On any summer weekend, the hundred-mile drive down Route 27–the two-lane highway that tethers Montauk to the rest of New York–is leafy, sun-kissed and glacially slow. In winter, it’s a bare, cold two hours. I’ve recruited my buddy, Meg, to drive out to the South Fork with me for the weekend. Why Montauk? Why not. Cheap hotels, cash bars and rolling waves.
Like most surf towns in the Northeast, Montauk changes in the winter months. It has to. When the cold clears the crowds, the money that’s left is insufficient to support that expensive summer façade. Nearly all the restaurants close for the off-season. Those fancy spin boutiques that have moved in from Manhattan? Closed. Hotels? Closed. Tours of the historic lighthouse for ten bucks a head? Just jump the fence. No one’s watching.
We pull into the lot of the Liar’s Saloon because it’s got that hard-to-come-by quality in Montauk in winter: it’s open for business. A sign by the road promises $1 drafts, but we happily pay five for a Bass and a seat overlooking the lagoon. “A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem,” reads the coaster under my plastic cup. There are five of us in the bar on a Friday afternoon, including Cindy the bartender, two locals and us tourists. Between pulling pints, Cindy peels a blood orange and offers everyone a slice. Channel 12 local news plays in the corner and sets the conversational agenda. We talk about the approaching blizzard and the Superbowl.
Cindy is a winter-person. She’s hoping to get snowed in this week with the cod her friend just caught for her. Tonight is karaoke night, she laments. It’s usually a summer thing, but this is a special request from a regular.
“Duty calls,” Cindy says with a laugh. She laughs the way you think she would, salty and warm.
There are four restaurants open year-round, but everyone in Liar’s agrees that we should avoid the Shagwong. So make it three restaurants.
“Why’s it called Liar’s?” I ask. No one answers. Maybe no one knows.
Between beers, a young couple from Staten Island arrives. They’re here for the weekend, too. When Cindy learns they haven’t scored a special winter rate, she tells them to see to Debbie at the hotel. I ask her about the faded photos that crowd the walls of the bar: big men posing proudly beside big fish. Somehow, almost every photo reminds her of a sad story: cancer, ATV accidents, businesses that couldn’t survive the off-season. Men forced by circumstance to relinquish life at the end of the world.
Our pre-lunch beer stretches into the late afternoon. By the time we make our way to O’Murphy’s Pub, the light off the water is orange. It’s colder than it looks. “Come in as a stranger, leave as a friend,” the menu promises. We’re drinking session beers brewed by neighborhood surfers in a near-empty bar in the center of town. We’ll run into Cindy six hours later at a bar called The Point and thank her for the recommendation. That Staten Island couple being taken for a ride? We’ll see them again at breakfast. We might not be friends, but it’s hard to stay strangers around here.
When we check in at Daunt’s Albatross, one of a handful of motels open for all seasons, it’s already dark. Ninety dollars at Daunt’s gets you two twin beds, a fridge, and access to the largest collection of VHS tapes I’ve ever seen. Meg removes Coyote Ugly from the shelf. “It’s an honor system,” the receptionist warns us.
“You have three copies,” I tell her.
We escape to our room, where Meg sets the thermostat to a reasonable 80 degrees. She puts in the tape, and I open the wine. The VCR is broken.
It snows as predicted, but not much, just enough to warrant staying inside. We find some bikinis on the clearance rack at Plaza Surf & Sports and set off for Gurney’s Inn, one of the more shi-shi hotels in town. It makes its way through the long winter by booking conferences and opening up the spa to non-guests. There’s a yoga retreat and an FDNY fundraiser there on Saturday. At night, 50/50 tickets and Bud Lights are flowing. The hotel bartender asks us if we’re with the hippies or the firemen.
“Neither,” I tell him. “We’re just here.”
“Me too,” he says. “My dad moved out here, and I was living in Vegas so I came out here for a month to get myself together.”
“How’s it going so far?” Meg asks him.
“It’s been eight or nine years,” he says with a laugh.
“What keeps you?” I ask.
“I just couldn’t go back to Vegas,” he tells us.
Or maybe it’s more than that. There’s something undeniable about a deserted town in the middle of winter when neighbors are scarce and temperatures are low. What’s left of the town is at the bar by 8pm. By 10, Meg and I have settled our tab so we make our way to the beach with the coverlets from Daunt’s wrapped around us. There’s an apartment block on the water, but only one unit has lights on. We scream into the cold wind to see who else might be home. Nothing happens.
It’s 10:15 and bitter cold.
We take off our clothes and run into the arctic surf, shouting with pain. Every dark window stays dark. I splash Meg and wet my hair. Still no lights.
We get brain freeze from the outside in. We scream as loud as we can, desperate to make a little trouble in this sleepy town. Nothing.
Trouble needs an audience, but it’s Montauk in winter and there’s no one left to watch.