the glassy water as Kromer leans into his clam rake. He eyes the luxury homes that have sprung up along the shore. “It all changed so fast. If I step off my boat onto the land over there, somebody will call the police. I don’t mind if the people move out here. But don’t ruin my life. It’s not right.”

Kromer faces into the light wind, pushes the boat gently, and pulls on his rake. He pushes and pulls again. He works seven days a week and has taken only two vacations in 24 years. “I’m a good carpenter. Everybody told me to try it, so I did. But the rich people bicker over every tiny detail. I love to work, but I won’t kiss somebody’s ass.”

Kromer yanks up his rake and dumps its contents onto a board laying across the center of his boat. He pulls out the bright-green “sputnik grass” and sorts the shells, sifting the small seed clams out of the mix and flipping the littlenecks into a pile. They’ll bring about 25 cents apiece, so he’ll have to stay out most of the day to make a couple hundred dollars. “This is the life,” Kromer says without a trace of irony.

In death as in life, the Springs brings artists and Bonackers shoulder to shoulder. In the Green River Cemetery, five rolling acres in the northwest corner of the hamlet surrounded by a white split-rail fence, famous artists share land with descendants of local families. Jackson Pollock resides here, right beside a huge boulder brought to the site on instructions from his wife, who rests close by, next to a much smaller boulder. Ad Reinhardt, whose work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, is here, as are Stuart Davis and Elaine de Kooning, who have their signatures engraved gracefully in granite. The weathered headstones of the Lesters and the Bennets sit nearby, without any such artistic flourish.

Recently there’s been a rush of newcomers, too, south-of-the-highway types who wouldn’t have let a Bonacker like Willie Kromer set foot on their manicured lawns. They started coming nine years ago, after Time Warner chairman Steve Ross died and his wife chose Green River as his final resting place. Awed by the site’s natural beauty and impressed by the fame of the artists buried there, she snapped up 110 of the 400 remaining plots for $700 each. The rest have since been bought, so any resident of the Springs without a plot will have to be buried somewhere else.

Fine Arts and Auto Parts