The Czechs of Montauk
By Aaron Lake Smith. 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.