Cut From The Land
By Nicole Gates Anderson
Standing beneath the hot July sun, only a few feet away from where he parked his Dodge van, Ronald Grzybowski gazed up at the Intuition II, a gleaming blue and white yacht from the Cayman Islands, anchored right at the edge of the Sag Harbor marina. Expressionless, with his hand over his brow, he watched the deck hands scrub the boat and then glanced back out towards the parking lot.
“Even if I could have one of those, I wouldn’t want it,” he said.
Ron is no stranger to the cul-de-sacs of McMansions, the traffic on 27, or the seasonal parade of city folk to Hampton’s yellow-sanded beaches. The son of a potato farmer, he grew up in Southampton and spent his childhood hunting pheasants and helping out on his grandfather’s farm. But over the years, his family’s land, which once spread out across the fields of Mecox and off of Hampton Road, has been sold off parcel by parcel. Ron never made his living as a farmer nor did any of his six siblings. He’s spent the last 37 years working as a carpenter, building decks, kitchen cabinets, and whatever else his hands can do, in just about every pocket of the Hamptons: north of the highway, south of the highway, in the woods of North Haven, in and around Sag Harbor, and out farther east, towards Montauk.
There’s been good years and bad years. He’s watched money pour into his town, and money means new additions, renovations, and repairs. It means work seven days a week, and the work means income and stability.
“We wouldn’t have the quality of life we have here if it wasn’t for the big houses and the people,” said Ron. “We’ve kind of survived a lot better than most. In some parts of the country if a factory leaves or something gets set down, then the town dies. We’re fortunate we don’t have that. We have the people, the beaches, the water.”
Rons tells me this over a sandwich at a picnic table by the harbor. He has light blue eyes, an angular nose, and mottled skin from years of working outside in the sun. His thoughts are expressed plainly, matter-of-fact, without resentment. Nearly every other sentence could be followed by, “It is what it is.” A zen-like acceptance of the circumstances.
“I have no problem with the changes. There is no way I can stop it. Do I miss all the farmland? Yes. But the town has gotten pretty smart with them buying development rights so not every bit of farm land will be like Levittown.”
Even with eighty miles between New York City and the town of Southampton, Ron and other locals have felt the impact of the recession. Soon after the economic crisis, construction slowed down and work dried up.
“When the stock market went down, it came to a real slow crawl.”
Ron says it isn’t only the economic crisis that has hurt his business, it’s also the competition he’s facing from illegal immigrants from Central and South America who are bidding lower on jobs. While he sees this as a serious issue for the town, he also understands the cyclical nature of immigration. Right after World War I, Ron’s grandparents emigrated from Poland and arrived in Southampton in search of work.
“I don’t blame somebody for coming to this country and work hard,” he said. “If you want to work, there’s work. Sometimes you go dig and scratch for it and look for it, but there’s work. We’re fortunate in that we have the people who live here and have homes here that we do. That’s our saving grace in this town.”
Ron lives in a house he built himself in the woods north of the highway. It is a veritable patchwork of his handiwork. Beneath his deck is a large pile of lumber he cut from an oak tree that he found in Southhold. He walks over to a smooth tabletop that he just finished sanding. It is blond, unintentionally modern, with gentle curves that resemble a wave. He hasn’t quite figured out the right legs for it. After nearly four decades as a carpenter, Ron is transitioning into a new line of work. He’s trading in houses for furniture making and stain glasswork.