In this week’s issue of the Montauk Pioneer, the sister publication of Dan’s Papers, Paul Simon, the rock star who has lived in Montauk for the past 26 years, talks about his love for this place-its beauty, simplicity and character. He also loves it because it is so remote.
He observes that Napeague provides a kind of buffer zone between Montaukers and the mainland: “If you have to pass Napeague, it’s like you’re going on a Lewis and Clark expedition.”
With this in mind, I would like to report on something amazing that happened during 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday in Montauk and East Hampton. When certain rumors went out on Wednesday at Town Hall in East Hampton, 14 miles from Montauk, an outrage of messages on Facebook, more than 500 of them, unlike any ever seen before in these parts, caused the East Hampton Town Board to backpedal, give up on and then denounce a new law affecting Montauk that they had passed just six months ago. Over 1,300 people showed their support on Facebook. Following along on what happened as a good newspaperman, I have to say I have not witnessed anything like this. Ever.
There are about six road ends at beaches in Montauk, where in the summertime, vendors in vending trucks can park and, if they have a permit from the town, sell their wares. Their wares usually are sandwiches, sodas and ice cream cones, but can also include burritos, lobster rolls and iced coffee. [expand]
It’s been a bit of a Wild West scene over the years with the vending trucks coming and going and their owners arguing with one another, but it has not become any big deal. One particular vending truck in Montauk is Lili Adams’ DITCH WITCH, which has, for the last 17 years, parked every summer at Ditch Plains Beach in the lot adjacent to the East Deck Motel. As Ditch Plains has become famous the world over as a major surfing beach (Montauk was ranked last year as number eight in American surfing destinations), so, along with it, has the Ditch Witch. Other vendor trucks are part of other scenes, not only in the six locations in Montauk, but in two locations in Amagansett, all within the jurisdiction of the East Hampton Town Board. But few rank up there with the affection afforded Lili Adams and her Ditch Witch.
Indeed, nothing should have come up about the beach vendor trucks in Montauk and Amagansett at all this past winter, except that the Town, buckling under the financial excesses of a recently deposed high-spending town supervisor, was now focused on fixing things. Indeed, the new supervisor, Bill Wilkinson, has been looking in every nook and cranny to see how he could raise money and cut costs. In January, his people looked at the beach vendor wagon scene. The permits were $250. That was not very much. Why not raise the price to $4,000? That would be better. Better yet, why don’t we hold a bid in April where the prospective beach vendors can start at $4,000 and go up and up and up? With only 8 spots, it might raise about $32,000 the Town didn’t have before. It wasn’t much, but it would be something.
So in late February, the new regime announced the new law and the bidding that would accompany it. Then they went about forming a committee to see on what basis they would judge the winners. It wouldn’t be fair, they thought, to just sell it to the highest bidder. Mr. Moneybags from Great Neck might win. Donald Trump might win. You had to have a level playing field.
And so in February, in the heart of the winter when people in this town have very little to do, the Town had this committee sit down and in a series of meetings come up with parameters that would help the judges decide who would win. Meeting after meeting was held. Proposals were voted through. Other proposals were shelved. In the end-and these parameters were only subsequently really known to the vendors when they got this sheet telling them about the judging-they came up with this:
Thirty percent of the judging points would go for a bidder’s attention to experience, qualifications, suitability of the food provided to beachgoers and financial capabilities. Thirty percent on a business and marketing plan, and 40% on “proposed financial terms,” which meant the seasonal rent that would be paid to the town.
Montauk is pretty dead in the wintertime. None of the beach trucks are out of course, although the brave surfers in their wet suits are. Nobody seemed to pay much mind to this proposed fundraising effort by the town, which-if they were paying the people on the committee by the hour-would surely result in a net loss for all this no matter how much anybody bid.
In April, I was down at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett and ran into Kenny Preuss, who for at least 10 years has been working at that spot. His truck is The Dune Doggie. That morning, he was walking his dog.
“How ya’ doin?” I asked. “You bidding?”
“Yeah. Last year it was $250. Now it’s 10 times that. I don’t know if I’ll win and if I do, if I could make a living at that.”
He seemed discouraged. I wished him luck.
Last Wednesday morning, the committee presented its decision to the secretaries at the Town Board. They were to type up the names of the winners for the official Town Board meeting Thursday night in East Hampton. Within an hour, everybody knew the names. At Indian Wells, the owner of the popular Dune Doggie had won. At some of the Montauk beaches though, there were stunning defeats. Lili, after 17 years at Ditch Plains by East Deck, would be gone, replaced by some up-island outfit that would be selling lobster rolls at $17 a pop, and the prices would go up from there. Farther to the west at the big parking lot for Ditch Plains, there would no longer be the popular Beach Dog vendor wagon run by the Bogetti family for the past 10 years. That site now belonged to another newcomer, Montaco. At other locations, Paddy Wagon won the spot on West Lake Drive. Gin Beach Wagon had won the spot on East Lake Drive. Both had bid unopposed, it turned out.
The peninsula of Montauk is about 12 miles long and three miles wide. Just about everybody is here getting ready for the summer with Memorial Day this weekend. Suddenly, a Facebook page appeared called SAVE THE DITCH WITCH and all through that day messages came in. Another site was set up for BEACH DOG. Messages came in there too.
If on Wednesday morning word went around Montauk that the two big local vendors were out, by nightfall the word went out that these sites were up. It was sites like these that had then led to the protests in the squares in Cairo and elsewhere that led to the overthrow of the governments in Egypt and Tunisia in recent months. These were big deals. What was happening in Montauk was not a big deal. It was a VERY big deal.
Also during that Wednesday afternoon, calls came raining into town hall from Montaukers, and also from reporters looking for comments.
“It wasn’t the Town Board’s fault that Ditch Witch lost,” siad one member of the Board. “It was the Ditch Witch’s fault. They did not make a good enough proposal to win.”
Postings to the two sites now were coming in from all over.
Sam Pa’e of Hawaii posted this:
“I have just found out of this situation in Montauk. It is a sad moment for me and my heart goes out to Lili and the beach-going community of Ditch Plains. As a newcomer from Hawaii, the Ditch Witch welcomed me in, watching my personal belongings and keeping them safe while I was there last summer…Lili made me feel at home and part of the Ditch Witch Ohana, which in Hawaii we call “Family”…My heart will be forever grateful for what Lili has done for me and sharing her ‘Aloha.’”
Laura Michaels posted this:
“Dear East Hampton Town Board. While the formal awarding of the beach concessions have not been made, it appears that there is great concern amongst the Montauk and East Hampton community that the Ditch Witch, which has been a fixture of Ditch Plains, may not be awarded the right to continue to serve the community as she has for so many years. Quite simply, Ditch will not be the same without the Ditch Witch.
John Behan, one of the most respected men in Montauk and a former state assemblyman, had this to say.
“The town board is for the dogs-the Ditch Witch will live forever!!!”
In another five hours, waves of people wrote to the site, heaping insult upon insult onto the heads of the East Hampton Town Board. By Wednesday night, the total number of postings exceeded 1,000.
The Town Board, very shaken, assembled on Thursday afternoon for a special, hastily-called meeting. Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson set the tone of what was to follow. He held up the sheaf of paper showing the winning bidders.
“Because of the number of inquiries we are getting, we are stepping in to review the original proposals. For instance, the first thing that jumps off the page at us is this Turf Lobster Rolls vendor that wins at Ditch Plains. They have a very limited menu. It starts at $17 for a lobster roll.”
Councilman Dominick Stanzione said he noticed some minor tabulation errors in the point scoring when it came down to between Ditch Witch and Turf Lobster Rolls.
Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said, “I’ve reviewed the proposals submitted and realize that the bidders hadn’t been given a detailed breakdown of the points to be assigned in each subcategory. I think that renders the bids invalid.”
John Jilnicki, who is the town attorney, said, “It’s really not fair to any of the bidders.”
Quigley returned to the lectern. “The words ‘understanding of customer base and community’ were underlined, which might unfairly suggest to a bidder that they should give this extra weight.”
Others grumbled on and on for a bit. Finally it was decided that this thing needed fine-tuning and it should be sent back for discussion for implementation. But in the meantime, with Memorial Day just eight days away, maybe they ought to just go back to where things were last year and use those old rules for this summer.
A vote was taken. It was unanimous.
The thundering heaps of messages now continued to come into Facebook. But now it was celebratory.
“What a story,” I wrote. “Congratulations to you all.”
“So happy,” posted John Craft. “My mouth is watering for a Grilled Chicken Caesar Wrap .”
Caren Oberg Gomes wrote: “If y’all hear a big woooooo of joy coming from the north, that’s just me hootin’ from up here on Nantucket.”
Pratt Bennet wrote: “Boston cheers the DW’s stay of execution! Power to the people!”
Lee Grimes wrote: “Congratulations, Montauk! We are amazing!”
And a group named Defend Montauk wrote this:
“Just from pure numbers, we can change all of these wrongs that are occurring in our town. This battle is won. The Ditch Witch and Beach Dog are saved. If you were a part of this, join Defend Montauk so we together can stop any of this from happening to any of our towns and businesses and we will have the supporters to do so. This is the first of many victories to come. Congrats to Lili and Grant and thank you for showing resolve and determination to keep what is rightfully yours!!!!”
And this from Lili at the Ditch Witch: “iFrom the bottom of my heart I would like to express thanks to my dear friends and customers who supported me with their emails, letters, texts and Tweets during this difficult 24 hours. I have never wanted to get back in that Cart more than today. Overwhelmed by your love. Love, Lili Adams, “the Ditch Witch.”
Ah, but all may not be over. Some vendor trucks are left overnight sometimes so the owners can see to it they have their spot day after day. Turns out there is a law that prohibits this. It’s been on the books in East Hampton. But the police have turned a blind eye to it. Until now, they say.