The first time I went to Fire Island, it was on a whim. A friend told me that some friends of a friend had a room open in their house in Fair Harbor, and that it would be cheap. The promise of sitting by the ocean without having to carry everything I owned on the subway for an hour was all the convincing I needed. We spent three days swimming in the ocean and cooking dinner with a glass of wine in one hand. I met new people, got very tan in a short amount of time, and spent the equivalent of a cheap plane ticket to California in one long weekend.
Fire Island is the kind of place you see in Nancy Meyers movies, with big, weathered houses plopped right on the beach, with steps leading down to white sand and the ocean. Tina Fey summers there with her family, and on our last day on the beach, we sat next to her. She’s very thin, but seems nice. It’s the kind of place where shoes are optional and people ride beach cruisers along the boardwalks in their bathing suits.
Every business on the island is staffed by a cabal of disinterested teens, with long, sun-bleached hair and cheerleading sweatshirts, scanning your groceries with one hand while they gossip with the bagger next to them. At the one grocery store, women who you’d see at Fairway on the Upper West Side push carts through the narrow aisles, tossing in overpriced produce and boxes of Wheat Thins, content to eat the way one does on vacation: without a care in the world. One morning, while I was getting coffee, I watched as a pair of nine-year old boys purchased a handful of candy and some ice cream, unattended by parents, paying for their spoils with a crumpled bill and running down the street back to their house.
It’s a relaxing place, but it’s also a wealthy place. Houses, to rent or to own, are not cheap. There were seven of us on this trip, and we crammed into a not-terribly-small house with a front deck that overlooked the bay. Every morning, we sat out there with coffee, watching the ferry make its way over from Long Island, disgorging visitors. Around eleven or so, we’d head to the beach, dragging chairs, snacks and towels, and we’d sit there for hours, until the sun set, or until the air grew chilly and the tide crept up. In the afternoon, someone would go back to the house and lug back a tote bag full of beer, which we’d drink peacefully on the steadily-emptying beach.
There is a way to do Fire Island cheaply, and the first time around, it didn’t work out so well. Meat at the grocery store was insanely expensive, as were cigarettes, zucchini, rice, cheese and half-sour pickles that you fished out of a barrel in the back by the sandwich counter. We ate well, but it cost an awful lot of money, though I didn’t think about it at the time. Vacation mode makes you think that you’re indestructible, that your bank account is a constantly replenishing source of unlimited wealth. That trip added up, but it was only for a couple of days. This time, we tried to be smarter. Two friends went to Costco before they got to the house and brought $200 worth of ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers and sausage, in a successful attempt to avoid spending $15 on a sad, shrink-wrapped package of chicken every night. We got pizza on the last night, because after three days of cooking giant meals for everyone, my friend Greg and I were tired. The pizza, somehow, was the cheapest meal of the trip.
We never took family vacations when I was young, but every summer my sister and I went to California to visit my mother, which counts as a vacation if you define “vacation” as leaving the place where you normally live and going somewhere else where you are required to do a lot of household chores and babysit your younger sisters. It never really occurred to me that I was missing much, but Fair Harbor is full of families. Children careen down the boardwalks on beach cruisers, dinging their bells and politely shouting “On your left!” just before they might hit you, giving you just enough time to hop over to the side and let them through.
I was there for five days which is an appropriate amount of time for me to be away from my apartment and not in my own routine without feeling antsy. For once, I paid very little attention to my bank account, silencing the cash register in my head that usually clangs and clamors with every pack of gum I buy from a stand on the street. This was partially an experiment to see how well I could do.
I went to Fire Island because it had been a lazy summer, spent mostly in the confines of Brooklyn. I went to Fire Island, because when someone says “Hey, it’s not really THAT expensive and we are 3 minutes away from the ocean,” I immediately start stuffing a bag full of cutoffs and tank tops. I went to Fire Island because I was laboring under the sort of false impression that I needed a vacation and that I could afford it. Here’s what it cost me.
• Four nights and five days in a lovely house on the bay: $460
• Round trip ferry ticket: $17
• LIRR train ticket: $34
• The bus that takes you from the ferry in Bay Shore to the train station: $5
• At least three big trips to the grocery store: $150
• A case of beer: $50
• My share of the pizza party: $10
• One bottle of rose, purchased and consumed that night: $18
• Ice cream, breakfast sandwiches, iced coffee: $20
• Two aerosol sunscreens in an attempt to stave off sunburn: $15.99 and $17.99 each
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.
Photo: Marc Flores