The Independent, August 1993
THE WORLD is slowly arriving in Sag Harbor,’ says Detective Thomas Mackey.
Over the weekend, I lost my innocence. And met Detective Mackey, a big handsome cop with a red crewcut – red with a blond glint, more like – some poetic rhetoric and tales to tell about the seamy side of Sag Harbor.
On Sunday, as I clattered down wooden stairs some old whaling captain probably trod, out through the screen door, into the sunshine where the breeze toyed with the flags up and down Madison Street, I got my first whiff of trouble in paradise: my bike was gone.
The three-speed bike with the wicker basket had disappeared in the night. My sole means of transport, beach buggy and shopping cart, the vehicle that gets me to the Paradise Grill for breakfast and is intended to give me legs like Cyd Charisse before summer ends. Gone] Stolen from the gravel drive in front of the picturesque house in the quaint little town where everyone keeps saying ‘nah, we never lock the house. Or the bike. We don’t know where the keys are]’ I had flaunted it in this lock-me-not little town, and now, like a character in a bad mini-series, I had paid.
‘Some Saturday night drunk probably needed a ride,’ said a neighbour. ‘I heard one going home around 4am weeping. Boo hoo. Still, it’s pretty rare out here for anyone to lift a bike. Better report it to the police.’
Some drunken weeper had my bike] I sat down on my front porch and burst into tears.
Which is how I came to meet Detective Thomas Mackey.
At the tidy brick police station near Murf’s Backstreet Cavern and Maura’s Hair Shoppe, Detective Mackey took the details. He could not promise an active investigation into a missing bicycle, but it was not impossible some eagle-eyed cop would spot it dumped by the roadside; that’s how it often happened. But crime was up, no doubt about it, since he got to Sag Harbor in 1988; he could see the difference. And a decade ago, even businesses didn’t always lock up nights.
Thomas Mackey arrived in Sag Harbor after a stint as a housing cop in a couple of Brooklyn’s most vicious neighbourhoods. After a few years on the beat, like an increasing number of embattled New Yorkers, he made his way east.
‘I came here from a place where bad guys were the ones with guns running away,’ he says. ‘Here the bad guys are people making an illegal U-turn.’
‘When I was recruited I didn’t even know where Sag Harbor was. I got here, and they gave me a new gun. I thought I ought to go down to the range and practise. They said just go on out in your backyard and hit a few cans or something.’
By now, Thomas Mackey had realised this was a singular town. Out here on Long Island, 80 miles from Manhattan, tensions between summer people and locals could play out in tiny pressures on a cop. ‘Most visitors don’t know U-turns are illegal here. But locals want you to write ’em a ticket every time.’
He was Long Island-born himself. But in this lovely town, where everyone says hello to strangers, no one really accepted you unless you’d been around a couple or three generations, and rumours of Ku Klux Klan meetings sometimes surfaced. Sag Harbor was odder, more hidebound, insular and inbred, than any place he’d ever seen on Long Island – and he was a native – than any place he’d seen in his life. It was also more idyllic.
That first summer, in 1988, he loved it, but then winter came and it was so quiet that you could go the whole midnight shift on a Saturday without a single call. In February, it started to snow.
‘One day, suddenly, I see these tracks. I think, hmmm, better investigate. About three-quarters of a mile later, they come right back to the same spot. In fact,’ laughs Detective Mackey, who had been practically hallucinating from boredom, ‘They were my own tyre tracks. I thought: I gotta get back to New York.’
Gradually, however, he became acclimatised. He began to appreciate the quiet of winter, and the fall, when there’s still some action, but the beaches are empty.
‘Fall,’ says the voluble detective rapturously, ‘is beautiful.’
If crime is up, it is still, for now, crime Sag Harbor-style: domestic disputes; drunken driving; some drug dealing out of local bars, cocaine and marijuana mostly; burglaries in autumn when summer people leave their houses vacant. The last homicide investigation, says Detective Mackey a little nostalgically, was in 1990.
Thomas Mackey is both rueful about the encroachment of the world on Sag Harbor and interested by it. He is a professional cop in a town where the police department is a political hot potato, squeezed between the newly elected Economy Party, which got in on lower taxes – which means fewer cops – and old timers who liked it better when Sag Harbor still had its own jail. Then, law and order mostly consisted of throwing a few drunks in the pen.
‘It’s paradoxical. Sag Harbor is quiet, peaceful and different because of the quality of the police,’ says Detective Mackey. ‘If you let the bad element take hold, you can’t get rid of it. Four or five miles away, the criminal element is right on our borders. Last summer I arrested a guy who complained endlessly how he wished he’d robbed the 7-Eleven convenience store in Southampton instead of the 7-Eleven in Sag Harbor.
‘I guess I’m the world slowly arriving in Sag Harbor, and sometimes they don’t like it,’ he says. ‘But I’m a young guy. I can wait. Meanwhile, I might even get you your bike back.’