This article appeared in slightly different form in The East Hampton Star, as well as “The Mashup,” my weekly newspaper column for Florida Weekly.
It was cold on the beach. 5 AM or so, waiting to set nets, fishing with the Havens crew in Amagansett. I was almost 15 and had left the boarding school I attended in ninth grade a bit before the end of the school year (long story).
I moved to my parents’ summer house in East Hampton where Doug Kuntz, an on-again off-again boyfriend of my older sister and in need of a place to live, was installed to keep an eye on me. He was my ticket to fishing with the Havens family, haul seiners for generations. Haul seining was taught to white settlers by the local Indians, and remained much the same over the centuries with the exception of 4-wheel-drive trucks with winches replacing hauling the nets by hand, and rowboats being retired in favor of twenty-foot motorized dories towed to the beach and launched through the surf.
Our dory would launch just before dawn when the truck towing it would back quickly and violently into the ocean and come to a sudden stop, letting inertia pull the boat free. While the truck pulled out of the water as fast as possible, sometimes with the help of a tow line already set in place and wrapped around a winch of another truck, the dory would power through the beach break, wader-clad fishermen preparing to drop nets after clearing the waves.
They’d head toward the horizon paying out net, the end of which was still tied to a truck, setting it in a deep arc before returning through the waves far up the beach. Crews manned each end of the net; one would work the large spinning steel winch that towed the net to back shore while a second neatly coiled the rope. As the net at last began to pull clear of the ocean we’d run shots of line to the water’s edge and tie it around the net while the other end was wrapped around the winch to continue the haul. It could take two hours: shot after shot of rope tied on, untied, then rushed back to the water as the trucks periodically moved towards each other, leaving a trail of netting above the surf line as the arc in the ocean tightened around the catch.
By the time the trucks were shouting distance apart, the tension would be an almost physical presence on the beach. Fish would have been cleaned from the net as it was retrieved, but that set’s success or failure was dictated by what was in the bag; a giant sock of netting at the center of the arc that held captive the fish that had hit the net and turned to run offshore.
A full net could mean an early day and a run to Stuart’s market to deliver the catch. More likely though, the process would be repeated at least once. But expectations were always high for that first set; the wisdom of haul seiners for generations said the best time to get your nets in was as the sun just came over the Eastern horizon.
We woke up at 3:30 or 4 AM to fish. We’d sit in the dark living room of my house, Doug would smoke cigarettes and we’d try to wake up enough for the drive to Amagansett in his drafty ex-postal service Jeep. Once at the Havens home we’d hop in the crew trucks for the drive to the Napeague strip. It was sleepy, cold, noisy, chaotic movement before dawn, before the rest of the Hamptons bothered to get out of bed, with the roads empty except for our small convoy of trucks heading east before turning onto the two-track through the dunes leading to the ocean and our first set spot.
Everything had an odd edge to it: the air, the lights on the dune grass, the cigarette smoke in the truck cab, the sound of the trailer humming behind. I’m not convinced anyone but the men on the dory fully came awake before we started to see fish on the beach, but attempts were made in those few slow, precious moments of calm while the boat made its long trip out and back.
Men would smoke, stand on the cold beach and talk about the day’s prospects, toss causal affectionate insults at each other. They’d tell me to be careful of bluefish, that one had leapt off the beach and latched on to Nicky’s upper arm once, that they’re dangerous fish aren’t they? Yes, yes, bub.
I never knew if they were trying to scare the city kid, but when I was finally insulted by one of the crew (I won’t be specific, but it had to do with my potential ability and supposed propensity to bed insects), I felt in some small part (very, very small part) a member of the crew, at least for a time. Never fully of course, that would have been impossible for a number of reasons: I was young, I was obnoxious, I was born in the wrong state.
But I didn’t care; the fact that I was there getting yelled at was what mattered. These were, after all, Real Men. Real Men that did Real Work, that smoked, that drank, that fought, that feared nothing I could think of. They were larger than life and stronger than gods and they let me fish with them in the spring of 1978.
The one thing you could depend on being in the cab of every truck, besides a few boxes of Marlboro reds, was coffee. Thermoses were passed around every morning on the beach as the sun came up, as these Real Men cursed and laughed and yelled and got ready to haul nets. It was strong, it was sweet, it had copious amounts of milk, and I didn’t like it. It was an indication of who they were, as opposed to the unapproachable giants that they appeared to be, that despite my suffering from both nicotine and caffeine-free blood they still allowed me to ride and fish with them every day.
I never took to cigarettes, but coffee was another story altogether. It took another five years or so but I finally discovered what I’d been missing one evening while I was working the line at a local restaurant (I’d long since traded in my hip boots for chef’s pants).
I was particularly tired that night and so poured a cup from the pot in the waitress station. I drank it black, because that’s the way my parents drank it, and once that first cup hit my bloodstream I chased it with another dozen or so (I never was much about restraint: my motto was “more is better”). It’s a wonder I ever drank another cup after that; the entire 13 cups plus bonus tracks came back to punish me, giving me horrible nausea before departing suddenly through my bedroom window in the middle of the night. Clearly I was not yet a Real Man.
Failing to learn my lesson with regular coffee, the day I discovered cappuccino I downed eight or nine of those as well, only to suffer the same fate. Incredibly, despite those early disasters, the only thing to be banished from my list of edible foods was whipped cream: caffeine I’ve happily come back to in its many forms.
The technology of coffee has changed since then, as has the market for it. Once upon a time, coffee came in thin cardboard cups with faux-Greek designs, delivered with an egg and cheese sandwich in a bag with napkins. It cost 60 cents a cup and we’d buy it at a deli. Then Starbucks made espresso-based drinks ubiquitous and asked people to stop using words like small and large. The entire world of coffee had become far more complex and expensive then it was when I first discovered it, when the Real Men drank it on the beach before dawn.
But a funny thing has happened. Plain old coffee is making a comeback, and technology has failed to improve on traditional coffee-making techniques. Even the most complex and expensive machines like the Clover (which were installed in some high-profile Starbucks locations after they snapped the company up) just emulate the process of making a cup by hand.
A simple drip machine (stay away from percolators) can make a fine cup, but going more old-school makes an even better one. I was introduced to making pour over coffee by my wife years ago when she moved into my apartment and brought her Chemex, a simple hourglass shaped carafe that holds a v-shaped filter: fill it with coffee, boil water, and pour it slowly over the grinds. Pour over is making its way into the high-end coffee world now, but unlike espresso it’s cheap and easy to do at home. A Chemex or single cup dripper will run you about 20 bucks, and the only skills required are boiling water and patiently pouring it.
There are times I embrace technology: when I’m shopping at Amazon, or using my smart phone, or playing a video game, or shooting digital video. But there are things technology just isn’t going to improve upon: the sound of a real piano, the taste of a great cup of coffee, or the feel of standing on the beach at dawn, watching a small boat head through high surf, the smell of smoke and the low sound of Real Men in the air.
Additional haul seining photos from Dans Papers