The Czechs of Montauk
I traipsed along the highway, stopping to smell the flowers and admire the scenery. I loved the sand dune mountains and little green lakes and as I walked daydreamed of building a shack near the beach and forming a community, like Gene O’Neil in...
Illustrations by Mike Taylor.
After the one hundred and twenty mile journey east from New York City to the furthest end of Long Island, my train came to the end of the line in Montauk. I stepped off the platform, brushing past the hordes of fashionable city-dwellers emerging from the maw of the LIRR train with their sunglasses and wheeled luggage in tow, rushing over to hybrid SUVs to be picked up by family and friends already well-acclimated to the syrupy pace of life at the ocean’s edge. I phoned my contact—a Czech guy named Lukas who I had met randomly in a New York City park—but he didn’t pick up. This was fine, as I felt like exploring alone anyway. The day felt pregnant with possibility and I wanted to wander around without the burdensome presence of a companion. I set off down a narrow, twisting road by the bay, past faded lobster fisheries and decrepit abandoned sea shacks, laundry lines strung up with cloth diapers and bras. Kennedy-esque middle-aged men, Yankees and WASPS, paused from working in their yards to wave hello.
I prowled behind the abandoned sea shacks, scouting for places to sleep in case Lukas never returned my phone call. In fact, I had so reconciled myself to the prospects of sleeping alone outside an abandoned house with a campfire and the moon, that I almost didn’t pick up when Lukas called back. He said that he was working at the bike shop all afternoon and that I should I come down. I traipsed along the highway, stopping to smell the flowers and admire the scenery. I loved the sand dune mountains and little green lakes and as I walked daydreamed of building a shack near the beach and forming a community, like Gene O’Neil in Provincetown. The whole set-up of the town had a smallness of ratio to it that reminded me of a different country. After an hour of walking, I emerged in downtown Montauk, among the ice cream shops and the clapboard-white savings bank and nostalgic-looking diners. A big gang of the young Czechs were in the bike shop, covered in grease—they smiled and let me stash my bag in the back room, telling me they would get off around six.
I spent the day alone on the beach, beside hirsute guidos and their families burying each other neckdeep in the sand. I dipped my feet into the surf, enjoying the anonymity on the shore and the cold Atlantic licking at my toes. After baking in the sun a while, I beat my chest and jumped into the frigid ocean, thinking of the old Polish men that swim at dawn on Coney Island and cobwebby Kate Chopin and her Awakening.
Montauk, the Czechs assured me, was ‘a strange place,’ a low-rent, paranoiac-filled version of the Hamptons. A closed down World War II army base at the edge of the island called Camp Hero was outfitted with an enormous, defunct military satellite, rusting back in the woods. That night, the Czechs drove me out to their compound a couple of miles inland from the ocean. Rusted metal and trash lay strewn across their overgrown yard. Several rugged-looking young men sat out on the back porch finishing a case of beer, nodding as we rolled up. Inside, their house looked like a wrecked frat. Wet toilet paper covered the bathroom floor and most of the furniture was ragged. The garbage can in the kitchen overflowed with beer cans and a giant vat of grim-looking stew bubbled on the encrusted stove.
“Czech stew—veery gude,” Lukas said, flashing a toothy grin. The Czechs were temporary workers, just in Montauk for the summer, and seemed to live frugally. Upstairs, they were living two or three to a bedroom. I peeked my head inside one of the rooms and saw a couple of silhouettes sleeping on bare mattresses lining the floor.
After a quick meeting on the porch, it was decided that we would go fishing. We piled into an SUV and drove toward the beach, careening down a trail marked Service Road—Identification Required! and popping on a wild and rocky shore. A tall, handsome blond Czech named David drove us—by the way everyone talked to him, it was clear he was the leader. Later, it was explained to me that David had been the first to ‘discover’ Montauk. He had opened up the town to the Czech community and its temporary jobs. The others came only because of him so he was deferred to in all manner of decision. Coming from a landlocked country, many of the Czechs had never seen the ocean, and seemed to regard it with awed reverence.
David threw the SUV into gear and we lurched down the beach over huge rocks and boulders. David turned up the stereo, which was playing Aerosmith’s “Living on the Edge.” I felt like we were in a car commercial.
“People don’t usually use their SUVs like this!” I shouted over the wind.
“Sucks for them.”
These Eastern Europeans, having only recently (historically-speaking) thrown off the yoke of bureaucratic state communism, seemed more “free” and “American” than I could ever be—they had taken the whole adventurous swagger to heart.
Sharing the backseat with me was a darkly serious older Russian named Yuri. Yuri looked like the “cool older guy” with his backwards baseball cap and board shorts. He explained that he had spent most of his life as a fisherman working on the Black Sea. He had moved to Montauk to eek out an ocean hermitage and become one of those briny people who loves the solitude and the gray void of the North Atlantic winter. He pointed at a group of seagulls and told David to follow them—“The birds will take us to the schools of fish!” His tone was excitable but underneath he seemed blackened and tarred, tinged with some dark Slavic undercurrent. I watched the seagulls dart over algae and confetti-seaweed-covered boulders.
We piled out at an isolated cove where Yuri said we would find clams. A young Czech named Robert rushed out of the car to cast his line into the ocean. Yuri shoveled around for clams—I tried to help him, but it was clear he wanted to be left alone.
The Czechs were so courteous as to only speak English around me. Their not-quite-fluent English lent a slapstick tone to all of our interactions—You want I should get out some wood, David? No, first we need to find knife for splitting! Soon I catch big fish for eat!
Annette, Robert’s girlfriend, sat down on some driftwood and drew a picture of him fishing. She lit a joint and looked longingly toward the big peach sunset, saying Beeauuu-tee-ful, no? Behind us was a three-walled shelter. David shimmied up on top of it. I walked over and attempted to follow suit, but just stumbled and couldn’t get a foothold. David offered me a hand, and I shimmied up, shingles falling off as I grasped the ledge.
“Nice job” he nodded as we stood up, his grin giving me the feeling of being 13 years old and having just impressed a cool kid. The view from the top was breathtaking—the sky streaked with pink and the sand looked alien and purple. David and I paced from one side of the roof to the other, like lions surveying our territory, and then climbed down after a while.
We piled back into the jeep and headed to town. The Czechs had a quiet, somber appreciation of life that I found refreshing after years of the witty and anxious American style of conversation. Yuri deflected all my probing personal questions, responding only, “It’s complicated…” or by just grunting. There was no rush to impress each other, to get to know each other, no attempts at being clever and funny.
We bought beer and then drove over to a pizzeria—I ran across the street to grab a coffee and came back out to find all the Czechs nursing slices, oil dripping down their chins. Even the forgettable act of devouring dinner seemed to be undertaken with care and awareness. After they finished, David drove us for miles down an inky black road, pulling over at the resort where most of the Czechs worked as beach attendants. They spent their days delivering drinks and stacking chairs for leisure-seeking vacationers. We tiptoed down through the quiet resort, past the swimming pool, and onto the darkened beach. The black of a million stars and planets swirled above like an infernal machine. Yuri ran off to grab some firewood that he had been hoarding. A bonfire was started.
A shirtless Russian guy stumbled up out of the darkness. He offered us shots of vodka from a large plastic bottle and then whipped his portable stereo out and set it up on the sand, insisting that we play some trance music. Lukas, the dreadlocked Czech, showed up later with a drunk, middle-aged woman on vacation from Queens, New York. She started dominating the conversation immediately:
“This is my first vacation in 6 years! —I’ve been going to these people’s fires every night! Boy, oh Boy, it’s just great to be out here in this fresh air!”
Somehow we got on the subject of nationalities and she beamed at the Czechs.
“The American people are some of the nicest people in the world. Ain't that right, guys?”
The Czechs shrugged icily. Yuri glowered at the sea, visibily irritated by her presence. She passed around a bottle of grapefruit vodka and plunged into her life story: her Irish-Catholic girlhood, her later agnosticism, her marriage, her divorce, her subsequent ‘singling’ around England. Unprompted, she told me that I was an extremely compassionate person (“I just feel it radiating from you”), and prophesied that one day I would own a dog, a “little poo-poo head.” I told her I didn't really want a dog.
“Maybe not now, but one day you will own a poo-poo head of your own, and there is nothing you can do about it! And when you do, you’ll know how great it is and you’ll think of me!”
Perhaps sensing the growing hostility to her around the fire, the Queens woman wandered off down the beach. Lukas got up and followed her. Once she was gone Annette turned to me:
“That woman is horrible. We like you, but not her. She is advicist. She gives too much advice.”
When the Queens woman returned to the fire, her mood had undergone a drastic change. She now looked on the verge of tears and announced that she was leaving, dutifully circling the fire to extract a goodbye from each Czech. The icy, unsentimental Czechs rolled their eyes as she shook their hands and kissed them goodbye. When she came around to Yuri, he turned his back on her. She begged him to say goodbye to her, but he shrugged curtly and just said, “goodbye, Lady!”
As she left, a look of relief came over Annette’s face.
“Thank God that witch is gone.” She said.
Robert chuckled, “She’s probably going to go commit suicide.”
Lukas looked were resolute and satisfied.
I began to get a feeling, like in some old horror movies, when it dawns on a main character that they are surrounded by vampires.
“What did you guys talk about?” I asked Lukas.
“I simply told her that we weren’t enjoying her company—that she was making people uncomfortable, and that she should probably leave.”
“We Czechs, we are a very direct people.” He said. Annette nodded her head to agree.
I felt queasy. I hadn’t liked her either, but it seemed too cruel to confront her with this directly.. She was a lonely underdog looking for companionship, on vacation, and adrift among strangers. Politely tolerating her and concealing judgment would have been the proper response
“That’s no way to treat someone. She was just lonely,” I said.
“She was making Yuri uncomfortable.” Lukas sighed, “I too, have been lonely for large portions of my life… ”
As if waiting in the wings, the Queens woman emerged from the beach dark.
Illuminated by the fire, I could see that her face was streaked with tears.
“Lukas? Lukas?” she whimpered, “Could you come here for a second so I could ask you one question?”
Lukas sighed and walked over. I followed him. In the dark she looked so sad. Her make-up was all messed up.
“Lukas…” she began to cry,
“Did I offend anybody? I didn’t mean to offend anybody…please tell me if I offended someone!”
Lukas patted her on the shoulder, repulsed.
“No, no… you didn’t do anything wrong. Here—let me walk you back to the hotel.” A dark, gnarled look grew over her face and she cried inconsolably as she walked off with him. As she left, she whipped around and gave me one of the most devastated looks I have ever seen on a human face. She shouted,
“When you go back there, don’t tell them any of this happened. Just tell them I said goodnight… That’s all, just a polite goodnight! Don’t tell them anything! Please!”