Sunday, June 05, 2011

Cherry Grove vs. Fire Island Pines

[2013 Update at end of post...]
Growing up as a Long Island beach bum, Fire Island was never too far away, and for many years I worked up a full-body tan at Lighthouse Beach in Kismet. But this Memorial Day Weekend, my boyfriend and I decided to make the ultimate gay men’s beach pilgrimage to the more ‘fabulous’ communities on the island, and took an early morning ferry over to Cherry Grove. What follows are the experiences and reactions of two middle-aged Fire Island ‘virgins.’

After disembarking, we followed the boardwalk to the Grove Hotel, a complex that includes the Ice Palace dance club, pool and poolside bar, beach store, and pizza parlor. We had no reservations, but walked into the ‘lobby’ and were rented a room. The office staff introduced themselves by name, and set the ‘atmosphere’ for what would be a very laid-back, ‘no-problem,’ relaxed location. While the hotel itself bears the salt-blasted, foot-worn, not-quite-level, and dry-rotted evidence of an old wooden family resort, our room was clean, roomy, bright, and we thought, quite a bargain.

That day, there were several drag-queen lead events taking place at poolside. We tend to be more ‘at home’ with a Bear-crowd, and decided to skip the Queen events and head out to the beach for the day. But I need to add that while there is a century-long love affair between The Grove and its Drag Queens, the population that weekend was entirely diverse: Queens, bears, twinks, young, old, black, white, hippies and preppies, lesbians, and liberal-minded straight couples with their children all mingling together on the narrow boardwalks and the beachfront for the weekend. Our nakedness on the beach in the middle of all this was pretty much ignored and accepted…although we discovered later that day that a remote stretch between The Grove and The Pines was a more popular with nude sunbathers.

Everywhere we went, people – both visitors and Island employees – were friendly and laid-back, but quick to laugh. At the hotel bar, we quickly learned the bartenders names (Todd, John, Ken, Chuck), and hanging out at poolside quite literally meant hanging out with our new bartender-friends, as well as other guests who joined in the ‘party’ and bought rounds of shots.

The friendliness continued everywhere we went – at Floyd’s, we enjoyed the most incredibly delicious breakfasts and great conversations with the Irishwoman who owns the place, and when I went into the Island Breeze to order some dinner and a drink, the bartender greeted me – like so many people here – by introducing himself with a handshake.

In walking around the Grove, we detected a very strong sense of community – a sense created, in part, by the tightly-clustered patterns of modest-sized homes that ‘fit’ into, and became part of, the beachside landscape, and by the narrow (five feet max?) boardwalks that forced eye contact and a bit of physical maneuvering between those out for a walk.

In one of our conversations, a well-meaning woman suggested that we head down to Fire Island Pines for a day. She added, “…there’s got to be about 200 Chelsea boys down there…,” a reference to the young muscle boys from the Chelsea gyms in Manhattan. Since we were just ‘taking the island in,’ we figured that should be our next stop, and we headed off through the trails in the “Meat Rack” and wound up in Fire Island Pines.
The physical difference between the two communities impacted us immediately. Upon arriving in the Pines, we found narrow boardwalks as in the Grove, but we also found ourselves on an actual dirt/sand roadway that would have accommodated two-way vehicular traffic. And in fact, those would be large vehicles: dump trucks and service trucks, filled with landscaping tools and bags of compost, used to service huge houses which exploded out of the landscape. In one of the most brutal landscaping assaults I have ever seen, one homeowner had sited his home at the back of his lot, and cleared the entire yard of the native sand, beachgrass, and beach flora. Instead, the bulldozed plot was planted with unnatural-looking birch trees and covered with – of all things – wood chips. Wow. How to stick out like a sore thumb and import your suburban mindset onto a barrier island….

As we walked this ‘road’ towards the harbor, others past us buy, but they generally avoided eye contact and conversation. We were clearly visitors – or perhaps seen as imported ‘help’ – in someone else’s kingdom.

Upon arrival at the Harbor, we hoped to have a few drinks and lunch, but first stopped at a small retail shop, Jalston’s, to buy a hat for my boyfriend, who was beginning to feel the effects of the sun beating down on his uncovered head. With the exception of a woofy man doing some plumbing work there, the visit to buy a hat was a complete disaster. They had no clue as to their prices, and flipped indiscriminately through folders and papers to find a price. After more than 15 minutes of waiting, the sales clerk (Owner? I don’t know – we never learned his name) – said, ‘take the hat…go have some drinks…give me $60 as a deposit…we’ll settle up later.”

Frustrated with waiting, we agreed. The clerk then insisted that he personally walk us to a pool and bar on the harbor, and “set us up.” Off we went to poolside…along a walk littered with garbage and debris. We were then set up under a desert-tent-looking shelter, which, in the sun, simply retained heat, and our clerk/host took off. I went up to the bar to order, and realized that some shaded tables at dockside were actually much cooler than at poolside, so we switched tables, and I ordered our drinks.

I would learn that I could not wait at the bar and get my drinks…rather, they had to be ‘delivered’ to me by the bartender – who never once said hello, or introduced himself, or established eye contact, or spoke to us after delivering the drinks – drinks that cost us $32.50 for TWO (yes, TWO) Jack Daniels & 7-ups.

We decided this was not the place for us. We returned to Jalstons where they had not yet uncovered the price, and then suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, here it is! $54.00 and change! See how close we estimated?!” I was handed back a $5 bill as change. My boyfriend promptly tweeted: “Jalstons: Overpriced, disorganized, poor service, not a recommendation at all, steer clear.” With that, we decided to head back to the Grove by trying a different path, hoping to leave with a better impression than the one created upon our arrival.

No such luck.

We passed an older gentleman in a negligee who chose not to respond to our nods of “hello” as we passed him. The woman (the only woman we’d seen in The Pines) with whom he was walking, however, commented on a ‘flock’ of plastic pink garden flamingoes, calling them “geese.”

Danny and I looked at each other and couldn’t even begin to deconstruct this odd encounter. We quickened our pace, and returned to the Grove.

Our first stop? Our hotel.

“Can we stay an extra night?,” we asked.

“Of course!” our friends responded.

And so, for $60, we had another day in Cherry Grove (as opposed to that same amount buying us three drinks, or a hat in The pretentious Pines).

So, back to our new friends Todd, and John, and Ken, and Chuck, at the Poolside Bar in Cherry Grove, and Floyd’s, and the Island Breeze,

We’ll return to Fire Island again and again, that’s for sure.

To Cherry Grove.
 2013 Update:  SO, we have done more than simply 'return' to the Grove.  We have become summer residents. 

Throwing in on a house-share arrangement, we are fortunate to have a rental just a few steps from the dock.  We are now here at the end of April, and the last weeks of May, June, July, August, and September, and a five day stretch in October. When the weekend party crowds dissipate, we ae surrounded by "known" faces - other summer residents who already know our names, or at least recognize us.  We have "our" barstools at Cherry's On The Bay (my new favorite bar), where I can drink all day if I want, wear no shirt, and smoke my pipe, all while watching the boats arrive and depart at the dock.  We spent Memorial Day weekend 2013 chasing clueless people off of the sand dunes, erecting "Stay Off The Dune" Signs, and pining back the National Park Service's ears for overzealous enforcement.

It feels like "home," and, for me, retirement is a mere 2 years away.


Will said...

It's been two decades since I was in Cherry Grove and walked with my friend for the week through the paths and contorted couples in the Meat Rack to The Pines which seemed sterile and totally self-involved. We walked back, stripped naked on the beach among the friendly guys, clusters of lesbians with kids, and straight tourists dazzled by it all and never went near The Pines again.

Danny P T T said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

The Pines has always been this way, just spent two weeks in the grove at Dune Point, this is the place to stay, not the grove hotel. They even give you a discount when you use the word gossip online or on the phone. Kitchens, plates, everything, this is where the real regular cherry grove visitors stay. Right on the ocean.Look them up, you will see.

Back to the Pines, As a movie star photographer, I have always stayed in the grove, but 20 years ago I decided to visit the pines. Snotty, rude, stuckup and a total ripoff. I ordered a 22 buck pizza and it was like 5 inch mrs pauls pizza. As for the clubs, a bunch of new york city wannabees acting like gods gift, and 16 buck drinks. Horrible. Cherry grove is real people, and this is why I go there, to get away from all these better than everyone else guys. And next time try Cherrys on the bay, good food and great shows.


reyka! said...

LOL!..'bout the "geese" comment. thanks guys for giving me insight.

reyka! said...
This comment has been removed by the author.