At the First Presbyterian Church, a squat white frame structure built by prosperous whalers in the 1840's, hungry people began lining up along a dark staircase even before a volunteer unlocked the door to a small room where the emergency food was stored. The shelves were almost bare.
Thomas Haskins was one of the first on line. Thirty-five years ago in South Carolina, he boarded a bus of migrant farm workers to pick potatoes on Long Island, and stayed. Now he earns $7.50 an hour at a riding stable, in season, and goes hungry in the winter as he struggles to survive on an unemployment check of $166 every two weeks.
"I got to work, a guy like me got to work," he said, as he selected some groceries, a package of spaghetti, some sauce, tuna fish and a bulk wrapped pound of butter. "But there ain't no work in the winter time. If I could get a job I would be working around the clock."
It is the far side of an unusually harsh winter in the Hamptons, a time when the summer people have shuttered their houses, the motels are closed and restaurants have posted signs saying "reopening in April," a time when hundreds of people living on the cusp of poverty struggle to survive until business picks up in the spring and the hiring starts again.
While the Hamptons evoke images of luxury and grandeur, side by side with the fancy summer cottages and estates of the well-to-do are the homes of the less fashionable and the less visible -- the gardeners, fishermen, field hands, construction workers, painters, house cleaners and waiters, who struggle to get by despite the exorbitantly high costs of living in a resort community. A Shorter, Sadder Season
This winter, volunteers at churches and emergency food pantries from Westhampton Beach to Montauk say that the demand for emergency food is soaring -- doubling in many cases -- and they are struggling to keep up.
"All the places you think of as the glitzy Hamptons are bearing a tremendous load of trying to feed the hungry," said Martyde DiPierro, a former supervisor of the town of East Hampton, who is raising money for the food pantry in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Quogue.
"The only good news is that people are very generous and are trying very hard," she said, "but no matter how many times they stock the shelves they are empty."
Despite its image of affluence and leisure in the summer, when the population of about 16,000 rises four-fold, East Hampton town, which includes Sag Harbor, has one of the highest poverty rates on Long Island. In the 1980 census, one of 10 residents was living below the poverty level. The 1990 figures are not yet available.
In this winter of recession, many seasonal workers were laid off earlier than usual, social workers say, adding to the distress. Now the workers worry that they will not get their jobs back at all when the warm weather arrives.
On the coldest days of winter this year, social workers say that they found three people living in their battered old cars in Montauk, at the farthest reaches of Long Island, without money, but unwilling to leave town. Others face hunger, social workers say, because of the crushing cost of rental housing, or because of delays in the processing of applications for welfare in a county where the welfare case load has risen by 35 percent in the last two years. The Food-Bank Circuit
Mr. Haskins, for instance, pays $400 a month rent for a box-like house on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, across from luxury homes built on what used to be a potato farm. The walls are as thin as paper, and he has to pay more than $600 each winter to refill the gas cylinders that run the gas heater, Mr. Haskins said.
When he is out of money, he said, he goes back to the riding stable, where he can get some gas for his car, and do some odd jobs for a few dollars to tide him over.
"People think everyone here uses money for toilet paper," he said.
Edna Steck, director of human services for the town of East Hampton, said that three new food banks have opened in the town in the last year.
"We are finding that people are going from one to another; they seem to be running out of food more often," she said. The Work Dried Up
In Sag Harbor, in the white frame church built to evoke the grandeur of an Egyptian temple, Susan Gonzalez, scrutinized the dates on jars of baby food before putting some of them in a brown paper grocery bag.
Outside, her husband, Frank, waited in a battered sedan, while their 9-month-old daughter, Hannah, slept, strapped into her car seat. Mrs. Gonzalez's two other daughters from her first marriage, Jennifer, 12, and Emily, 6, were at school.
Mrs. Gonzalez grew up in and around Sag Harbor, where her father worked for years at the local supermarket. She cleaned houses three days a week, but was laid off when she was pregnant.
Her husband, an immigrant from Costa Rica, earned $11 an hour working as a landscaper and house painter. The work dried up in November. Later he learned that some of his coworkers had agreed to work for lower wages to keep their jobs.
Now, the Gonzalezes struggle through the winter on welfare, donated food and the money they raise driving up and down the back roads of the Hamptons, collecting cans for the 5-cent deposit. "We had to cash in some cans at the A.&P. to get money to buy some soap so I could take a shower," Mrs. Gonzalez said. "We have no money. Sometimes I don't want to get up in the mornings." Waiting for Spring
What makes their predicament particularly acute is the starkly modern weathered wood house they rented in a wooded neighborhood outside of Sag Harbor last October, just before Mr. Gonzalez lost his job. They receive $891 a month in welfare benefits -- because of its high housing costs Suffolk County has the highest housing allowance in the state -- but pay $800 a month in rent.
First they lost their cable television connection and then their telephone and now they worry about the $793 bill they owe for electric heat. In a sprawling yard outside, scavenged plywood boards and tree branches are stacked to be burned in a cast iron stove for heat. At first the Gonzalezes used a chain saw to cut the wood. When the chain saw broke, they used an axe. Then the axe handle came off. Now they use a saw.
"My daughter came home with a list of books to buy from the book club, and I couldn't buy her even one book for 95 cents," she said.
The Gonzalezes are not alone. At the old whaler's church in Sag Harbor, 400 Thanksgiving dinners were provided last year compared to 75 two years earlier. The minister, the Rev. Christine B. Rannie Grimbol, said the emergency food pantry, operated by volunteers from churches throughout Sag Harbor, is giving out two to four times as much food as it did last year.
Despite the hardships of living in a place with no industry and a seasonal economy, many of the poor of East Hampton say they are better off staying where they are.
Shelton Thompson, who arrived at the Sag Harbor food pantry wearing a faded tuxedo shirt and a worn bow tie and carrying a cane with a brass duck handle, said it was far easier to be poor with dignity here than in New York City.
An unemployed chef with years of experience at restaurants that have long since closed, Mr. Thompson, his wife and daughter got by last year on welfare, food donations and some free-lance catering jobs in the summer.
"You work all summer for the winter, then you survive all winter for the summer," he said. "Everybody is very beautiful and very nice, thank you, because without God's grace and food pantries we would starve to death."
Correction: March 10, 1992, Tuesday
An article yesterday about poverty on the East End of Long Island referred incorrectly to a fund raiser for a food bank and misidentified her former position. She is Mardythe DiPirro, the former supervisor of Southampton, not East Hampton.
The Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry, Inc.
A 501(c)(3) Not For Profit Organization incorporated in the State of New York