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Hit the Beach in Fire Island

30 Summer officially begins for me when I see my friend Polly waiting at the Seaview ferry dock with her red Radio Flyer. I was practically raised on Fire Island; my parents had a summerhouse among Seaview's dunes in the 1960's and 70's. As a kid, my job was to meet the weekend ferries (the "daddy boats") with my wagon. People would pay you a dollar (or was it a quarter?) to haul their stuff home. "Wagon?Anyone need a wagon?"

On Fire Island, everyone still uses wagons for carting stuff around; there are no cars on this skinny spit of sand six miles off the south shore of Long Island. As a result, the air smells sweet and nights are deliciously silent.

"I thought I had hit on an open door to paradise," says Polly, recalling the first time she saw Fire Island, more than 40 years ago. Though things have changed—it's fancier, more expensive, more crowded—the sheer physical beauty remains: white-sand beaches, sea that's as smooth as glass one day, roiling with surf the next. Since the 32-mile-long island is only three blocks wide, you're never more than five minutes from the bay or the ocean. And despite its accessibility—it's only 50 miles from New York City—there's a sense of utter isolation about the place.

"You grew up on Fire Island," people say to me, knowingly, as if I'd been raised in a hotbed of sin. With its gay communities, its singles bars where people sometimes hang out until dawn, and its bohemian past, the island has always had a louche reputation. The reality is that most people come here to dig clams, write books, raise kids, and be in bed by nine.

Strung along the sand like shells are some 17 tiny summer communities that are each distinct, tribal, self-protective. Usually, the only way to get from one to another is by foot on the beach or by water taxi. Running from west to east, there's Kismet, which has a barefoot charm, then Saltaire, with its groomed walks and silvery wooden houses; Saltaire's neighbor to the east is Fair Harbor, where New York media professionals tend to congregate. Ocean Beach, just over three-quarters of a century old, is the largest hamlet on the island, small-town America crossed with Greenwich Village. Next door is Seaview. My town. The houses are all wooden, some brown clapboard and some white saltbox. Ever since big money rolled in during the nineties, some of them have begun to resemble Tara on the Sea—Seaview on steroids. Still, it's a quiet place, with a lone grocery store and a synagogue.

Moving on, there's Ocean Bay Park, populated by "groupers" (people who share rentals and are despised by those who own), followed by Point O' Woods, a tight-lipped town with gabled turn-of-the-century houses, a yacht club, and a chain-link fence to keep strangers out. East of the Sunken Forest—a spooky, 300-year-old nature preserve—are the villages that, for some, define Fire Island. Cherry Grove, with its fanciful houses, is largely lesbian, and Fire Island Pines almost entirely attracts gay men. Beyond the Pines there's only Water Island, a minuscule scrap of a hamlet beloved by actors and writers.

The various Fire Islanders display a feisty attitude toward communities other than their own, though it's pretty good-natured stuff. I remember the summer when some wag catapulted matzoh balls onto the beach at Point O' Woods, which was (and still is) resolutely WASP—and waspish about letting outsiders in. As kids, when we found the gate to Point O' Woods open, we daringly (and perhaps not quite legally) rode our bikes into the mysterious village. Sometimes we made up what we considered Waspy names for ourselves, in case we were caught.

Saltaire and Point O' Woods were built for summer visitors around the beginning of the 20th century, but it wasn't until the 1920's that Fire Island first stepped into the spotlight. New York theater people came first, followed by writers, artists, and, a little later, refugees. My friend Polly, herself Belgian, remembers many of them, German Jews who'd fled Europe during World War II: "It reminded them of the Baltic's savage seas and dunes." By the fifties and sixties, the island was thriving, frequented by the likes of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Harry Belafonte.

Back then, in my childhood, bare feet were a way of life. I took my shoes off on the weekend of July Fourth and didn't put them back on until I went home to the city after Labor Day.

Today, as we make our way toward Polly's house, we run across three deer looking for something to eat. Civilization comes up against nature everywhere on Fire Island, though increasingly, it's nature that surrenders. Over the years, new residents have planted gardens where none should be. The result: deer that used to keep to the Sunken Forest have come to town to forage, bringing Lyme disease. And the houses have gotten ever larger, although it takes a certain to-hell-with-it daring to build big on Fire Island: in 1938, a hurricane wiped out almost everything, and many houses were wrecked by flooding during the furious storms of 1991.

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