Still, on my first night in the country I fiddled with keys and locks. I stuck a chair in front of screen doors that have holes bigger than mosquitoes, big enough to stick a hand through, big enough for marauding interlopers, or the murderous crackpots I figured lurked in all this greenery. I was alone in the country, except for the cricket who lives in the basement of my house on Madison Street.
On my street in Sag Harbor, there's a lot of white picket fence, and Truman Capote's red Mustang convertible. The car - and some of the picket fence - belongs to Joe and Myron, my neighbours, who live in a wonderful period house. The year 1844 was a good one for Sag Harbor, when it was a boom town built on whale oil. Joe and Myron keep their mortgage, according to local tradition, in the newel post in the hall with a scrimshaw button on top.
My house, rented for the season, is probably as old as Joe's, has floorboards that creak with age, and is the colour of melted Hershey bars. It has a big American flag out front and neon blue hydrangeas in the backyard. There are trees - maples, I think - a trellis, an enormous hammock and a barbecue set. The house is full of pretty things - antique bread baskets and folk art - and some of them fall on your head when you open the cupboards.
Here on Madison Street I would chill out, read Dickens, write a best seller, satisfy a hankering for a little solitude away from Manhattan and catch a whiff of the honeysuckle and ocean breezes of the great American summer, which takes place annually along the north Atlantic coast.
Sag Harbor is surrounded by some of the richest farm country in America. You stick stuff in the ground - corn, potatoes, tomatoes, wine - and it apparently simply pops out and on to the nearest roadside stand. It is only a few miles from the endless white Atlantic beaches and the summer high life of the Hamptons, so that rumours of celebrity warfare drift north fast. Did Barbra Streisand refuse to get out of Donna Karan's VW Cabriolet at the party last weekend because Steven Spielberg failed to show? And who cares? Not Sag.
Sag is small town, and even the 'all-year summer people' here have an investment in the blue-collar ethos of the fishermen and firemen who eat breakfast at the Paradise Soda Grill on Main Street. Sag Harbor is sometimes known as the 'un-Hampton'. It refers to THEM as the 'damn Hamptons'.
In the middle of the worst heatwave in years, with the temperature stuck at around 100 for this last week, hardly anyone gave in to air conditioning. Fans, maybe, and a lot of grumbling. In Sag Harbor, it is unhip to be fancy; mod cons are uncool. But, as someone said to me recently, until I got here, my idea of the outdoors was getting a taxi.
The village streets, which fan out tidily from the wharf and Main Street, like a wedge of apple pie, are named after presidents - Jefferson, Washington, Clinton. There are white wooden churches, a bingo parlour, an American Legion Hall, and an Art Deco movie theatre.
The clapboard houses, weatherbeaten grey, or painted white or cream, are the kind once occupied by people with names like Jedediah and Obadiah and Theophilus. After the first couple of days of ogling the shingle and the shutters, the marvellous porches and gables, the cupolas and picket fences, I cottoned on: Sag Harbor was an unselfconscious little theme park, a perfectly embalmed museum town.
'In the 1830s and 1840s, when Sag Harbor was a booming whale town, you didn't need good taste to build well - it took genius not to. And by the time ugliness entered America, Sag Harbor couldn't afford it,' notes Wilfred Sheed, one of Sag Harbor's resident writers - and there are plenty of them.
Around 1847, Sag Harbor up and died. Gold was discovered in California and then petroleum in Pennsylvania, and Sag Harbor became a kind of Pompeii, buried alive intact, running on a little fishing, a few hit or miss industries and, eventually, New Yorkers with a yen for getting away from it all, but not too far.
I had done it. Got away. What I hadn't figured on, though, coming out here, was how NOISY the country is.
That first hot morning, as I looked out of my window, a huge pair of high-top sneakers appeared in the yard. These were followed by a large boy pushing a lawn mower the size of a bus with an engine that sounded like a disabled Tupolev. There were bees. Birds. Dogs. The incessant sawing and pruning, scraping and shingling of houseproud locals and handymen. On the weekends, when the summer people appear in force, there are babies wailing and parents cajoling and, in the next house, kids who splash in a pool. Envy sets in: I haven't got a pool.
At night, the day noise gives way to the hiss and sputter of barbecues, the chatter of ice cubes and gossip, overheard stories with a broken narrative. 'Well, couldn't they test the semen?' I heard someone say last night. 'Couldn't they tell who murdered her?'
And the crickets.
'There's a rampant fax machine somewhere in this house,' my friend Jennifer said, visiting for the first time. All night the crickets crouch in the bushes. You want to call room service to turn them off but there isn't any room service.
And when the crickets shut up for half an hour, I hear the Rubys coming. On Saturday night, the Rich Urban Bikers cruise the backroads of my peaceable theme park on their giant hogs, all done up in Ralph Lauren leathers.
I toss and turn all night and wonder what the hell I'm doing here after all, and finally, as I drift off to sleep, I remember something: I've forgotten to lock my door and I don't care. I've gone native in America and tomorrow I'm going for breakfast at the Paradise Soda Grill.Reuse content