It was a balmy summer evening in Manhattan, and I was plagued by an incessant level of irritability that I’d come to recognize as a sure sign that I hadn’t gotten out of the city in way too long. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d escaped the stress and frenetic busyness of Manhattan. While others liked to go to the Hamptons, I preferred the more extreme and idyllic promontory of Montauk. Little did I know what a strange travelling companion lay waiting for me.
Montauk lies at the south fork of Long Island, past all of the Hamptons, 125 miles from New York City. It’s as far as you can go on Long Island; a tiny town with beautiful bluffs and beaches, a lighthouse, the actual Memory Motel popularized by the Rolling Stones song, and a little 24 hour diner by Gosman’s fishing wharf that proudly exhibits the teeth of their most famous catch above the pool table; the 2500 pound great white shark immortalized in the movie “Jaws.” Best of all, you could take the train there. But there was only one train a day. It left around midnight from Penn Station.
I loaded up my backpack, preparing for a day of relaxation and mental renovation, planning to do some journalling and planning on the train, then some hiking along the beach, and a good bit of yoga at the beach. This was my little self-styled “retreat.”
Penn Station was rather deserted that time of night, with a handful of homeless people cat-napping by the gates, and a gaggle of the late night TGIF commuters straggling home in a drunken haze. The majority of the beach set prefers to sit amidst motionless traffic on the overburdened country roads that connect the towns of the east end, arriving at their destinations cranky and sore from their long and frustrating drive. I knew better. Or so I thought.
The Montauk train starts in the modern electric line that shuttles the bridge and tunnel crowd faithfully into and out of the city, but once it gets to the outer limits of the suburban sprawl, it shuttles its passengers into old diesel passenger trains that seem like something from a railroad museum. These high-ceiling cars have unusually tall stiff seats that must date back to the late 1950s or early 60’s. I curled up in my seat, and napped a bit, and then poured a guppa joe from the thermos and began my writing. As my neuroses poured onto the page of my journal, I noticed a rather large guy moving from seat to seat, trying to engage various people in conversation. Inevitably he plopped down in the seat behind me.
I craned my neck back to get a look at the intruder, a rather unkempt, haggard, plump (to be kind) bundle of warts, sores, and bad skin, with a ponytail and bushy uneven beard. He had a gym bag and wore a baggy sweater. I had no intention of revealing either the sordid or spiritual contents of the page I was writing,
On the page were recollections of previous Montauk adventures: the raccoon that was determined to get lunch out of my backpack, the passionate carnal feast of exhibitionism with an ex-girlfriend, the accidental discovery of a nudist beach adjacent to a fashion photographer’s home, or the recollection of another Montauk solo retreat during which I was writing in my journal about a guy whom I previously heard describe “the ocean as God” and subsequently strolled down the beach to discover him and two friends I knew under a beach umbrella in what I took to be an unmistakable instance of spiritual synchronicity. While I might share these with you, dear reader, they were not meant to be divulged to an impudent interloper.
“Whatcha writing?” he repeated.
“Just stuff,” I responded, closing the journal so he couldn’t see the contents.
“You a writer?” he asked.
I took a deep irritated breath, trying to decide how to frame my response. “I suppose, of sorts. Not professionally or anything.”
“I’m trying to find somebody to get my story out.”
I should’ve known right then I was in trouble, but perhaps I was a little bored and thought it might be fun to indulge him.
“See those Oriental people over there? They’ve been following me.”
“I thought they liked to be referred to as Asian now, don’t they?”
“Whatever. They followed me onto the train.”
“Why would they do that?” I’d opened Pandora’s box, little did I know, and given up any hopes for a peaceful last hour and a half of the train trip.
He began to unravel his long and strange tale; “I’d been having these back problems, and I went to this acupuncturist.”
I responded that I’d tried acupuncture once, but it hadn’t done much for me, and I generally found yoga to be best for helping any back issues I encountered.
“Acupuncture is better. This woman is the best acupuncturist in the country. Maybe second best in the world. She’s from China. She won’t see just anyone. You have to know somebody to get to see her. I know this Oriental woman who got me in to see her.”
“Well, you’re still having back problems, it doesn’t seem like she helped you very much.”
“No, that’s just it, you see. She’s making them worse! I went to see her about my back, and she gave me a treatment. But it got worse. It cost a lot of money, the treatment. She said I’d need more treatments, so I went back, and it wasn’t getting better. So I threatened to turn her in. These Orientals, they don’t have green cards, you know. I found out she was here illegally.”
“But you said she was one of the best in the country. She couldn’t get a green card with that kind of skill?”
“One of the best in the world. That doesn’t matter. They protect their own. Make sure they’re safe. So when I threatened to turn her in to the INS, she wouldn’t see me any more. And that’s when it got worse. That’s when she started stealing my chi.”
“Stealing your… chi?” I asked, a bit dubious.
“Yeah, they can do that. At that level, those acupuncturists can do anything. My back got so bad I couldn’t walk. Then I started to break out with these sores. I asked my friend what to do, and she said there wasn’t anything I could do, and I should never have threatened her. I went to another acupuncturist, and she said she hadn’t seen anything like it, she gave me a treatment, but it didn’t help. Then I told her who the first woman was, and she said she couldn’t give me any more treatments, and not to come back. She’s the one who told me she might be stealing my chi.”
He continued, “My family moved me out to the west coast, to Berkeley. But then the Orientals moved in across the street. I’d come home and find this fine black dust on the inside of the window. I knew they’d been in my loft. That’s something they do; they have this black dust that can drain your chi from you.”
“Sounds pretty far out,” I replied.
“I tried to get in touch with the first acupuncturist, to see what I could do to fix things. I should’ve never told her I was going to turn her in. But nobody would let me talk to her. They all told me she left the country. But you know that isn’t true; they’re just hiding her.”
The story went on and on, as he moved from town to town, trying to escape, “the Orientals,” without success. His condition had progressed and worsened. Now they were following him to Montauk. It never occurred to me to ask him why he was going to Montauk. After all, it was 3 or 4 in the morning; I was tired. Finally we reached the train station in Montauk. I figured my escape from his dilemma would ensue. We got off the train. “So, where you headed?” I asked.
“Where are you going?” he responded.
“I’m planning on heading down to the beach. I’m gonna spend the day there.”
“Which way is the beach?” he asked. “OK if I walk down there with you?”
“Well, I planned to spend the day on the beach – alone.”
“Well, I’ll just walk to the beach with you.” It was about a one mile walk from the station to the beach, but it was beginning to seem like five as he went on and on. We reached the beach.
“Listen, I want to spend the day on the beach – ALONE.” I repeated.
“OK, OK,” he said, “but do you know anybody who works in TV who could get my story out? I spoke to this one guy who said he knew somebody at ABC, but they haven’t done anything for me.”
In my mind, I began to run through the people I knew who worked in TV, wondering if any of them would ever talk to me again if I actually put this guy in touch with them. “Well, I don’t know… I don’t think they’d be interested, to tell you the truth.”
“Look, this is my beeper number. If you can get a hold of anybody who might, give me a call and I’ll call you back, OK?” He was following me down the beach.
“OK. Now go away!” I responded. “I’m going this way – you go THAT way.” Finally he got the message. He stood watching the waves as I headed east on the beach. The sun was coming up, and the clouds were clearing overhead. I did a yoga set on the beach as the day dawned, and the memory of his plight receded throughout the day, which became more and more beautiful.
Throughout the day, it occurred to me that I very well might have to endure his company on the train back to the city since there was only one train to Montauk and back per day. I had a nice dinner at the Gosman’s Diner, and boarded the train.
I generally think of Montauk as being pretty much of an “anglo” town; Ralph Lauren is rumored to own a place there, and mostly otherwise there are a lot of fisherman and a few rich businessmen who crave its solitude. As I boarded the train, which only has two passenger cars at this point, I walked through aisle after aisle of Asians waiting for the train to depart. My poor chi-less storyteller was nowhere to be found. I looked around at my fellow travellers and wondered which one of them had his chi. Their tired and placid smiles wouldn’t reveal the answer. Finally the train jostelled to a start, and the clatter of the ride began. I wondered where the guy ended up. I made a half-hearted vow never to threaten an acupuncturist, let the conductor punch my ticket, and slipped into a nap as I headed back towards the bustling city.
Afterwards: Years later, YouTube videos of Al Bielek unearthed the rather far-fetched Montauk Project conspiracy theory. There are many videos about it. The TV show Stranger Things is based on them, though shot in the south. It all sounds terribly unbelievable, but as I remember walking around Camp Hero during that trip, I can’t help but wonder why the guy I met on the train was… returning? – there.