It was an unseasonably warm spring day when the city people began returning. Mrs. Farragut watched the helpless creatures disembark from the ferry boat with their bags and flowers and dogs. Frantic and noisy, they headed towards their cottages.
Mrs. Farragut was a seasonal landlord. Every summer season she rented out her little Cherry Grove cottage to the city people and went to stay in another of her Fire Island houses. Last autumn’s big hurricane hadn’t damaged her places too bad. Others hadn’t been so fortunate. But it hadn’t stopped the city people from returning.
That same evening, Mrs. Farragut had just tossed another piece of driftwood into her fire when someone knocked on her door. It was one of the men from the city, wearing tortoise glasses, a fur coat, and a regular mess of scarves and handkerchiefs around his throat. He was looking for ice. Ice! The freak wanted ice for one of those everlasting cocktails they always have. But Mrs. Farragut had no ice. She didn’t feel she needed it.
The next afternoon, she went for a stroll. The ocean was bright blue and though the sun was blazing you’d need a sweater at night. If pressed, she would admit that she looked forward to the city people returning each spring. Their eccentric behavior amused her. She nodded to the elderly woman with the umbrella and the man’s haircut. She stopped to speak to the man who had been searching for ice and who was now scratching out a flower garden in the sand where no real garden belonged. A daffy woman wearing a big diamond ring told Mrs. Farragut that she was searching the beach for old fishing rods to tie together and make a curtain pole. City people. Each one crazier than the last.
These words were penned back in 1938 by John Mosher, a gay man and a homeowner on Fire Island. He liked to chronicle the lives of his eccentric friends in the pages of The New Yorker. When I read Mosher’s story about “city people” – a code word for gays if I ever heard one — returning to Fire Island for the summer, I realized how little has changed since Mosher’s time. The gays are still rushing the summer season.
You should have seen ‘em in Rehoboth over Easter weekend. Picking pansies at Tomato Sunshine and purchasing paint at Home Depot. Why, there was more cruising going on at Lowes than at the Blue Moon. And, speaking of the Moon, it was festive. Yes, a scent of summer was in the air – or maybe that was just too much cologne? The age of the cocktailers had dropped twenty years; waist sizes two to four inches. Bold cabana stripe shirts were prevalent, as were those cockeyed checked numbers that are starting to look more International Male than Tom Ford. Lots of sandals and flip flops. And, I even saw one pair of red Bermuda shorts adorned with little blue sailfish, which in my opinion was just a tad too hopeful.
Yes indeed, the “city people” are returning, even before all the daffodils have faded and ahead of the yellow pollen drop, which I’ve always considered the real beginning of the summer season because after the drop it’s safe to take to the screened porch for cocktailing and conversation.
Now, lest you label me a killjoy, let me assure you that’s not the case. I’m merely making some observations and pointing out what I think are some amusing parallels between gay Rehoboth in 2006 and gay Fire Island in 1938. And, if you’re the least bit interested in knowing what I did over Easter, well, I’ll tell you. I planted a window box with orange Portalauca, unpacked the cut-offs and summer blankets, ironed up my Lacoste shirts, and made the switch from whiskey and auto-bronzers to tequila and antihistimines.
Rehoboth recently passed a tree ordinance. It’s the first one in the State and it’s designed to help protect the character of the city. Hooray, I say. Trees are part of what makes Rehoboth unique, and as you wander around town, you notice a lot of ‘em –pines, oaks, cherries, cedars, and crepe myrtles. Some sycamores. A couple of locusts. Fewer and fewer dogwoods. Rehoboth is one of the few spots along the South Atlantic coast where the mainland extends almost to the surf itself. Large stands of tall loblolly pine and holly, especially along the north end of town, approach within a city block of the sea. “Where the pine meets the brine” was an old slogan often associated with Rehoboth.
Let’s talk specifically about the hollies, shall we. Handsome trees they are, with shiny evergreen leaves, sweet smelling flowers in the spring, and pretty red berries in the winter and early spring. Birds love ‘em. Bees do too. But if you’ve ever spent any time living with one, you’ve got to wonder why anyone in their right mind would plant one at the beach. Their spiny leaves certainly aren’t conducive to running around barefooted. The berries clog gutters and stain canvas awnings. Holly leaves and berries actually got into and damaged our Volvo’s air conditioning system. The damn things cost us $3,000 in repairs!
The holly tree has long been an icon of winter and of the Christmas holiday season. It’s also a symbol of masculine fertility and potency because of the staying power of the berries and shiny foliage throughout winter. I knew that the English sometimes burn holly branches to celebrate the end of winter. But I didn’t know until recently that Delaware had a thriving holly export industry during the first half of the 20th century. Yes indeed. By the 1930s, Delaware was the leading producer in the nation, most of which came from Sussex County. That’s probably why the State adopted the American Holly as its official tree in 1939. The holly industry, though, rapidly declined by the 1960’s, due to the increasing use of artificial holly goods.
The American Holly can reach a maximum of 60 feet in height with a trunk diameter of 20 inches. I haven’t measured it, but my holly looks to be over 40 feet tall. It’s a tough old warrior — its light gray bark mottled with odd shaped growths, a couple of sawn off limbs, and a continuous ooze from a wound sustained from an unfortunate run-in with a bulldozer.
Every summer I contemplate arborcide and talk about replacing it with a tidier tree, one that’s kinder on the feet. But I don’t. And not because of the tree ordinance. I don’t cut it down because it was here before I was and that means something. I like the fact that English builders of old used to make cottage steps out of holly wood so the witches couldn’t enter. I like Holly Golightly. Mostly, though, I leave the holly standing because it just seems to belong outside my cottage. The big tree and the little cottage are eccentrics, renegades, holdouts from an era before beige carpeting, plastic fences, and those conformist, “bred for suburban stripmalls” Bradford Pear trees. They’re survivors from an age when people treated their beach houses more as summer respites than speculative investments.
What can I say? I’m a romantic. And I fancy myself a bit of a renegade. So I’ll just toss a few holly branches on the fire to help usher in spring and continue to pluck the damn leaves out of my car, my gutters, and my feet.