Sag Harbor Holiday: Across the highway, it's a different ball game

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'LADIES and gentlemen, Mort Zuckerman is still single]' cries Howard Stringer, the head of CBS television. He is speaking of the owner of the New York Daily News, and the occasion is the annual Artists and Writers baseball game in East Hampton on Long Island, just over the highway from Sag Harbor.

Morty (who pitches) and Howard (the master of ceremonies) are among the denizens of the Hamptons partaking on this field of dreams, here behind the A & P supermarket on a broiling Saturday in August.

To get a feel for this you have to imagine that, in some legendary holiday resort, le tout London is attending a celebrity soccer match where, say, the director-general of the BBC, John Birt, in shorts, is shouting instructions as Rupert Murdoch runs around in a pink T-shirt. And everyone is pretending it's 'just folks', 'local yokels' out there.

Bill Clinton does not show up, after all. 'Is Barbra here?' someone says, hoping for Streisand, who was once seen in these parts.

Welcome to East Hampton, where the yearning, never-satisfied refrain of summer is: 'Who's that?'

I had been meaning to go over to East Hampton all summer, to the star-studded summer colony that services New York City and Hollywood, but I'd let it go, wallowing in the inverted snobbery of Sag Harbor, that thinks it downright unsagish to care. I had become the thing that should never speak its name: a sentimental rustic.

My friend Richard arrives from New York on Saturday morning. (He is the perfect house guest: he arrives from the city with fresh gossip, he is a brilliant cook, and he recycles garbage.) We are on Main Street when one of the guys from the Paradise Grill calls 'hello' from his car. Richard's eyes widen.

Richard is a tactful man and only suggests it is time for a change of scenery and also a doughnut from Dreesden's. For Richard, food is life's great sub-plot.

We call a cab from Dependable and head south.

'It's not like it used to be out here,' says the driver. 'It's all New York City attitude. We're being pushed off Long Island. Sag Harbor's the last stop. In East Hampton, a shack in the woods costs dollars 175,000 ( pounds 120,000). A hot dog costs dollars 4. The stories I could tell . . .'

As we disembark, I ask him how much for the 10-minute trip. 'dollars 13,' he says.

I had only crossed the Montauk Highway, but I felt like Wordsworth when he had crossed the Alps. Here were glamour, money, celebrity, fame, all of them meeting at the annual ball game. In olden times, as they tell it, the Artists and Writers game was played by artists and writers, and people threw grapefruit at each other. Today there is a sound system by Disney and model girls spectate in Birkenstock clogs, the chic shoe of the summer of '93, and everyone keeps asking: 'Who's that?'

Lauren Bacall shows up to draw the raffle.

'Who's she?'

A woman tries to explain to her 13- year-old son about Casablanca and Bogie; the kid puts his headphones on.

The crowd grows. Necks crane. Where are they? Steven Spielberg or Tom Wolfe or Pele, who once did play, or Bill and Hillary?

Several large ladies in polyester settle down with a lunch of cold risotto and Diet Coke. Two girls scramble on to the field with their autograph books. The sun beats down relentlessly. This is heart- attack weather.

But valiantly the game's mainstays saunter on to the field, boys of summer of a certain age. Ben Bradlee, the recently retired editor of the Washington Post, looks handsome, spry at 71.

Other stalwarts leap around the field swinging bats, for to play baseball in summer is to be an American guy. Wearing well-worn faces, they strike macho poses; an onlooker murmurs: 'Just a bunch of old heteros.'

'Sit down,' a woman in stretch jeans is shrieking. 'You're blocking my view]'

'Let's get a doughnut,' Richard says, and we head for the village.

East Hampton is extravagantly pretty. Settled, like Sag Harbor, in the l700s, it has white churches and a windmill. Rich people have been coming for decades, but in the Eighties it was injected with Eighties money. Big money.

People cruise the Barefoot Contessa, a fancy food store, searching out recherche brands of lemon curd. There is a nearby restaurant where, if you want a designer chicken for dinner (bred and slaughtered here in the Hamptons), you have to book one in advance.

The great summer mansions belonging to Spielberg and Billy Joel are hidden behind hedges, but soon, no doubt, there will be bus tours to the homes of the stars and star maps purveyed by kids in the parking lot of the supermarket.

East Hampton has glorious beaches, but on this hot summer day, the Jags in gridlock, cellular phones buzzing, the village streets are packed with people eating, gawking, nagging the kids. You feel with one great shudder, this place could heave itself over the top, Deauville turning into Blackpool. Even in Dreesden's, an old-fashioned grocery, there is cola sorbet.

Hot. Fed up. No longer interested in who wins the game (the writers won; they usually do), we escape into the movie house. Relief follows in the dark, cool theatre where all the stars are on the screen, where they belong.

We emerge into the sunset to discover that East Hampton is wall-to- wall limousines. There is a charity premiere tonight and people are standing on tippy-toe. Lily Tomlin, the comedian, waves. People clap tentatively.

'Who is she? Who?'

It is time to go, back to Sag Harbor, which looks nervously at East Hampton and thinks it sees its future. As real-estate prices rise, and more city folk move out full-time, as locals relocate in North Carolina or Georgia, it feels its very soul in danger. Little faux rustic signs with gold lettering have been appearing all over town.

Among the limos, we spot our little blue taxi from Dependable heading in the other direction.

The next day, I have breakfast at the Paradise and bike home, safe and smug in Sag Harbor. Puffed up with high moral tone about the sturdy virtues of my temporary summer place, but craning my neck to see who's visiting in the house next door, I fall off my bike with a huge plop.

Richard appears with a gallon of banana ice-cream because it's my birthday. And I am reminded that a mere six weeks ago, when I got here, I was a person who figured the out-of- doors were for getting a taxi. I probably still am.

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