Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Steinbeck: Not Found in Sag Harbor

Though I have lived on Long Island nearly 20 years I had never previously visited Sag Harbor until recently. I have heard of various artists who took up residence there – something about the light -- and I have held just a smidgeon of curiosity. I have certainly been out on the South Fork and done work in the Hamptons and at Montauk, but for whatever reason I had not gone to Sag Harbor. My forays to the Hamptons, which are closer to us than we are to NYC, have always been exploratory as in many respects the culture of wealth at play for me is prohibitively alien.

My travels tend to be brought on by either a purpose, as in business, or on the downside by no other reasonable alternative -- as in a wedding or funeral.

For a living I am in the business of fixing old buildings. My specialty, if I have one, and many who know me wonder what I actually do with my time, is historic masonry.

Whenever I have an opportunity to combine my writing and reading interests with my paid work I am always delighted. So I was quite happy, and intrigued to be asked to come out and look at the brick and limestone masonry ‘free’ library in Sag Harbor. The only problem with all of that is that the free library was actually looking for free work, on our part (my son being my business partner), thinking that we would be seduced to do a full survey of their really incredibly unique and absolutely amazing historic masonry, find all of the problems, and give them an itemized price list... in fact, tell them what to do, how to do it, and the materials to use. It is a scam that I have been stuck with in the past, and it was very clear to me once we got into conversation with our contact where we were going with it and what they wanted from us. It was also obvious to me that the person we were talking with had no clue what they were talking about, as far as the actual work goes.

They told us all of the granite steps need to be replaced and I looked at them and at the steps and wondered what in heaven’s name they thought was wrong.

They had no architect on board, no written scope of work (you tell us what we need to have done) and no specifications (we have a guy in town that likes to do that historic stuff and he will tell you the mix for the historic mortar but not any time soon, and we need prices by Monday). I was perplexed and came right out and asked them if they had the money for the project, and for whatever reason they were honest and told us they had no money at all (usually people wait until you have finished the project before they admit to that little detail -- and people wonder why contractors get antsy), but they want to get some.

I won't be shy, we need to get some too!

If we were to give them the information they needed then their intent is to go ask the taxpayers for a bond. I suspect that they had this idea, a lame idea in my mind, that if they could sucker a bunch of contractors into doing free work to come up with a budget that they could line themselves up for all of that “shovel ready” stimulus money we hear about on the news these days.

There is some sort of epidemic of irrational fantasy that folks come up with when they are associated with an old building that nobody but them cares much about. It is like being the used book seller that has to keep explaining that the collection of old National Geographic, the one’s Aunt Rose saved in the attic until she expired, stacked in very neat piles, are worthless.

Sag Harbor has a bunch of really neat old buildings that look like they will never be restored in this millennium.

I kind of felt like we had really wasted an entire morning, and these days wasting an entire morning without pay, and to have to pay for the gas to get there, it sort of hurts.

To do what they really wanted done would have taken me at least four days, three days on site and a day to estimate and write it up. That is a lot of time to put into speculation and I asked, “What chance have we of getting any work here at all?” “As much chance as anybody, we will look at your price and if it is a good one then we will come back to you.” That is the voice of a death knell for any idea that they will want a quality restoration, as the masonry butchers are always cheaper. So the game here is we get all anxious to tell them everything that they need to know and then they take it and shop it around for a lower price. Been there, done that. I would like to say some nice choice badass things right about now, but I remain polite.

So then while waiting for the sap (I think he was a kitchen renovation guy with a sad task to conduct this ruse as a favor to some local grand dame) to close the roof hatch and get down off the ladder I see this bronze bust on a pedestal. I go over to look at it and I see it is John Steinbeck.

There was also some rather nice Guastavino tile vaulting.

I think, oh, gosh, Joseph Heller is buried in Easthampton and one day when I was out there I tracked down his grave... and the plaque under the Steinbeck bust tells about how Steinbeck wandered all around the globe in a state of constant internal torment but finally found a place of peace and rest in Sag Harbor. I think, yes, rest, as in he must be buried here. You see, I had not exactly thought to do extensive research on the culture and history of artists in residence or entombment in Sag Harbor before we got up that morning and prepared to go out there.

Like almost anyone I read Grapes of Wrath under duress in school and a few of his other books at a time in my life when they did not grab me very well. But as an adult I read East of Eden, read it rather slowly and deliciously, and consider it for an American writer a must-read, as much as Huckleberry Finn is a must read. So my thought here is that we will not have wasted all of our time if we can go visit the grave of John Steinbeck and I get my picture took.

I ask the sap, I figure his being local he will know, if John Steinbeck is buried in Sag Harbor.

He has no clue, I mean; he has no clue who I am talking about even when I point at the bronze bust.

He suggests I ask the library staff. So we go down stairs and the person at the library desk, the one there in what looks like maybe it was supposed to be a brown uniform (either that or a weird sense of sailor's fashion), the person that would check out your books, and she has no clue who I am talking about.

I say that they have a bust of him upstairs... then think twice maybe she does not know what a bust is either.

She tells me to ask the woman dressed in white that walks up with the mop, and I ask. She has no clue either, but has some idea who I am talking about and she says if not here then maybe in New York City he used to spend time there as well.

Where in the world is John Steinbeck?

Well, we leave there and a friend calls me on the cell and asks me how things are going at the library and I say, “They suck. It all sucks.” My candor was genuine. I am a bit fed up.

I tell my friend about how the damned librarians, of all people, have no clue if John Steinbeck is buried in Sag Harbor, or not. They get no sympathy from me (Notice how the name plaque is kind falling off?). I tell him about the crap sucker ruse we walked into, he knows what I am saying, and I am slightly peeved at everything including the sky with the nice light right about then. We hang up. I want a coffee. I want to leave Sag Harbor. In a bit my friend calls back and tells us that Steinbeck is buried in Salinas, CA.

My son says to me, “Good thing we did not decide to just wander around and look in cemeteries the rest of the day.”