17 June 2012

Montauk Diary

While previous blogs were limited almost entirely to St. Barths’ unique culture, now that we have removed to Montauk one can not help but recognize an other-worldly quality about this place as well. As Pinks puts it, Montauk is the Yin to St. Barths’ Yang.

What prompts this blog entry is an “only in Montauk” experience at Wok ‘N Roll,  the main drag Chinese restaurant with a huge sign out front advertising its specialty: 

“You hook ‘em, we cook ‘em”.  

To fully “get it”, you need a little background:

While once the site of the first cattle ranch in a land that some 150 years later became The United States of America,  the ethos of Montauk is fishing.  The evidence is everywhere, from the rod-holders on every pickup and SUV,  the recreational boats, charter boats, head boats, and monster draggers lined up at the docks, the commercial fish packing houses at the harbor entrance, and the sheer number of boats of all kinds tied up at the picturesque harbor, which is one of the finest harbors on the east coast, given that it once was a totally protected freshwater lake that was opened to the sea in the late twenties by Carl Fischer, who simply dynamited away the strip of land separating the lake from Block Island Sound.  (After developing the swamps of Miami into a resort area, Fischer decided to make Montauk the “Miami of the North.”  He might have succeeded too but for the market crash in 1929 and the ensuing depression.  Put aside, please, that today even thinking about dynamiting a section of land in order permit salt water intrusion to destroy the ecology of a fresh water lake could get you strung up in a tree being hugged by Al Gore and the Enviros.)

Back to my story.  Fishing today is a far different industry from when President George Washington authorized the construction of Montauk’s iconic lighthouse.  Even the Fox News crowd could not lay blame solely on Obama for the intricate web of regulations that have governed fishing for the last half century.  Each category of fisherman, recreationals like me, the commercial charter boat guys, the draggers and long-liners who go out for weeks at a time, are subject to different rules re how many of each species of fish can be taken, when they can be taken, and how large they must be in order to be “keepers.”  If it is too small, too big, out of season, etc, it must go back into the water, dead or alive.

Okay, back to my story.  Pinks and I and some friends were eating at Wok “N Roll last week. We brought to the restaurant our ubiquitous plastic supermarket bag containing some striped bass and fluke filets from fish I caught over the preceding week  The restaurant manager, Li, gave us a big season-opener greeting, weighed our bag of fish, seated us, gave us our drinks, took our order as to how we wanted the fish prepared (there are ten options), and went back to the kitchen to get things cookin’.  

As Li disappeared through the kitchen door, a middle aged man and woman arrived with their white supermarket plastic bag and, seeing no waitstaff,  the guy put his bag on the scale.  We were sitting adjacent to the scale and as I turn to chat with our friends, I hear the plastic bag rustle.  I turn and think I spy the bag move.  Nah, couldn’t be, and I turn back to our conversation.  Then another crinkle, and this time I swivel in my seat and see the bag is definitely moving.  What the …?

As the embarrassed newcomer reaches for it, the bag jumps off the scale and onto the floor! The guy stoops to recover it, but the bag keeps on wiggling and slithering across the floor, as if it knew instinctively to avoid the grasp of this kneeling red-faced predator.  But when the guy finally gets a grip on one end of end of the plastic bag, ... ta dah,... out wiggles the fish from the other, open, end; a 12-15” sea bass.  (This is a fish you would recognize if you ever ordered a whole cooked fish in a Chinese Restaurant.)

Now this is a scene; The guy is now on his hands and knees trying to bare-hand the freed fish and get it back into the bag, but the fish is having none of it.  One needs to be careful with these critters because while sea bass have no teeth, they have dorsal spines that are deadly.  Grab em the wrong way, and you have, as grandson Nicholas would say, a big ouchie. His female companion is standing aside with her hands hiding her face.  She is not laughing.  Neither is the guy.  In fact, he is frantic. Really pissed.  Not only has he outed himself as a rank amateur because he did not clean his fish before he brought it to the restaurant,  and not only is his dinner escaping before a restaurant crowded with ball-cap wearing fisherman, he is now being revealed to the world as a cheat: even assuming this fish meets the 13” minimum, --which is not at all certain--the season for keeping sea bass does not begin until the following week, and this guy is now trying, for the second time that day, to catch this illegal fish, and this time it can cost him $500 if there is a DEC cop having dinner at Wok ‘N Roll that evening.  Virtually everyone else in the restaurant is there because they brought legal fish they caught, and they are enjoying the poacher’s degradation.  This could be a new high for Schadenfreud.  Yeah! An unexpected floor show.

Sigh, as you might have guessed, the story ends badly for the fish.  Even with a hook in its jaw, the bass might have had a shot at escaping as long as it was in the sea, but it has no shot at ultimate freedom while gasping and slithering about on Wok ‘N Roll’s well worn linoleum.  It did give its all, and did get some measure of revenge: the guy, on his first reach for the fish, yelped and pulled his hand back when he got stuck by a dorsal fin.  A table of six well-oiled guys just off a charter boat cheered when that happened.   Being the nice guy I am, I just smiled into my Tsingtau beer bottle.

The humiliated amateur did ultimately re-bag the fish and this time tied the handle loops to prevent a recurrent escape. I don’t know what he did with the sea bass, because after the rube got it back in the bag, he straightened up, turned to his companion, commanded “C’mon”, and with chin pressed to chest, stomped out of the restaurant.

Ain’t life grand?

A bientot, or, as they say in these parts,”Later!.”