Arts, Entertainment, Living

Island-hopping, Ferry-jumping

Thursday, 23 September 2010 04:10 PM Written by


It hasn't been easy getting this far inland.

I was up before dawn after sleeping in my RAV4 on the Sag Harbor pier, trying to blend in with all the yachts berthed nearby.


Let's pretend I got five hours of actual sleep. A local told me it was a good and safe place -- i.e., I wouldn't be arrested or run out of town -- and he was right.

The idea of any crime going on Sag Harbor -- other than felonious BMW-envy -- is absurd. I never saw a cop while I was there. Of course I was in town less than 18 hours.

 I went back to Steinbeck's house at dawn to see if anyone was there and to take a picture of my idling RAV4 in the driveway. 


It was like visiting a quiet, perfectly landscaped museum at the end of a well-disguised private lane, which is exactly what it is.

An hour later I had to go back to Steinbeck's for a photo shoot with a local photographer from the Southampton Express.

The paper is doing a little feature on me and my madness written by Mike White, a guy I talked to but never met ("Blogger will retrace Steinbeck's travels 50 years later," Sept. 28).

Ready to roll: Steinbeck's front door. Southampton Express photo.



Ferrying to the Mainland:

I missed my first ferry from Sag Harbor to Shelter Island, so I never had a prayer of catching the big ferry from Orient Point to Connecticut at 10 a.m.

Steinbeck, like my co-voyagers, was no doubt a pro at the island-hopping and ferry-jumping it takes to escape the expensive end of Long Island, but I was a total rookie.

 It was a pretty cool sea journey for a landlubber. Two silent but swift 10-minute crossings on and off Shelter Island with about 15 other vehicles. Then the 90-minute trip on the Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

I had to drive about 16 miles between ferries. Virtually every home or berry farm I sped past on land was pre-1960-old, classy, rural and picture perfect.

 It was a pricy escape from Long Island -- $12 and $9 for the local trips on the small ferries and $49 for the long ride to New London, which 1,000 cars would be making today.

Those steep prices would tax even the average wealthy hamptonite. But commuters get a week's worth of roundtrips for $22, a nice deal for rich people that’s probably subsidized by some government public transit agency somewhere.

 On Steinbeck's watery way to New London aboard "the clanking iron ferry boat," he said he saw submarines surfacing nearby and met a sailor on leave -- a nuclear submariner, to be exact. They talked about the nuclear subs that were then filling up the docks at the U.S. naval base in New London on the Thames River.

 Like so many Americans in those scary Cold War days, Steinbeck was not fond of the U.S./Soviet strategy of mutual assured destruction, part of which involved building a fleet of Polaris-firing nuclear subs. He didn’t like subs, either, because despite their beauty they were “designed for destruction” and “armed with mass murder.”

 I didn't see any subs or sailors. But as I waited with about 90 other vehicles to drive into the empty open belly of the Susan Anne I met Blaize Zabel, 20.


A high school dropout, he looked tough with his big forearms, black T-shirt and shorts and cross tattoo. But he turned out to be an incredibly nice kid. He was on his way back to his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and said he hoped he would have enough money for the Greyhound Bus fare.

I took his picture and gave him the same crazy advice I tell all young people (under 30), including my own kids Billie, Joe and Lucy -- go to L.A. and see what happens. It's been a good move for millions of migrants, including me in the late 1970s.

L.A.’s not as lovable or affordable as it was in the 1980s, but it’s still a la-la land of opportunities. If it isn't a place for you, you'll find out soon enough. Then you can go back home to your hometown, which you'll have decided isn't so bogus after all

For about two minutes of video of this day's travels and my meeting with John Woestendiek and Ace, click.
On the ferry I also met a 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter, John Woestendiek, 57, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and Philly Inquirer.

John is now the owner-operator of and, two dog-oriented web sites. Ace, his Rotweiller/Akita/Chow/pitbull mutt of 130 pounds, was traveling with him.

He's been on the road for several months already, mostly down South, and he decided it would be cool for him and Ace to start following Steinbeck and Charley's trail exactly 50 years later. He's doing dog-related things as he goes.

John genuflected at Steinbeck's house at dawn, too. He slept last night unmolested by the law behind a business called Sleepies in one of the Hamptons, sprawled across the front seat of his red Jeep Liberty. DSC_1826

Ace, 6, was so big and friendly he made me wish I had a dog along too -- for about four seconds.

Ace provides security and unconditional love but consumes the back of John's Jeep. We exchanged info, took pictures of each other and agreed our paths will probably cross again either in Maine or Montana.

Now -- at 4 p.m. -- I'm writing this at a McDonald's somewhere north of East Hartford on US 5.

I'm on the route I presume Steinbeck took to Deerfield, Mass., home of the Eaglebrook School (where actor Michael Douglas matriculated).

On state Route 85 from New London was the kind of healthy commercial development that Steinbeck never saw -- a mega-car-dealership complex with strange car names  like Hyundai and Subaru.

It gave way quickly to a rural countryside and still-green woods. And the roadside was loosely strung with old white houses and barns and roadhouse restaurants and fruit stands that look like they were there in 1960 to watch Steinbeck whiz past.

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Bioshock Infinite Gameplay Trailer

Thursday, 23 September 2010 01:55 PM Written by

 Gamers may have a new most-anticipated game of 2011.  Below is the recently released gameplay trailer for Bioshock Infinite. 

We don't know much about Infinite, but creator Ken Levine has said that it's a prequel to the first Bioshock but takes place in the completely new floating city of Columbia.  The trailer shows a glimpse of the friends, enemies, powers, and threats we may encounter in this new setting.

Irrational Games built this game from scratch with a new in-game engine and the trailer shows off its beauty, detail, and fantastic gameplay possibilities. 

 Bioshock is in my top three favorite video games of all time, so 2011 can't come fast enough.  Click on the image below to watch the trailer on YouTube.  Enjoy!


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Hitting the Steinbeck Highway

Thursday, 23 September 2010 08:34 AM Written by

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Steinbeck's Driveway -- Miles Zero

Goodbye, Sag Harbor.

It's 7 a.m. My RAV4 is in Steinbeck's driveway, ready for launching.

I'm sure he wouldn't mind my trespassing.  The ferry to New London, Conn. -- back to the continent -- embarks at 10.



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'Big Bang Theory' vs. 'Community' vs. 'My Generation'

Thursday, 23 September 2010 04:00 AM Written by

It's not unusual for viewers to face tough decisions when it comes to viewing choices. It happens all the time that networks schedule popular shows against one another. That's competition.

Big_Bang_TheoryBut tonight's matchup of CBS hit "The Big Bang Theory" (8 p.m., KDKA) against struggling NBC sitcom "Community" (8 p.m., WPXI) is particularly wrenching as TV choices go for fans of quality comedy.

And then there's ABC's "My Generation" (8 p.m., WTAE), a dreadful series that should pose no threat to the competing comedies.

Read more after the jump. ...

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Me and Steinbeck's Ghost

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 11:20 PM Written by

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Steinbeck's House

Before the sun set on the last day of summer, and before the harvest moon rose, I drove out to Steinbeck's seashore house on Bluff Point Lane. The GPS Girl had no trouble finding it, but the house hides at the end of a narrow private gravel road.

I didn't pull in the driveway because John Stefanik's car was there. He's been taking care of the house for 28 years -- when widow Elaine hired him to do the job.

The wood-sided house and its outer buildings and thick shaggy grass were looking pretty good beneath the heavy shade of the lot's tall and muscular oak trees.

The oaks are much bigger than they were when Steinbeck lived there, of course, and the house and other structures -- dark green 50 years ago -- have been painted slate-gray. But Steinbeck would have recognized it in its preserved state. DSC_1536_copy

Stefanik said on Monday a New York Times reporter and photographer went with him to the house to do a story about the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck's "Charley" trip.

Though he usually asks for appointments from pushy media-types like me, as soon as I explained why I was there he let me wander around and take pictures as the sun set over the waters of Morris Cove. DSC_1556_copy

Stefanik couldn't have been nicer. While he and his son ran noisy garden gadgets and did yard work, I did my best impression of a real photojournalist and tried to document the scene in the failing orange-red light.

When the Stefaniks drove off they left me in the driveway with my cameras and, I guess, Steinbeck's ghost.


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Sidewalks of Sag Harbor

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 09:59 PM Written by

 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.

Not so.

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.waalkers_copy_copy_copy


maartys_barberDSC_latinos1520_copyAt 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.

 muniWhen 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.

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Driving in Squares

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 01:53 PM Written by


I never even got close to Staten Island.

Somehow, in part because I was talking on my cell to a Sag Harbor newspaper guy, on the southerly way to Long Island I ended up getting sucked into the Holland Tunnel.

Guess my cargo pod didn’t cause any suspicion from Homeland Security.

I popped out in the human and commercial madness that is Manhattan.



Hundreds – literally – of cops standing in teams of four at intersections and in the street, waving and pointing at cars.

It didn’t matter where the GPS Girl wanted me to turn or what color the traffic lights were.  It was the traffic cops’ call.


For 40 minutes I was driving in squares trying to escape from New York. There’s a movie title there somewhere.

I survived and am now headed east down the Long Island Expressway at interstate speed, though this is being written from a Wendy’s on the way.

I guess there’s no way to get to Sag Harbor w/o first being tortured by NYC.

No wonder Steinbeck lived at the far end of Long Island.


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Smooth Driving

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 08:20 AM Written by


The drive to Somerset, N.J., last night was the way it was drawn up in the playbook -- smooth and uneventful.

All the way on the PA Turnpike to I-81 and into north Jersey the traffic was light to nonexistent -- are we in a recession or something?

The road was generally smooth, the weather perfect, the trucks well-behaved. No tailgaters. Few cops.

Little to do, driving-wise, but put it on cruise control and relax. Lots of great music on the Sirius blues channel -- Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim and even John Mellencamp did a good cover of a classic. Blues, jazz, rock, country, whatever -- it sounds even better when it's blasting at high volume on a dark empty road.

Miles per gallon not too good for a RAV4 because of the cargo carrier on the roof -- almost 19 mpg at a cruising speed of 72. It'll get higher when I hit the slower two-lane highways Steinbeck took. 

Steinbeck covered some of the same road I did last night in 1960.

At the end of his trip, when he was tired and dispirited and desperate to just get home to his Manhattan brownstone, he came up US 11 from the South and hopped on the PA Turnpike at Carlisle. He flew up the Jersey Turnpike but had a last-minute glitch.  

As he wrote in "Charley," he was turned away from the Holland Tunnel because of his potentially explosive propane tanks -- were the tanks really that dangerous in the bad old days or did they think he was a terrorist?

He ended up having to take the ferry across the Hudson from Hoboken, something you can't do with a car today. I'm headed to Steinbeck's other pad, the summer one in Sag Harbor, via Staten Island and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

It's 139 miles and almost three hours away  -- on paper. 

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