It took me 6 years to get my Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Virginia… two years to flunk out, two years to get back in and two years to graduate. The transition from a Catholic Benedictine Monastery Prep School called Portsmouth Priory to what was then known as America’s most dedicated party school was somewhat jarring. It was like going from the land of all rules to the land of no rules.
After 6 years I did actually graduate, although for 20 years thereafter I woke up with same terrifying dream. I am in line wearing my black cap and gown, waiting to be called when my craggy sociology professor comes up and taps me on the shoulder and tells me I forgot to take Sociology 101. Then he says I can’t graduate and I say “Hunh” and finally I wake up in a cold sweat. It was always terrifying.
After graduating was I invited my college girl friend, Penny Zetterstrong, and four of my best college buddies to my family’s summer house on Great Plains Road in Southampton. At the time, my family (which consisted of 3 brothers, 3 wives, 1 sister, 1 husband and assorted children, including me) all shared a large 12 bedroom house on Great Plains Road. In case you think a 12 bedroom house in Southampton is pretty big you would right if were not for the size of my extended family. When my four friends, my girlfriend and myself descended on the Great Plains House, it was actually quite crowded, especially since some my cousins had a few house guests of their own.
None of that prevented anyone from having a great time. My college friends had a fine week hitting the surf, playing tennis, drinking beer, throwing Frisbees and oogling my long-legged female cousins. They were particularly enraptured with Daphne, my tall blond cousin with a knockout figure. I and my girlfriend had a super week playing tennis, frolicking in the ocean, laying on the beaches of Southampton. My father, his wife, my uncles and aunts all had a super time interacting with all the house guests. Of course, they always had a super time, since our house always had guests coming and going.
As the week wound down, my college buddies began drifting back to something called the real world. They had careers to begin, new lives to set up. Even my super girl friend said goodbye. She had been hoping for some tangible commitment. In those early summer days, just after completing 6 long years of college, it just didn’t seem the right time to make a commitment much longer than one or two days. Penny had her own career plans and had to return South. We said goodbye vowing to meet in 2 or 3 weeks, both probably knowing we would never see each other again.
The next week left just Rich Miller and myself sitting in an almost empty summer house pondering the onset of responsibility. The elders of the house had gone into the city, the remaining assortment of wives and cousins returned to the quiet routine of the week, giving the house an almost eerie silence. What do was the question? We consulted a six pack for the answer. The answer began to form in our minds. Sometimes difficult problems require perseverance. We consulted another 6 pack.
Our dedication paid off. The answer came in sudden burst of inspiration. Yes, that was it. Rich had a 10 year old 5 hp outboard motor, I had a beaten up 16 foot fiberglass skiff. It was just obvious. Like many a stroke of genius, brought by hours of perspiration, the answer was blazingly simple. We would become clam diggers. What better way to keep our endless summer from ending?
Becoming a clam digger in Southampton entails some legal details. Somebody had to get a clam digging license. This proved relatively simple. Since my parents already had a summer residence, all I had to was go down to Town Hall, fill out a form, pay $25 and that was it. I was a legal bone fide clam digger.
There was some logistics involved. Rich had to head off to New Jersey to retrieve the 5 HP outboard. I had to swing through Bellport to collect my old beaten up skiff. Within 48 hours of our inspiration we were gathering up the tools of the trade. This required a little research. We repaired to a landmark of the time called Todd’s Anchorage. For those of you who never heard of it and those of you who don’t care to remember, it was a sleazy saloon located on Main Street about 200 feet down from Hildreth’s Department Store.
We figured it had a nautical sound to it and there must be someone inside who knew something about clam digging. Sure enough our hunch was rewarded.
We sat next to a gentleman we came to call Mr. Death. He had a 15 cent beer, a shot of whiskey and a cigarette in front of him. In case you are wondering whether it could be true that 15 cent beers were sold on Main Street Southampton, yes, it was true, but the year was 1973. Southampton, then as now, was the home of many rich and famous people, but it also had its share of middle and lower class people who were not so fortunate. The man we came to call Mr. Death was one of the less fortunate.
Being fresh out of college and friendly by nature, we struck up a conversation with Mr. Death. He didn’t quite know what to make of us, but once he saw us quaffing down 15 cent beers (they came in 5 ounce glasses), he warmed to us. It seemed that Mr. Death was a retired man, with enough income to keep him in cigarettes and alcohol. When not talking to us he would alternatively pull on his cigarette, his beer and his whiskey and then stare vacantly into the mirror behind the bar. Occasionally he would motion to Todd, the extremely large bartender who presided over the place. Todd would then silently deliver a whiskey or a beer, knowing by some unseen telepathic power what Mr Death required.
Anyway, after some questions of Mr. Death about what kind of equipment was required to dig clams, he volunteered the following information.
“Ray’s your man.”
After some further questioning, it turned out that Ray was Ray Shinshecki, a well-known Hampton Bays clam digger and a local manufacturer of clam rakes. So off we went to Hampton Bays where we found Ray Shinshecki in the back of his garage fashioning some clam rakes and other instruments of the trade.
Ray’s first question to us was this.
“Are you tonging or scratching?”
Ray went on to explain that tongers worked from a boat while in relatively deep water and scratchers waded in two to four foot water. This led to lively discussion between Ray, Rich and myself of the relative merits of the two systems. Ray showed us the two basic devices of the trade. One looked like post diggers with 20 foot handles, the other looked like a giant rake with big basket attached to it. Ray was definitely in favor of scratching which he described as the more elegant, hands on experience. In the end we went with Ray’s suggestion and he outfitted us with two clam rakes at 50 bucks a copy.
What else do we need we asked Ray? Just a few things, he replied – one grader, six bushel baskets and two clam knives. To make a long story short, after reliving ourselves of $158 we were fully equipped for our new profession.
This led us to our next question for Ray. Where do we go clamming? A slow smile followed by a vague look.
“Shinnecock Bay is a good place to start.”
Rich and I looked at each other. We knew Shinnecock Bay covered a lot of territory.
“Where in Shinnecock Bay?” we asked.
The slow smile returned.
“You boys look like nice young men. Go out and take a look around.”
Rich and I looked at each other with some concern.
A look of sympathy crossed Ray’s face.
“I shouldn’t tell you this, but clam diggers keep their locations secret. There are just so many clams out there. Anyway, you got eyes and a boat. Cruise around and see where other clam diggers dig. That don’t mean they know, but it’s a good place to start.”
With this advice we went forth with one grader, two rakes, six bushel baskets and two clam knives.
Before heading out on the Bay, we decided to do some research on where we might sell our bounty from the sea, presuming we were lucky enough to be successful.
We stopped by Catena’s fish market. We knew they sold clams. So we asked Mr. Catena if he would buy clams from us. His response was immediate.
“If you boys bring me nica clams,” Mr. Catena had an Italian accent, “I buy them. If they no nica, you get nothing from me. But if they nica clams I pay you $32 a bushel, that twica the prica you getta from the seafood wholesaler in Moriches.”
This sounded good to us, especially since we did not know where the seafood wholesaler was in Moriches, much less that there was one in Moriches and where Moriches was – obviously, we had a lot to learn.
Now armed with the tools of the trade and having lined up a concrete purchaser for our goods, we decided to go off to Todd’s Anchorage and celebrate with a few 15 cent brews. Not unsurprisingly, we saw Mr. Death seated at the bar.
The next day we decided to launch my 16 foot skiff with Rich’s 5 hp outboard off of Dune Road. The boat and motor combo proved a marriage made in heaven. To our amazement, the little 5 hp engine started on the 3rd or 4th pull despite not having been used in several years. My skiff proved almost watertight – a small problem we were able to resolve with periodic bailing.
Our first day of clam digging was amazingly successful. In less then three hours we were able to dig up three bushels of clams.
I should tell you about the process. We went out several hundred yards and dropped anchor in about three feet of water. We then got into the water up to our waists. The long rakes that we used were equipped with short crossbars. The long handle of the rake rested on our shoulders while we pulled on the short crossbar. This gave us both leverage and pulling power. Pulling on the rake was hard physical work, but if we were lucky our efforts would be rewarded with a clanging, chattering sound and the feeling of much greater weight. This could lead to a deceptive feeling of joy. Let me tell you why.
I mentioned earlier that one of basic tools of the trade was something called a grader, but I did not explain its purpose. I will enlighten you now. There is a law in New York State which says that it is illegal to take clams that are less than an inch across. A grader is designed to quickly separate legal clams from illegal clams. Here is how it works. A grader is an empty box with bars spaced 1” apart. When you pour clams into the grader, the illegal fall back into the water.
This can be a very sad event since you could be raking up the bottom the bay for twenty minutes until you first hear and feel your clams in the clam rake basket. Then you might go along for another five or ten minutes until you think the clam rake basket is really full and really heavy. Then it takes two people to pour the clams through the grader, one to hold the clam rake loaded with clams and one to hold the grader over the water. The moment of truth comes when the clams meet the grader. Sometimes the result is truly tragic because sometimes all the clams simply fall through the grader into the bay. It is at that moment that you learn that all the time you spent and all the aches in your arms, shoulders and back were for naught.
Aside from the frustrating and backbreaking work involved there was also the not so easy task to locate clams. At first used our bare feet to feel for clams which lurked three to five inches under the sand. This was very effective. We could feel anything under our feet and this method made it quite easy to locate clams. The only problem with this was that there were other things on the bottom. Some were slimy and gooey. We came to call these things “umgum” and “ugibatanda”. These were our terms for slimy things of an indeterminate nature.
But that was not all that was lurking on the bottom. In just first few minutes of clamming we noticed things nibbling at our feet. Since these little nibbles did not seem to be life threatening, we kept on clamming. Shortly, thereafter I heard a torrent of curse words from Rich. When I asked him what the problem was he jumped into the boat and began nursing a profusely bleeding foot. Shortly thereafter I was hit by a vicious bite, leading me to also seek shelter in the boat. It seems that the local crab population had discovered there was some fresh meat in town.
This led us develop a new system for feeling clams without having our toes bitten off. The solution proved to be close at hand. We simply put back on the socks and sneakers we had taken off when we first got into the water. The new system was not very beneficial to our socks or sneakers, but it did offer protection against sudden painful jolts from below. While we still would get bites on our sneakers or through our socks, but they were much more bearable.
As mentioned, in spite of the difficulties above, we still managed to be incredibly successful in our first day’s outing. I suppose you could call it beginner’s luck, Within three hours we were able to collect three full bushels of clams. There are 500 to 600 clams in one bushel so this is a lot of clams.
We decided that we should take our harvest to Catena’s and sell our goods. In less than an hour we did just that and found ourselves celebrating our new found fortune with 15 cent beers at Todd’s Anchorage. Not surprisingly, we noticed Mr. Death stationed at the bar with his cigarette, his beer and his shot. Coming to Todd’s after a successful day of clamming was to become a daily ritual of our new profession.
That summer, which passed quickly and which maybe was the most fun summer of my life, acquired a routine of its own. We would get up without the benefit of an alarm clock sometime around eight or nine o’clock. We would have a nice breakfast and then head out to the bay with our rakes, our clam knives, our bushel baskets and our grader. We would strain and pull until we heard the joyful chatter of the clams in our baskets. We would cheer or curse according to how many clams our grader allowed us to keep. We would spend anywhere from three to six hours in the pursuit of clams. Sometimes we felt ambitious and gathered four or five bushels, sometimes we quit with one or two, but most times we got two or three full bushels.
Most of the time, we sold our clams to Catena’s. The old Mr. Catena took a genuine shine to us.
“You-a boys bring me nica clams,” he would say peeling open a clam to show us, “they-a so-a clean, look-a this, they-a all white inside. No-a black, that’s a nica clam.”
Sometimes, Mr. Catena would look sorry at us.
“Sorry boys, I already bought-a some-a nica clams. Come back tomorrow.”
On the days that Mr. Catena could not buy our clams we would drive to Moriches (yes, we found it) and sell our clams to the seafood wholesaler at half price. No matter what our clams brought us for the day we would retire in the late afternoon to some sleazy bar to have a beer or two to celebrate our good luck. This left the rest of day free. Our next step was to retire to the beach for some surfing and swimming.
Evening time we would gather at my family’s summer house, throw around the Frisbee and then go out to dinner to spend whatever proceeds we had not already spent.
There were some ironic features to clamming. Sometimes, after a particularly successful day clamming, we would go splurge on dinner. At the time, a friend of mine, Charlie Munroe, owned, along with Dick Ridgely, one of the best and most expensive steak places in the Hamptons. It was called Ridgely’s and it was known for its marinated steaks along with its bodacious drinks. Located between Watermill and Bridgehampton, it was a favored drink and dinner place of the time.
Going to Ridgely’s required some serious bucks or, in our case, some serious clams. To be clear, we needed to score 4 or 5 bushels of clams in order to have sufficient funds for Ridgely’s. This usually meant working 4 or 5 hours, rather than our more laid back 2 or 3 hours. It has also considerably harder on the back and shoulders. But in the end, we felt doing the extra time was a solid investment in that evening’s entertainment. I can say with some pride that having a steak dinner along with some fine wine at Ridgely’s was always worth the price. Rich and I would come in packing over $100 between us and by the time dinner and drinks were over, we never left with more than $2.
Another oddity of our summer clamming job was that often, after selling 1200 clams or so to Catena’s – total of 2 bushels worth for $64 – we would cruise down to the beach club for a swim in ocean and, afterwards, a drink at the bar. In the bar, we would sit outside, sipping on a couple $6 Carlsberg beers, happily munching on a couple plates of clams on the halfshell at $8 a plate. Somewhere during that summer we discovered from the club bartender that the clams came from Catena’s. Oh, irony of ironies, we sold the clams at 5 cents a Littleneck and bought them back at $2 a piece. It probably showed that we were not the best businessmen on the planet, but we did not care because we were having a great summer.
You could say that we lived day to day. You could say that we lived irresponsibly, with no thought of earth-shaking events happening around us. You could say that we wasted every penny we earned. You could say that nothing we did that summer advanced what we would did later in life. And you know what? You would be absolutely right.
But you know what? That was the most fun, the most productive, best summer of my life.