SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- MILE 506
Before I came here I joked that Sag Harbor probably hasn't changed as much in the last 50 years as Cuba has.
Today the Main Street of this village of about 2,500 is busy and thriving with commerce and well-preserved character and charm.
Lots of flapping American flags, handsome old brick buildings, time-warped storefronts, a five-and-dime variety store, a hardware emporium, book store, art galleries, coffee shops, pizza joints, nice restaurants.
They are mixed in with real-estate offices whose windows look like they're advertising presidential palaces of Third World despots; the old barber shop where Steinbeck got his hair cut; the neony Sag Harbor Theater and the impossibly expensive American Hotel and restaurant/bar.
The American Hotel smells old and rich and has one of the scariest menus I've ever seen. I didn't know what the day's featured entree was, but before I averted my eyes I noticed it cost $110. Maybe it was for 14 people.
At 4 p.m., the sidewalks were jumping with little old ladies, moms and tots, a kid patrolling on a skateboard, dog-walkers, Latino men with cell phones waiting on benches for the bus and locals like Donnie.
Donnie -- maybe he was 50 -- was leaning against the wall of Illusions, an artsy jewlery store. He and his brother ran an auto repair shop whose customers once included Elaine Steinbeck, Steinbeck's third and last wife.
When Donnie and his mother moved to Sag Harbor in the 1970s, he said there were plenty of boarded up storefronts on Main Street. In the '60s, there were "30 bars" on Main Street like the Black Buoy, John Steinbeck's regular haunt.
Sag Harbor was never on the Long Island RR line and apparently it was the last Hamptons town to be colonized by the rich and famous.
Steinbeck was a pioneer, moving here in the 1950s. But Donnie said it was Peter Jennings of ABC who moved to Sag Harbor and made it acceptable for Hamptonians to live north of the highway, whatever that meant.
When I mentioned the z-word -- "zoning" -- as a possible explanation for the town's frozen-in-time character, I thought Donnie was going to explode. He once tried to open a car wash and was quashed by the zoning police.
When he told me about the historic/architectural review nazis who made getting a simple business sign a six-month ordeal, he reminded me of me. We quickly bonded like brothers, even though he was born in Australia.
When Donnie's friend Mike walked by, he called him over and told him I was asking about Steinbeck. Mike, of course, happened to be from Pittsburgh's North Side.
He first came here in 2000 to renovate a vacation house for a Pittsburgh couple. He liked it so much, he stayed and now lives in an apartment above a store on Main Street. I suspect he won't be the last ex-patriated Pittsburgher I'll meet.
Mike, who told me his last name but asked me not to use it, was full of local history/knowledge.
Sag Harbor is the "unHampton." Unlike South-, North- and Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor is not ruined by chain stores and box stores.
By chain stores, Mike didn't mean Walmarts and CVSes, he meant Gucci and Coach and Saks. He actually liked the architectural review board's work and wished it had been started long before 1972 because it would have preserved more of the town's authenticity.
Like Donnie, Mike explained that Sag Harbor has a core population of less than 3,000 that jumps to about 15,000 in summer.
A thousand boats swarm to the great harbor that once drew whaling ships. Ten will be mega-yachts -- 200-footers -- and dozens are 100-footers.
Mike, 54, makes his living building and designing homes in the Hamptons. Except for summer, he said it's a nice quiet town. It's also bitter cold and wet and pretty uncomfortable in the winter, when the sidewalks are as empty during the day as they are in September at 9:30 at night.