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Long IslandHistory

From the archives: The Cadillac of protestors

Gary Mellis re-enacts the July 3, 1989 protest

Gary Mellis re-enacts the July 3, 1989 protest that eventually led to his arrest in September that year. Mellis, a record producer who did the re-enactment on July 9, 1990, was protesting a ban on drinking soda on the walkways of Ocean Beach, but he also ran afoul of local law by docking his inflatable Cadillac, and playing a boom box without earphones. He spent about 10 hours in jail and eventually appealed his case. Photo Credit: Newsday / Dave Pokress

Editor's note: With Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer upon us, enjoy one of the more unusual beach stories from Newsday's archive. 

This story was originally published in Newsday on July 16, 1990.

In every age there are those whom history will remember as the heroes willing to risk life, limb and liberty for their principles. There is Nathan Hale, who stood up for political freedom. There is Rosa Parks, who sat down for racial equality. There is Gary Mellis, who floated on a raft shaped like a 1959 Cadillac for the right to drink Coca Cola on the walkways of Ocean Beach. Diet Coke, to be exact.

Some background. Ocean Beach is the Fire Island community where "no" goes. No public toilets for beachgoers, no eating on the beach, no bike riding downtown until the second Friday in September, no unleashed dogs on the public walks, no animals on the sand, no group rentals to more than four persons, and - until a historic village board decision last month reversing a decades-old trend - no eating outside, although eating outside is still banned if it can be construed as picnicking. And no drinking on the walks.

All the no's, according to Mayor Michael Youchah, have absolutely nothing to do with dissuading day-trippers from using the facilities of this mostly residential community. They are merely safety and sanitary precautions, Youchah said in a phone conversation that ended abruptly because he said he had to go play tennis.

When the board voted for eating, as long as it is not picnicking, it did not take the more radical step of voting for drinking. So in the mind of Gary Mellis, Ocean Beach remains "the only beach resort in the world where you can get arrested for drinking America's drink."

It is also a resort, Mellis soon learned, where you can get arrested for parking your pink '59 Cadillac convertible raft in the marina and playing a small radio without earphones. The illegal docking, he said, "is not a constitutional issue. It is an issue of whether it is a raft or a boat." The others, he said, are constitutional issues. So in the name of the First and Fourteenth Amendments "as well as the correlative provisions of the New York State Constitution," as stated in Mellis' court papers, he has sued the village. Not since 1977, has the way of life in Ocean Beach been so threatened. It was then that the law was amended to permit the public consumption of cookies, after two persons had been ticketed for eating a chocolate chip cookie and a slice of crumb cake on the street.

Mellis returned to the scene of his crime one afternoon recently and recounted his arrest. First, he said, he sent out press releases. Then, on July 3, 1989, he floated into Ocean Beach in his blow-up Cadillac raft with a battery-powered engine. Despite the press release, no one was waiting. "I was two hours late," he said.

The raft sprung a leak in a "tire" just as he entered the Ocean Beach Marina. "Five hundred dollars for a raft and it leaks," he said, and continued his story. "I pull up and the cops are waiting. [They read press releases too.] I told the sergeant, 'I got a flat tire,' and he said, 'How can you have a flat tire? You're in a boat.' I said, 'It's not a boat; it's a raft.' Then he said, 'You're not allowed to dock a boat.' First he called it a boat; then he called it a raft; then he called it a car. Then he said it looked more like a '58 Cadillac to him, not a '59. Then I take a can of Coke out. I drink. 'Sir,' the sergeant said, 'you're not allowed to drink on the walkways or the dock.' I took a big sip of the Diet Coke." Then Mellis turned on his little radio. Then the police arrested him.

Meanwhile, a friend was videotaping Mellis while the Ocean Beach cops were videotaping Mellis' friend videotaping Mellis. He was taped as he was politely led off to station house by the beach, where he was issued three summonses and told to appear in village court the following Saturday at 10 a.m.

Mellis said he found it difficult to get a lawyer to come out to Fire Island at 10 a.m. on a summer Saturday for less than $2,500; so he asked for an adjournment. Then he asked for a few more. Then he received a letter dated Aug. 29 notifying him to be in court by Aug. 2. That one was easy to ignore. On Aug. 29, with the summer waning, the clerk of court issued a bench warrant for Mellis' arrest and "On September eighth, three cops came to my house, one with a gun drawn, and said, 'Are you Mr. Mellis? You're under arrest.' "

For the right to give you and me the privilege of drinking Diet Coke on the walkways of Ocean Beach, Mellis spent 10 hours in jail.

He insisted on leading a tour of his legal passages. He showed me the wooden plank that was his bed in the cell. "They took my shoelaces. They took my eyeglasses," Mellis said.

"Standard procedure," Officer Bob Galoppi said. "If I didn't have to take people's shoes off, believe me, I wouldn't." He sniffed the air, pantomiming sneaker odor. "Gary had a point to prove, I had a job to do."

Notice, Gary and Officer Bob are on a first-name basis. Gary asked Bob if I could ride his police scooter. Bob said, "No bike riding 'til the second Friday in September."

Mellis went back to his story: The next morning, the cops asked him what he wanted for breakfast. He said eggs benedict; he got an egg on a roll and coffee.

Mellis led me to the little shingled courthouse where he was released on $ 200 bail. He returned in November, and Judge Joseph Russell denied his request to be represented by a public defender. Mellis is a record producer [the newest one is white rap, he said] and distributor of premiums. Russell convicted Mellis of all three offenses and fined him $ 650. That's $ 650 cash. No checks, no credit cards. The perp had to get his friend Giovanni, who owns a local restaurant, to cash his check.

"On the back of the summons it says fifty dollars for each violation," Mellis complained. "They said that's only if you plead guilty."

Mellis, the defender of the Bill of Rights, will never plead guilty. Mellis, the defender of the Bill of Rights, appealed. Presently the Appellate Term of the 9th and 10th Districts is determining whether it should vacate its own order dismissing the appeal, an order issued because Mellis didn't get his trial transcript on time. Or so he says. Norma Straub of Sayville, the court reporter, says she doesn't remember a problem with it. "There was a little mix-up in the beginning. But he said thank you when I sent it," Straub said.

It is heartening to know that even with the state of crime in the State of New York so threatening, the Appellate Term of the 9th and 10 Districts can find time to ponder a soda ban on Ocean Beach walkways at the behest of one of our ordinary citizens, Gary Mellis.

Nathan Hale and Rosa Parks couldn't have done more.

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