greenport before the storm


IT’S WEDNESDAY NIGHT in Greenport and a storm is about to hit. Deserted streets, dusted in snow, most of the shops shuttered. This is the winter off-season out here. The most vibrant signs of life are the strings of Christmas lights that rustle in the wind.

In the summer, Greenport is crowded over with tourists. All the restaurants are open, the boutiques bustle, the ferry horn honks. There’s no parking and city people roller blade down the street on new skates. Yet I prefer Greenport, and other summer spots like it, in winter. I like it cold and vacant because then I can savor its true character. Any summer destination is best experienced in the cold season, when there are only locals around.

On Front Street, Aldo Maoirana is closing up. He runs his cafe out of an old wooden building with a cream-colored facade. Here Aldo sells homemade biscotti and roasts his own coffee, filling the streets with a stinging white smoke. The floors of Aldo’s are true maritime Greenport distressed wood, and fishermen come in here daily, but the walls are a Mediterranean red, and Aldo plays Italian folk music for his clients. This is where the New World meets the old. Out beyond Greenport‘s piers, it’s just ocean and ocean.

All the way back to Europe.

The man himself has a mop of curly white hair and sports a dark turtleneck. He is known all over by his first name alone. His staff are often newer arrivals to Greenport from Central America — dark-haired Salvadorans, Guatemalans — whose happiness is contagious. “I’m more used to speaking Spanish and English now than I am French and Italian,” Aldo says and shrugs. Aldo was born in Sicily, raised in France. So why is he out here at the tip of this island, in what feels like the middle of nowhere, in deep winter?

“But this is the best time to be here!” he insists.

Aldo’s good company, but even he is closing up and heading home before the storm hits. He pushes some crisp biscotti my way though before he goes. “Here, take two,” he says.

Outside the windows of the coffee house, a kids’ hockey team is making use of the rink, which is set up right next to the harbor. There are only eight kids on the team — there aren’t that many kids who live around here year round. Round and round they skate under the white lights. Greenport hockey. Beside them the old-fashioned carousel, a never-ending source of summertime amusement, is nothing but a stable full of ghosts.

Few ever see Greenport as it looks tonight, so desolate and stark. It’s the last major settlement on Long Island, the largest island in the continental United States. Known for its fish shape, the island’s tail terminates in two peninsulas, the South Fork, home to the glitzy Hamptons, and the more subdued North Fork, known for its farms and dairies, as well as the many vineyards that line the road all the way to its terminus — Greenport.

It’s a mostly easy ride from Manhattan here, and buses will take you out here for a good price and give you wireless Internet and free drinks along the way. Locals soak up the tourist income all summer long, and farmers even sell jam on the road sides at extortionate prices. Then the winter comes and the farmers huddle by their fires and most of the shops shut. That’s when you get to know who really lives in Greenport.

If you ask any of them, they will tell you, they prefer it lonesome. They came out here to get away from people. They came for the silence, for the solitude. They put up with the tourists, just so they can last the dreamy winter with some money in their pockets.

By the pier, an old fishing shop has been converted to an oyster bar. All of Greenport is closed now, but Little Creek Oysters is still steaming shellfish and serving up bowls of scallop chowder. Outside, little boys play on frozen puddles in an alleyway. “Don’t play too rough,” a mother scolds them through a window and then shuts it and the boys’ game goes on. It’s the most Old World, European thing I have seen in New York.

Inside, there is warmth and music and hospitality. Patrons in old sweaters and coats huddle around rough wooden tables and the puckered gray oysters come out on platters. Then someone announces that school has been cancelled for the following day on account of the coming storm and great cheers ring out. Supposedly the storm is supposed to hit at midnight, but that’s hours away. That means there’s time for more oysters, beer.

The bartender, a young woman with hair as rich and dark as chocolate pudding, tells me how much she loves living here, especially at this time of year. She is from Queens, I think she says over the music and voices, or Brooklyn. She’s another urban refugee in search of that elusive mix of fishing village silence and genuine camaraderie, another Greenporter waiting for the storm to hit. “It’s still the same island,” she says. That’s true, but so far from its other, busier end.  I can’t help but like her as she takes my order and I sit down in a corner with a notebook and pen. Soon push them aside. I don’t want to write any more about Greenport tonight, I decide in the corner. I want to enjoy it as it is.

A shorter, Estonian-language version of this piece appeared in the spring-summer issue of Traveller, Estravel’s new magazine, out in shops now.

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