By WILLIAM SHANNON
While I was on Long Island Thursday for a friend’s wake, I took a ride a bit farther out on the island to Sag Harbor, where John Steinbeck owned a house from 1955 until his death in 1968.
Steinbeck split his final 13 years living in New York City and living in the Sag Harbor cottage, which overlooks a cove in the Long Island Sound.
His famous road trip to rediscover America at age 58, detailed (possibly with some fictional flourishes) in Travels with Charley, started from his Sag Harbor house. His novel The Winter of our Discontent is set in the town, though it’s called New Baytown in the book.
On the way out to Sag Harbor, I avoided the Long Island Expressway, remembering Steinbeck’s diatribe in Travels with Charley on the mindless time warp of traveling by interstates and thruways.
Instead, I took Route 25A, to 25, to 27 to 52 and 38, going through the main streets of many towns and taking in the views from the stretches of road that hugged the Sound.
Entering Sag Harbor, I slowed down, looking at all the side roads that jutted into coves with vacation homes.
With help from the Internet, I found John Steinbeck’s former home, down a private gravel lane. I parked at the turnaround at the start of the private gravel lane and walked toward the cottage.
There was a car parked in the driveway.
I spent about ten seconds looking at the little house from the road. I pictured Steinbeck’s truck and little camper parked there in 1960, awaiting the 10,000-mile journey, and the local kid who begged to go.
I walked onto the driveway and got a better look over to a small swimming pool and the six-sided little cabin looking out to Morris Cove and Upper Sag Harbor Cove. Steinbeck built the cabin for interruption-free writing. He wrote The Winter of our Discontent there.
A few feet directly in front of the door is a large tree, which Steinbeck may have planted to dissuade people like me in his day from bothering.
I knocked and stepped back, looking over the property and the water.
Steinbeck in 1960 had to delay the start of his road trip a bit due to hurricane Donna. He moored his 22-foot cabin boat out in the cove for the storm. Because the cove is fairly well-protected, Steinbeck wrote, many small watercraft cruised in to moor there as the storm approached. A pair of men moored two boats together lightly and within swinging distance of Steinbeck’s boat. The writer said he took out a megaphone and protested their foolishness, but they didn’t hear and were gone.
The winds from the hurricane knocked down tree limbs, nearly hitting the cottage, knocked out power and loosened some of the boats from their moorings. The two lashed-together boats dragged anchor and began bashing against Steinbeck’s boat, ultimately pushing it against a neighbor’s pier. To save his boat, Steinbeck ran into the water, jumped aboard, started it up and raised the heavy anchor with one arm. He moored again a hundred yards offshore and jumped off the boat, swimming back to shore in the hectic waters of the storm.
The water was calm as I stood there.
A small sign near the door said “Eden.”
Finally, a man in his thirties or forties answered the door.
“Hi,” I said, “very sorry to bother you. I’m just a big John Steinbeck fan—had to come and get a better look.”
“It’s okay,” the man said, smiling. “He’s certainly got a lot of fans. A lot of them come here.”
I asked if there was any chance I could check out the writing cabin. He said they’re not supposed to show the place, that they’re just renting it. We parted ways amiably.
I walked back up the private lane and drove the half-mile or so to the village of Sag Harbor.
Sag Harbor in Steinbeck’s time was a hardscrabble harbor town that, according to the writer’s son, reminded him of the grit and salt of Monterey, California.
Now, the village’s Main Street is filled with fancy restaurants and is roamed by the affluent and well-dressed, and their scrubbed-up children.
If you’d like to buy a vacant third-of-an-acre in Sag Harbor right now, it’ll only set you back $595,000. Or, you can rent a house for the summer for just $120,000.
I walked Main Street, looking for holdover businesses from Steinbeck’s time.
In Sag Harbor Variety, I talked with a woman who was around town when the writer was, but doesn’t think she or any of her relatives ever ran into him. “We’ve never really noticed when celebrities are around here,” she said.
Steinbeck is said to have wandered around Sag Harbor often, dressing to fit in with the town’s fishermen and sometimes grunting in response to people who recognized him on the street.
I walked into Harbor Books, which has a large framed picture of Steinbeck.
In the town’s little grocery store, I thought of Ethan Allen Hawley, the complicated grocer in The Winter of our Discontent.
Sag Harbor was a whaling town in the late 1700s and much of the 1800s. It also had a customs house for international inspections. Approaching the pier at the bottom of Main Street, a historic sign reads: “This is the site of Wharf Street—a block-long maze of stacked lumber, barrels, jostling horse-drawn wagons and carriages; of sea captains, sailors, harpooners, stevedores, and tradesmen; of coopers, boatyards, sailmakers and smithies—all servicing the maritime trades. With the precipitous decline in whaling, after the disastrous fire of 1877, Wharf Street was never rebuilt.”
Docked at the pier now are droves of yachts.
I walked over the small bridge that leads toward Shelter Island.
On the other side, I stepped down an embankment and walked under the bridge, where there was a rusted metal can upset on the ground and empty beer bottles.
There were five bicycles laid flat on the ground and five men speaking Spanish to each other. Two held large spin rods with lines in the water. One sat on the large rocks under the bridge and the two others stood, talking.
The best speaker of English among them told me they had, just a bit ago, caught “a flat, flounder-looking thing.”
I walked around town for a while longer.
At a beverage store with creaky old wide-board floors, I asked if they had any cold singles. “Not of the craft stuff, got Budweiser singles in the back,” the shopkeeper said.
With the can in a paper bag, I walked down to a grassy bluff overlooking the village’s little beach, where a few kids played ankle-deep in the water and where adults sat on benches.
I found a spot away from other people and sat on the ground and cracked open the can. I thought of Doc in Cannery Row whose habit it was to buy two bottles of beer at the corner store and then “drink the first for thirst.”
Being around water generally helps a bit in processing things.
I felt the bite of the cold beer and thought of the friend I said goodbye to earlier in the day.
A small motor boat sauntered into the bay toward its dockage and the sky gradually darkened.