They say you can't put a price on happiness. Well, I can. Happiness cost me exactly nineteen thousand dollars with closing costs. It came in the form of an old farmhouse known as the Edwards house; an 1899 shingle house that was sheathed in an ugly stucco skin that had been painted battleship gray after WWII with navy surplus paint. It was in the early 1960s that we bought this house on Norris Lane in the village of Bridgehampton on Eastern Long Island, buying it mainly because it suited our purse rather than our taste. That unpromising house proved to be the center of my happiness for the next 30 years. If I tell you more than you need to know about that house, and the town itself, it is only because the memory of this place helps me to find my long ago dog, Gus, again, for he, like me and my wife, seemed most alive in that house.
Although we would live in that house for all our summers and part of every other season for over 30 years, and our youngest son, Chris, would be born there, it would always be called by the name of its original owner, the Mr. Edwards who farmed the land surrounding the house. Everyone understood that if someone worked the land for a lifetime and built his house on it, it was his forever no matter who the present owner might be. If I ordered something to be delivered from a local store in the village and tried to explain where I lived; there being no house numbers at the time, the minute the word stucco passed my lips the storekeeper would say, "Oh yes, you live in the Edwards house."
My wife Joan's first move was to cover the grey stucco with a sunny yellow paint and hang baskets of purple and lavender plants from hooks on the white wooden beams of our front porch. Impatience plants and geraniums brightened the shady recesses of that porch where we would sit in the warm summer evenings with a glass of ice tea or wine. Inside the house there were three small sitting rooms, an equally small dining room; a bathroom with a large claw foot tub, and a spacious kitchen with its original wainscoting and windows that offered a fine view of the vast farmland beyond our humble acre. When we first took possession of the house there was a wood stove for cooking. Being city folks, that stove was soon stored in the garage and replaced with a new gas oven from Sears.
Bridgehampton was not then as it is today a place of Martha Stewart mansions boasting Sub Zero and Aga kitchens with their Italian granite counter tops as pink and polished as a rich man's tombstone. Any one of these kitchens would cost many times the price of my old farmhouse. When we bought the house, it looked time-weary inside and out; exhausted by Atlantic hurricanes, salt air and heat waves, births and deaths, but it was gently nursed into new life, transformed into the most charming, livable home by my wife, who found and arranged the old wicker furniture, the antique lamps, the pictures, clocks and old mirrors that hung above the fireplace mantles, all brought into a warm, harmonious whole. Her great talent was to make it appear that this charm had always been there, and at the end of the day, the house was nearly as beautiful as she was.
Our new/old house was considered no great bargain since it was situated on the wrong side of town, a few hundred feet north of the Montauk Highway where the town workers lived, many of whom were part of the large black population that extended from Bridgehampton down the Sag Turnpike to Sag Harbor. The town then was a mix of old Eastern Long Island fishing families, down at the heels, end-of-the line American aristocrats, Polish-American potato farmers, African-American gardeners, carpenters, small shop keepers, struggling writers, artists, mechanics, and summer people like we were, trying to pass discreetly for full time residents by weekending there through all the seasons.
South of that highway was the fashionable section with the pricier properties along Ocean Road, where you could see an historic wooden windmill and large old unheated summer estates, set far back on their property, great shingle houses from the era of Stanford White turned silver-grey by the salt air, aging as naturally and gracefully as people do when they accept the reality of time, and avoid unnecessary renovation. Elaine Benson, who owned the only art gallery in the village, had labeled our town "Poor Hampton" in the New York Times because it lacked the wealth of neighboring Easthampton and Southampton. But it was hardly Poor Hampton to me. The quiet Main Street did what a Main Street was supposed to do, serve the people who lived there. There were white churches with high steeples for the God fearing, an IGA for grocery shopping, a liquor store for wine, a hardware store for hammers, nails and lawn furniture, and George's "Candy Kitchen for the best grilled cheese sandwich or BLT known to man, served with chocolate ice cream sodas that never lost their fizz as you nursed them along while reading the local paper.
Once, when my two-year-old son Nick accidentally dropped the ball of ice-cream from his cone to the restaurant floor, George automatically hushed the crying child, providing another scoop free of charge, as Gus contentedly licked up the dropped ball of vanilla on the blue and white tile floor, thus with one generous gesture an entire family was satisfied.
The turn of the century Edwards house had that requisite front porch built for watching people passing on the road; something people must have done a lot of in the days when it was first built. Few passed by on foot in our time, other than the rare wild-eyed, puffing jogger running from death on his way to nowhere, school-children on their way to or from the local schoolhouse, or older folks on their early evening stroll to visit the graveyard on nearby Edgewood Avenue where their families had been buried for generations. Gus much preferred his deep study of birds and insects to the passing townspeople. He would sit for hours on the top step of that wooden porch, watching the movement of dragon-flies and bees, humming-birds, squirrels, and those feral cats who braved his bark by boldly walking across our front lawn and stopping by the copper beech tree to tease him.
In winter Gus loved to curl up beside the large sizzling radiators on a cold night and although we tried to discourage this, fearing that he would dry out his coat, we never succeeded. Told to move away from the radiator he would do so sheepishly, only to be discovered back in front of it a few minutes later. At the time when the house was a one and a half story, three-room cottage, it was easily heated by the wood stove, but the attic had been converted into three small upstairs bedrooms, cold in the winter, and hot in the summer, which attics will do when they are left to their own devices with only a small floor register to warm the space, all heat coming from a converted coal burner, now filled with cheap oil. There was an everyday pleasure in walking Gus into the tiny historic village with its old red brick corner bank that held our mortgage and cashed our checks, its small library where Connie, the librarian, knew everyone by name and put aside any book you wished to read in that pre-DVD world, a world where people used libraries to borrow books or read a newspaper in silence rather than stare intently into computer screens, or check out the latest Bourne blockbuster film.
We would often drive to the beach with Gus at dusk, passing the old houses and farms, ending with a walk with Gus along the beach just when the tides changed and the sea was coming alive, so he could challenge the waves like King Canute, chasing them back to sea, only to have them reappear again.
Joan loved to work in the large garden, being blessed with the innate ability to separate the weeds from the flowers, a gift lost on me. For the many years I lived there I would never learn the difference between a serious daisy to be nurtured and an impertinent dandelion that should be pulled up mercilessly, and I soon restricted my gardening to watering the plants and the weeds with equal dedication.
Our unfenced backyard lawn blended into the acres of the farmer's potato fields beyond, allowing for a view that seemed to go on forever. Some days when the fog rolled in from the ocean I could imagine we were living on the African veldt, with a large old twisted maple in the distance standing in for silhouette of a lone white Seringa tree. The Eastern Long Island light, so loved by some of the finest American painters from the late 19th through the 20th century, enhanced all of life there; the sky was wider, the world was clearer, and I was happier there than in any other place I had ever visited or lived in, and once we settled in, I never meant to leave it.
In the sixties nearly everyone in that town; black, white, rich, poor, and "just getting' by," drove beat up Ford station wagons, post WWII Volkswagen Beetles, cheap, early model Toyotas, or Chevy pickup trucks, a reflection of another America, where even the rich were reluctant to display their wealth with a new Mercedes, and the poor got by with old autos repaired by a mechanic named Bob who could fix a delinquent engine with a hard squint of his good left eye and a blast from his welding iron.
There were a few notable exceptions to this Ford wagon world in Bridgehampton; one was that iron butterfly Truman Capote, full of gin and gossip who could be seen driving crazy drunk in some racy convertible, careening down Ocean Road towards the beach house of his friend, the Princess Lee Radziwill. She would fly the royal Polish flag over her house to announce that she was in residence; but such society page celebrities were exceptions, objects of curiosity, not admiration. Once, while I was walking Gus towards the beach, Capote came towards us in his car, driving unsteadily. He veered too close for comfort and nearly hit my dog, who I was obliged to pull out of the way of the reeling driver. If he had harmed Gus, In Cold Blood would have been my story of how I had killed Capote, and not his best selling account of how a farm family was brutally murdered by those two sociopaths whom the author had romanticized.
A rough democracy existed in that town, one that has long ago been junked with the old Ford wagons; a democracy that disappeared with the arrival of the billionaire e-world technocrats and Page Six Hollywood celebrities who brought to the old town a boutique world of expensive restaurants, fancy antique shops, "Look at m,e Ma!" mansions, and commercial greenhouses that rival the Crystal Palace. Perhaps hardest for me to face on my rare recent visits to the town is the sight of the old Edwards house as it exists today, forced to impersonate a Tuscan villa with baroque statues, koi ponds, and iron balconies; the defenseless farmhouse stripped of its former dignity, its old skeleton dressed up for a permanent Mardi Gras by its current owners. In fairness to this latest invading army of Goths, we newcomers in the '60s must have been regarded with similar grave suspicion by the long established locals, condemned for our city ways and our own pretentions, as well as for the small changes we made in our property; the wooden back decks and sun-rooms we added on, and scorned for tearing down those old weathered out-houses built for migrant workers who would never again work the land.
When we lived in that Edwards house the local black kids together with my young son, Nick, and his small tagalong cousin, Jennifer, followed by "You can't lose me" Gus, would pick up the discarded potatoes that the harvesting machines had left behind on the fields beyond our house, filling paper bags with their booty. All of this was done with the silent consent of the farmer who often provided them with paper bags for that purpose. The kids would proudly bring home their salvaged spuds, together with the potato bugs that now reproduced contentedly in the indoor comfort of our kitchen.
Our street was adjacent to Sawassett Avenue, then a neighborhood of black gardeners and carpenters, many of whose ancestors had migrated north from the Georgia Sea Isles after the Civil War, their speech still softened by the old island dialect, Gullah. Some of these former slaves had years before intermarried with the Shinnecock Indians, Eastern Long Island's original Native American people.
By the time we settled into that house in Bridgehampton, I had stopped teaching Gus and he had started teaching me. Thanks to Gus this city boy who had lost his childhood to asthma, began to feel the pleasures of the change of seasons in the countryside. Autumn was not merely a time for me to start raking fallen leaves, but for Gus to go rolling and romping in them, enjoying their crusty, golden splendor; running about after a soft summer rain with the damp leaves stuck to his short, square body making him look like an animated topiary plant. And winter was excellent for his deconstructing snowflakes, sniffing the cold air; standing at the ready for me to throw a snowball and for him to chase it, gazing in wonder as it disintegrated on the icy ground, astonished by its magical disappearance.
Indeed, Gus found his pleasure in every season but he had quite a problem with early summer. Fireworks! Or better yet FIREWORKS!!! John Adams may have enjoined future Americans to celebrate the Fourth of July with parades and fireworks but John Adams did not know Gus, who lived through the Fourth seated on my lap or Joan's trembling with shock and horror, mouth wide open panting fearfully at the distant booming sounds of firecrackers exploding around us. Some of these fireworks came from nearby Sag Harbor, others as far away as Easthampton and the famed fireworks display of George Plimpton. We would shut the windows tight no matter how hot the July night might be, attempting to muffle the sound, but that did little to mollify him. Amazingly, on the following day, Gus was his old cocky self, every nerve tucked back in to its proper place, ready to take pleasure wherever he could find it; acting as if he had never had a worry in the world, offering a look of "Me, scared? Never!"
Gus would occasionally wander off our property, having, I hoped, satisfied his carnal appetite with some wantonly obliging farm dog. His deep post-coital naps which followed these wanderings revealed a dog's body exhausted by pleasure. Although I guarded him carefully in the city after his dog-napping, I had no fear for him in that small town, and allowed him to go about unleashed in the country. Sure, bad things happened there but it was the everyday bad, random tragedies, not the calculated cruelty that one often sees in the world today.
Yes, artists and working-men drank too much, crashed cars into trees, got themselves and the trees killed, marriages ended in bitterness and despair, old folks died in a cold and cranky isolation, and there was the occasional bigot and snob; but what would Eden be without a few snakes in it?
The small courtesies still existed, softening the normal blows that life inflicts on everyone. People always stopped their cars to let you cross the road, they would brake for animals without announcing it on a paper banner plastered on a back fender; many of the local people undoubtedly believed in Jesus, but they never ever honked for him, farmers still sold the best tasting tomatoes, picked from the vine, and bouquets of cosmos and peonies that had been cut fresh from the earth that very morning and placed in jars of water for sale at two dollars. Best of all was that delicious fresh picked corn, all to be bought from stands that were unattended on the roadside with only a mason jar on a rickety bridge-table to hold the cash. That same honor system applied to respecting the life of a small dog like Gus. He would never be stolen there, never teased by errant children; he was as free to enjoy his life on his own terms as we were to enjoy ours.
Most mornings I would walk Gus along the broken cement street bordering the Montauk Highway, pushing aside the prickly, untrimmed hedges that hung over the walk, on my way to the village to buy a newspaper at the Candy Kitchen. I often would see old Mr. Snow passing down the road on his daily walk through the Hamptons villages. This ancient Black day laborer was reportedly over one hundred years old which meant he would have been born at the time of the Civil War. Every so often he would knock on our door and ask if we needed any garden work done. His specialty was neatening the borders of flower beds, a job he accomplished with a rusty old wooden handled edger which he manipulated with a virtuoso's expertise, digging out weeds with a twist of the edger. His pride was great, but it didn't seem to come from his longevity but from the fact that he was the best garden edger who had ever lived, and he knew it; he could play the earth with that rusty tool like a musical instrument, and the results were marvelous.
Gus would watch Mr. Snow dig up bulbs to thin out a patch of overcrowded border plants, daffodils or tulips; bulbs the old man put aside for replanting elsewhere in our garden. Gus would wait until Mr. Snow was busy digging again, his head bending down, and then run off with a bulb or two secured in his mouth. "Hey, crazy little dog, give it back!" Mr. Snow would shout. He was clearly amused by the felony, laughing as Gus would start digging and burying the bulb behind one of the old sheds that held our garden tools. The following spring there might be purple tulips or pale yellow daffodils sprouting up in the damnedest places, thanks to Gus, our accidental landscape gardener.
In was a charmed time for Gus and us. Part of the enchantment came from being surrounded by family of all ages, visiting parents and in-laws, something people do not often enjoy in their lives anymore. This was shortly before Hair and The Beatles, Woodstock, and Viet Nam pitted the young against the old, casting the elders as enemies of love, peace and self-realization. The collateral damage of that war within a war was the end of the extended family for most Americans.
Joan's younger sister, Linda, and her husband George lived in a charming old shingle house right beside ours with their toddler daughter, and their house was always open to Gus who might be found there chewing happily on baby Jen's toys. My older sister was living nearby in Southampton with her husband and their daughter, and we often got together with visiting parents for weekend meals or our annual family yard sale on the lawn, unloading trash and treasures which we had collected over the years from other people's yard sales. On such occasions Gus stood guard over the money jar that held our small profits.
Our friends, the Rockwells, now the parents of two children, Barnaby and Abby, rented a house on nearby Lumber Lane for August, and together with our children created impromptu theatricals on the lawn, organized by Abby, who possessed the bravura theatre voice of an Ethel Merman channeled into a beautiful, small, flaxen haired child. There was always a part for Gus in these plays, dressed to the nines in colored ribbons, his beard powdered white with talc so he could impersonate a silent old man, a small part yes, but he sat throughout the performance patiently and was always there for his applause at the finale.
These were days of sweet laughter and infinite possibility, and Gus graced them, completed them in that matter-of-fact way that only a beloved animal can, by being present when needed, and always at the ready to join in. Our pleasures seemed so ordinary then, and indeed they were, the quotidian stuff of life that passes without comment; only now, 40 years later, when all of my birth family have died, and old friends are often lost in the sorrow of their lives, only now do I understand how rare, how extraordinary such happiness was.
By now I was often commuting to Los Angeles for script meetings, collecting new assignments, and writing in that large sunlit kitchen of our Long Island farm house. I was more than a little proud of the fact that I no longer needed to work in an office as I had done for so many years to supplement my meager writing income. I had just won my first Emmy Award, and I had been nominated for a Tony, and for the first time in my career I was able to turn down work, choose my projects, and make a good living doing what I loved. I was never one of those writers who needed silence to work. I could tune out the world when I needed to do so, in fact I found myself stimulated by a noisy family surrounding me. Gus, of course, loved a house full of company which meant action all the time, the chance to get under-foot in a ping pong game, capture the birdie in badminton, or push the ball with his nose in a game of croquet, thus making sure that his presence was always known.
One summer to my astonishment, New York magazine placed me on their list of one hundred celebrated Hampton residents. I pooh-poohed the whole idea of such a list, but I nearly burst with unspoken pride as I saw my name beside such notables as Edward Albee, George Plimpton, and Kurt Vonnegut. Part of me, the realist part, knew better and felt like a gate crasher at somebody else's grand party. But another part, the guy with the fragile glass ego enjoyed taking a seat on Mt. Olympus. It didn't take me long to decide that I belonged there, only maybe a bit nearer to the top of the list, and not relegated to "story continued on page 60." Then, thanks to Gus, and his capacity for making new and unexpected friends, my pride was seriously and permanently humbled, and reality took charge again.
I was seated at my typewriter, manuscript papers scattered about on the yellow Formica counter of our kitchen, typing away at some script assignment on my Smith Corona Selectric when I saw the face of a small black child staring up at me from outside the kitchen window. Her head was barely visible above the window sill. She disappeared only to appear again standing in front of the glass kitchen door where she could be seen in full.
The girl was no more than six or seven, neatly dressed for school, a matching handkerchief pinned to the pocket of her checkered dress, her hair braided and bowed with matching ribbons. She stood there shyly with Gus beside her. I opened the door and invited her inside the kitchen. When she finally spoke she asked me if this was my dog. I allowed that he was. She told me that she had admired him every day on her walk to the nearby elementary school. He did not nip at her or bark fiercely as some of the local farm dogs did, instead, he greeted her with a lick and a wag and walked with her as far as the road facing the school, offering her his welcome company. What pleased her most was that the dog was often there waiting across the road to greet her as she returned home from school, and they had developed a nice walking around friendship.
The child asked his name, his age, even his birthday. I pointed out that his name could be found on the tag on his collar with our phone number. She bent down and read them aloud in a clear voice from his metal ID tag.
"Would you give him to me?" she asked. I said, "Sorry. No. He's part of my family. But would you settle for an apple?"
We kept a bowl of fresh red apples in the kitchen, apples that had fallen from the ancient apple tree which grew out of a circle cut into the wooden deck behind the house. When we bought the property an elderly local man told us that this apple tree had been there when he was a boy, and that it was the oldest fruit tree in all the Hamptons, planted when the Edwards family had built the house in 1899. After learning that, there was no way we could cut it down, so we built our deck around it despite certain drawbacks, such as bees swarming about the deck attracted by the fruit, making it hard to sit there some afternoons. The pink and white apple blossoms stuck to the deck all spring, and in the summer the fruit landed upon the wooden deck at night, sounding to my young sons like marauding footsteps. Tree surgeons would arrive every year to cut the dead branches, and tar the wounds to give it yet another season. That tree was more a pest than poetry, but it was our pest and we determined that it would live on. And with each new surgery, it gave up more apples.
The girl took the apple, thanked me, placed the fruit in her school bag, and quickly adjusted to the fact that the companionable Gus could not be hers. Then she looked around at the kitchen, focusing first on my typewriter, and then at me, and asked the question that changed my life.
"You, a secretary?"
"No, I'm a writer. "I said.
But she had hit close to home.
Writing for television often meant taking dictation from the network or the studio, dealing with their "notes" - a euphemism for imposing their views on a creator - or trying to satisfy the demands of the censor, then called standards and practices. It was hard for me to tailor my work to please somebody's corporate notion of what was good and what the public wanted. It could make you crazy, or in the case of most writers like me, crazier; the push and pull, the standup and back-down, were a part of every screenwriter's life. Of course this is not a problem suffered only by writers. Courage and compromise are at war in most people's lives and careers. Only dramatists tend to see the drama of it more than others do, and have a habit of casting themselves in the leading role, as the beleaguered protagonist.
"You, a secretary?" The words would not go away.
That child's question stayed with me through my writing career, and that very summer it would challenge my courage as much as that dog-napper in the park had a few years before.*
*Abridged from Sherman Yellen's memoir, "Spotless," a work in progress. Copyright 2008. The preceding parts of "Gus and Us" can be found in Sherman Yellen's file on The Huffington Post. The conclusion will be published on The Huffington Post in the coming weeks.