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It was about 2:00 am and I had just returned from a dance party at Fire Island cruising spot The Meat Rack. With a hunger to satisfy, I grabbed a Snickers at The Canteen, the island's glorified deli.
"That will be $3.26," said the cashier.
"What did you just say to me?" I couldn't believe my ears. $3.26 for a regular-sized Snickers bar? Having heard the price again, I scoffed, "Whoever owns this joint must live in a mansion on the clouds." The cashier said he sympathized and that it was crazy and then he gave me back a buck seventy-four. I had given him a twenty. The man apologized and swore that never happens. The Canteen does not short-change its guests.
It's been three years or so since my last visit to Fire Island, and the little I remember from that excursion -- this was before I quit drinking, so many years are just a blur, sadly -- is not worth repeating. In other words, I had forgotten to bring my own supplies to stave off Fire Island's shameful gouging. It was for this same reason I was forced to wait 40 minutes for the Canteen to prepare a foot-long hot dog banally called "The Shaft" that arrived sans the onions and relish with which it was advertised. Price: $14. Apparently some think that greed is all well and good, but gay greed is fabulous.
This was just an overnight excursion, taken solo on a Saturday, and I figured I would run into people I knew. I was right: sunbathing on the beach alone I ran into an art publicist with whom I'm friendly. He invited me to a party at his share, which happened to also house a painter I met years ago, in college. Another college chum who works for my former employer also attended the party, as did two gallerists I recently interviewed for a forthcoming edition of Out, and another publisher I know. Elsewhere around the island, I saw other familiar faces, most of them friendly. It's a small gay world indeed, and for a man who has been quietly, privately questioning whether or not to stay in New York City, this was a refreshing reminder that I have a decade's worth of life in and around the Big Apple, and that I like it very much, largely because of the gay men I know and love.
Fire Island is not utopia. (That's "no place.") But Fire Island is a welcome respite and provides plenty of eye candy. It's an exercise in self-confidence and self-control, but for me, a perpetually awkward man who still hasn't quite learned how to interact with strangers without lubrication, it was also a wonderful practice in socialization. And isn't that what Fire Island Pines is all about? Theoretically, at least.
Fire Island has been a gay mecca longer than its been anything else. After its whaling and slave trade history were washed away, rich New York families began vacationing there in the early 20th Century, but many of them fled and never returned follwing the devastating 1938 hurricane. It was in the 1950s that the island began attracting bohemians, artists, and gays. The Smadbeck family, which owned much of the island, had started selling plots in the late 1950s, and in 1959 male model John Whyte bought the land that would become the Botel, a key development for the Pines's explosion. It was also around this time that Hollywood stars Greta Garbo and Pola Negri began taking the ferry over to Cherry Grove. And it wouldn't be long before gay writers Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden dressed at Dionysus and Ganymede and were carried into a party by a group of singing friends and supporters, an event that has been island lore for five decades.
Fire Island, particularly the Pines, was even gay before Stonewall: as you'll recall, Playboy dispatched children's book author Shel Silverstein to report on the gays back in 1965. And while gay men love to hate on Fire Island -- the perpetually jaded character Sutherland in Andrew Holleran's classic Dancer from the Dance sneers, "[Fire Island Pines] is a strange seaside community where people are considered creative because they design windows at Saks." -- few can argue against the space's landmark role in bringing gay and lesbian communities together.*
After its early years of providing a safe space from a world just beginning to understand gay people, and after the endless party had come to a screeching halt, Fire Island became a haven for those dying or mourning during the AIDS crisis. Then it became the site of a community's rebirth. It was and remains an epicenter for East Coast gay life.
Even if the world is a changed place and LGBT people are more broadly accepted, it's refreshing to have a relatively safe place -- snark and shade are to be expected -- to relax and cruise and screw without worry and to see openly gay men of every size, shape, color and style. And thanks to events like the Fire Island Pines Performance Series, Dancers Respond to AIDS, and the aforementioned Meat Rack gathering, "The Swimming Pool," a dance party that's more Brooklyn than Hell's Kitchen, the island seems to be undergoing a creative renaissance. But creativity and exorbitant prices don't often go hand-in-hand and if businessmen out there aren't careful, they'll scare away vital members of the community. There's something particularly unhospitable about such a lustful and unapologetic high prices, especially since the corporate group behind the Canteen, FIP Ventures, owns a number of other Pines properties, including the newly constructed Pavilion and the Botel, which hosted me.
I understand that Fire Island's inhabitants are captive audience and capitalism is a game to be won, but may I offer a rhetorical "c'mon!"? It's one thing to serve the community. It's quite another to take advantage. And the line is not that thin.
(Image via Flickr.)
*Anyone versed in Fire Island history can tell you the T in LGBT has a very different history there and elsewhere in queer spaces.
PS: In case you're wondering: the island's general store, The Pantry, charges $1.25 for a Snickers. It is not, however, 24-hours, so if it's 2:00 am and you're coming back from the Meat Rack vegetarian, I suggest you bring your own treat.