Not too long ago, I was packing some food into a cooler when I heard the door to my family’s apartment open. My daughter came into the kitchen and put her backpack on the table.
“I have a history test tomorrow,” she said.
“Do you want help studying?”
It was fifth-grade history, so there were flashcards about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and the Monroe Doctrine. After a few minutes, I came upon a card about the Cherokees, who were forced to relocate west of the Mississippi.
“Why did the Cherokees make the thousand-mile march?” I asked.
“The government took their land.”
“What happened to them on the journey? “
“They suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation. It was called The Trail of Tears.”
When she said The Trail of Tears, I had to pause for a moment. My heart wrenched for the Native Americans who suffered such cruelty and injustice.
But as much as I hated to admit it, my heart went out to my daughter as well. For unbeknownst to her, in a few hours we too would be embarking on a journey. Our own road of heartache. Only this one went by another name.
The Long Island Expressway on a Friday Afternoon.
Choking fumes to the left. Eighteen-wheelers to the right. A texting BMW driver in front of you. Swearing, sweating, cramping, and squeezing your bladder shut. It’s a bumper-to-bumper crawl that’ll get you thirty miles in two hours if you’re lucky.
And yet, for over a decade, we have done it. Because like thousands of other private school families who live in New York City, we have a weekend house on the eastern end of Long Island. Ours is at the very tip, in Montauk.
The mysterious “Montauk Monster” washed up on the beach in 2010. Was it a raccoon carcass?
The remains of a dog? An LIE driver who bailed at Exit 46?
While driving on the LIE remains our primary means of travel, we also use two other popular modes of transport — each of which rival the LIE for memorable experiences.
#2 Method of Getting
to Eastern Long Island:
The Hampton Jitney
Hardly a human has ever stepped off the Jitney without a story of a fight they have witnessed or participated in.
Normally, the argument involves a fellow passenger flagrantly breaking the “three-minute, emergency-only cell phone call” rule. But passengers have come to blows over many other Jitney infractions such as snoring, loud headphones, large-person seat spillover. Woe is the rider on board who witnesses the lynch mob that forms shortly after the Jitney attendant runs out of Chex Party Mix.
Tensions run high when you pay $30.00 for a “luxury liner”
with an overflowing bathroom and no salty snacks.
People who choose the Jitney as their Hamptons mode of transportation are slightly more civilized that those who prefer the Long Island Railroad, but that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of transforming into rabid beasts at some point along the ride. This is mostly likely to occur during the mind-numbing pause in the middle of the journey, when the bus stops for a full TWELVE MINUTES to switch drivers in Southampton.
Things That Have Happened to Jitney Passengers
During the Southampton Stopover:
Hair falls out.
Manchego cheese bought at Citarella turns bad.
And then, there are the unexpected disasters.
A few summers ago, I picked up my friend Dara and her sister Kate at the Jitney stop in Montauk. The bus door opened and two of them sprinted down the steps, gasping for breath, shaking like they had just witnessed a murder.
“Somebody pooped on their seat!” Dara shouted the second she saw me.
“We think we know who did it,” she said. “An old lady. She ran off the bus in Bridgehampton. The whole rest of the ride, the bus driver yelled at us. He kept saying, “I don’t have any paper towels on this bus! I can’t be expected to clean up!”
The yelling, the mystery pooper, the smell. It had been an unpleasant ordeal for sure. But on the upside, since that weekend, Dara, Kate, and I have been able to say the words “Hampton Shitney” about three thousand times. It gives us great joy.
#3 Method of Getting to
Eastern Long Island:
The Long Island Railroad
The LIRR used to be an excellent option for getting out to the Hamptons, especially if you knew The Secret: Take the number 7 subway to Hunterspoint Avenue in Long Island City, where the Montauk train originates. Boarding at Hunterspoint would mean you didn’t have to change trains at the great pushing and shoving convention known as Jamaica Station.
4:45. Friday. July.
Now, sadly, the secret is out and Hunterspoint is an even bigger pushing festival than Jamaica ever was. It’s not uncommon to arrive in Montauk having had to stand the entire trip, all the while attempting to dart small dogs, flying luggage, and the empty champagne bottle rolling from one end of the train car to the other.
A little known fact about the LIRR is that due to an overeager and apparently unfixable air-conditioning system, the temperature on the train to the Hamptons is approximately 43 degrees. Every day, every night, 365 days a year, the train has roughly the same feel as a meat locker.
“Honey, can I put your bag on the luggage rack?” Ian will ask me when we get on the train.
“No, I’ll keep it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t touch it!”
I cling to my weekend bag like a raft in the middle of the ocean, because it is one. It’s the only thing that separates me from life and death by hypothermia. As the train heads east, I slowly, steadily empty the entire contents of my luggage, layering each article of clothing over the other until I am wearing my entire weekend wardrobe. Every piece of clothing down to the extra bathing suit.
Once I’ve covered my body, I then take my empty travel bag, unzip it, and climb inside it like a sleeping bag. On a good day, I can arrange it so only my nose is poking out.
The nice thing is I can warm up my nose
by rubbing it with the sock on my hand.
Unlike the Hampton Jitney, the LIRR sells alcohol. Beginning at noon daily, you may purchase beer and cocktails and take them to your seat or anywhere in the train you would like.
Business on the LIRR bar car is, as you may imagine, extremely robust on Friday afternoon trains to the Hamptons. Bar car customers are a diverse mix of city escapees, and the festive cocktails combined with the Mexican prison atmosphere provide for many special and varied outcomes.
As our kids got older, Ian and I continued to make the trip to Montauk, and we started to get to know the families at Friends Seminary, our son and daughter’s school in Manhattan. We realized a lot of these families were in the Hamptons on weekends and in the summer. From the stories we heard, they were hanging out a lot. Without us.
Catered pool parties. Jet ski rides. Lobster rolls. Taco trucks idling in perfectly manicured driveways. As the stories filtered in, my first instinct was: Not only do we not need the Hamptons scene, the main reason we bought our house in Montauk, was to get away from it.
When Ian and I bought our home in 1999, Montauk was mostly surfers, retired plumbers, and fishermen. Montauk was scrappy and affordable. Our house had a water view, but also a leaky roof, plywood floors, a pink toilet, and an army of ravenous termites.
Fortunately there was a small cottage in the back,
where we planned to retire and watch the termites
eat the house down to its foundation.
We would fish, swim, and boogie board. Then after we had kids, Montauk became the place where Ian and I could get our toddlers out of the city, and since Ian was working so much, I’d often take the kids out by myself.
But when you have kids in private school, summer is LONG — despite the astronomical cost of tuition, the kids are only in school about 160 days a year. Being members of the private school world meant that families who summered in the Hamptons were our community now, and I had to admit, I felt anxious about what we were missing. As much I didn’t want to be a Fancy Hamptons Lady, I didn’t want to be lonely either. I kind of, sort of, wanted in.
But how? Nothing about my life growing up in New Jersey had prepared me for the Hamptons.
The only summer vacation my family went on was tent camping on my uncle’s farm in Pennsylvania. We almost never went to the beach, and if we did, it was a once a year. A day-trip to the Jersey Shore, where my brother, sister, and I would try and fit a whole summer’s worth of sunbathing into six hours. We’d fry until our faces looked like the inside of a jelly doughnut, then drive home in the only car my family owned for my entire childhood — a 1966 Barracuda.
My dad still drives it today.
“What if we have a get-together at our house in Montauk, but keep it simple?” I said to Ian one day a few summers ago. “We can invite one or two families, and barbeque burgers and dogs.”
It seemed like a good plan, but many of our conversations looked like this:
“I heard the McCormacks are in East Hampton this weekend.”
“Should we invite them for lunch on Saturday?”
“Great, what did they say?”
And thus we came to learn the Classic Hamptons Dilemma:
Private school parents already have
a Hamptons house — bigger than yours —
and they do not want to leave it.
They will not come to yours.
It wasn’t long before our best intentions to entertain on a simple level fell away like a limp hot dog.
We upgraded the menu from burgers to steaks, and the cut-up watermelon became watermelon margaritas with Patron and fresh lime.
And we had success. We began to have regular multiple-family gatherings at our home.
“It’s great that the kids got to see their friends,” I’d tell Ian as he scraped charred beef off the grill.
“I really do like Beth and her husband. It was nice to hang out with them,” I’d shout as I tossed empty Chardonnay bottles into the “Glass Only” bin at the dump.
As much as I had promised myself I wouldn’t get “caught up” in the world of the Manhattan Private School, I had. I was no longer an outsider, someone who drove the extra hour to Montauk because it was quirky and not too “sceney.” My family had become part of the Hamptons crowd, and I had the blackened steak bits to prove it.
As each summer wound down, I felt grateful to belong to my community. But it was a community of privilege, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was I lucky? Or was I an elite sell-out who ignored that fact that the vast majority of the world didn’t and couldn’t live like the Hamptons crowd?
Most troubling to me was the question of what my families’ participation in all this privilege meant for our kids? Would they be able to stay grounded, learn a strong work ethic? How would all this excess affect them?
I wasn’t sure where we netted out, but all I knew was that if we were going to continue this life — Manhattan Private school, fancy parties, Hamptons Livin’ — we would have to give something back to society.
All I knew was I’d have endless hours to think about it — on the train, the Jitney, and the LIE.
Luckyish is a series about the world of the Manhattan Private School by Lori Campbell. Click here for Part 3, the Private School Bar Mitzvah.