Column: A very unofficial history of Greenport

It was love at first sight.

Well, actually, second sight, because I first set eyes on Greenport in the late ’60s, when I served as a summertime mate on a motorsailer that spent the off-season in one of the huge metal sheds at Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 1977 that the former Joan Giger Walker and I spent any appreciable time in the village, as we investigated the possibility of purchasing The Suffolk Times and The News-Review.

So now it’s been a 35-year love affair with El Greeno, as she is affectionately known in some circles. And we join in celebrating the 175th anniversary of the village’s incorporation, as is currently being chronicled in a multi-part series running in The Times.

Said series would be the official version of Greenport’s history, noteworthy businesses and memorable personalities, and what follows is a highly unofficial version, compiled by me and a few friends who have lived and worked in the village since before Joan and I settled on the North Fork.

The list has been heavily redacted and some names have been changed to protect the reputations of the innocent and not-so-innocent, both living and dead, and I sincerely hope other students of Greenport’s past will share their recollections and anecdotes via email to [email protected].

So, in no particular order:

Lilac, the shoemaker: Pretty much where the ATM machine is located on the side of the Harbourfront Deli, at the northeast corner of Front and First streets, there used to be a sliding glass window inside of which could be found Lilac, the shoemaker. He was a character for sure, and one of his best-known characteristics was never having shoe repairs ready when promised. Legend had it that a Greenport lad dropped his shoes off to be resoled just before being drafted into the Army at the beginning of World War II. And when he returned to the village after the war, he went to Lilac’s to pick up his shoes. Said the shoemaker: “I was just working on them. Come back tomorrow.”

“Frisky,” the film buff: This one I witnessed with my own eyes, so I know it’s true. For a number of holiday seasons, a group of merrymakers and their children would ride around the village in The Suffolk Times delivery van to serenade nursing homes residents, hospital patients and shut-ins with Christmas carols. When we arrived at the home of one such shut-in, an octogenarian widower who lived alone just outside the village boundary, I rushed ahead of the others to make certain he was home to receive us. And what did I espy but “Frisky” glued to his television set, watching an, ahem, adult film. Fortunately, I was able to divert the kids before they made it up onto his porch. And when he greeted us at the door, after having turned off the TV, “Frisky” said simply: “The children didn’t see my program, did they?” Thankfully, they did not. Not to mention ho, ho, ho, “Frisky.”

Mayberry, R.F.D.: Before Southold Town police cars patrolled the village, Greenport had its own police department, which was disbanded at the urging of then-mayor David Kapell. His arguments were mostly financial in nature, but I suspect these three incidents may have contributed to the department’s eventual demise.

1. Officer “Dub” was piloting his cruiser down a narrow stretch of lower Main Street when he ripped off a car door just opened by a woman driver. And when he backed up to check on the damage, he ran over (and killed) the woman’s poodle, which had jumped out of the missing door.

And that’s not all. According to informed sources, “Dub” then tossed the door and the dead dog into the back seat of her car and said: “Get out of town, lady.”

2. During a “stake-out” outside a lady friend’s home, the catalytic converter on a village policeman’s car set a pile of leaves on fire, badly damaging the vehicle in the process.

3. Last but not least, a uniformed patrolman was discovered doing the horizontal bop with yet another lady friend on top of a desk at headquarters. Sayonara, village police.

Businesses least likely to succeed: The bungee jumping operation at Kokomo’s, the club that succeeded Mitchell’s. (See Mitchell’s fire, below.) The clown store. The Eskimo arts store. The X-rated theater at what is today the Greenport Village Cinema. Victoria Village, developer Don King’s (no, not that Don King) well-before-its-time interpretation of an indoor shopping mall (on Front Street!).

Businesses most likely to be missed: Martocchia’s Cigar Store. Rouse’s Deli. Myer’s Bar. The Rhumbline, when owner Bob Copas was still entertaining and/or terrorizing his customers. And speaking of well before its time: The Old Oyster Factory, where sunny, reggae-fueled Sunday afternoons in the early ’80s were as idyllic as any of my personal experience.

Greenport mysteries: What caused the Mitchell’s fire? (Could it have been the anonymous caller who rang my house in Orient before fire trucks even showed up at the scene?) Whatever happened to Luddy, who owned another dubious business, the conch fritter joint on Front Street? (Did he really fall off a boat in Florida or is he still alive and kicking today in the DEA’s witness protection program?) Who trashed Heidi’s ice cream parlor? (Was it really, as many of us suspected at the time, a cabal of village power brokers upset with Heide’s public condemnation of the bid to evict beloved Paul, the blacksmith?) Who killed Carlos DeJesus? (That mystery remains very much alive today, some 47 years after the murder of the Greenport man, thanks in large part to the curiosity of investigative reporter Reynolds Dodson, who died last year. Hopefully, the investigation did not die with him.)

‘Only in Greenport’ moments: How about the time Kofi Annan called the man who bought his Greenport home, Tom Leopold, to ask how he liked the house? Leopold, a comedy writer responsible for some of the classic episodes of “Seinfeld,” thought it was his buddy Harry Shearer trying to imitate Kofi, and almost blurted out something most unfortunate. But he hesitated just long enough to realize that it really was the Secretary General of the United Nations calling to see how he was doing.

Then there was a Major Drug Bust in which dozens of bales of marijuana were off-loaded from a freighter docked by law enforcement officials at Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding. Off-loaded by a team of dreadlocked Rastafarians (!), who most have thought something like: “One bale for Uncle Sam, one bail for me.”

Finally — and, again, I personally witnessed this one — there was the time the al fresco Bastille Day celebration (including a beret-wearing accordionist) at Ile de Beaute, the long-since-defunct French restaurant, was silenced by the passage of about 100 straight-piped Harley-Davidsons roaring down Main Street to Claudio’s.

Only in Greenport, I would maintain. Which is why I will always love this little village so.

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