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Fine Arts and Auto Parts

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"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.


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