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Profile: Jim Hayward AKA Commander Cody
Jim Hayward, who turned 78 on March 12, is not a man who likes to sit around much.
“What do I do for laughs?” he repeated incredulously during a chat this week. “Shoot,” he went on with great amusement — not the word he actually used. “I work seven days a week. That’s the only laughs there is, right Frankie?”
Frankie is his faithful companion, a good-natured four-year old mix who goes with him everywhere, including South Carolina, where he was born and still has plenty of friends and family in a place called Old House.
He heads down every February, the only month of the year he closes his fish market and seafood-and-barbecue restaurant, Commander Cody’s on Smith Street near Midway. It will reopen for the season tomorrow, March 8, with market hours seven days a week and dinner every night; come Memorial Day, lunch will also be served Fridays to Sundays.
Although he closes in February, and likes to party with friends when he gets the chance — maybe not for days at a time, the way he used to at the Corner Bar or the Black Buoy in Sag Harbor — “I don’t really have an off-season,” he said.
“Shoot, I’m busy all the time … I just don’t stop because I figure somethin’ just might catch up with me.” Laughing, he added, “I never look back to see who’s behind me. I just keep coming because I’m going.”
His younger daughter Amanda, 28, a graduate of Shelter Island High School and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, does most of the cooking at the restaurant, which is tucked into an addition he put up about 25 years ago on the back of the house he built in the 1980s. Before that, he and is now ex-wife Laurel rented a place from Alan Shields on Hudson Street.
His first daughter, Chloe, 32, also a Shelter Island grad, teaches in New York, where she’s working toward her doctorate at Pratt. His ex-wife lives on the North Fork but he hasn’t seen her for years.
He doesn’t have grandkids. “I have Chihuahuas,” he said, laughing again. They belong to Amanda and get along fine with Frankie.
The gravel parking area outside the restaurant is rimmed by fish traps and dragger parts and two boats on trailers and a barbecue apparatus just outside the door. One of boats, Working Girl, was custom built for Billy Joel; Jim is its fifth owner.
Along with seafood, you can get real South Carolina barbecue at Commander Cody’s. Jim’s uncle used to do the barbecuing at the Good Hope Plantation in South Carolina’s low country, where Yankees came to shoot and ride when he was a kid. His grandmother lived at the place and his ancestors before her probably were slaves there.
When Jim first showed up on Shelter Island in the 1950s, he stood out, especially when he took to the water to do what he’d done all his life: fish. Local bayman dubbed him, among other things, “Commander.” He decided to add “Cody” when his black Lab of that name, a constant companion just like Frankie is now, died.
“My daughters ain’t seen anything on Shelter Island like I did,” he said. “Shoot, I had boats sunk and everything else and that never stopped me any. ‘Cause like I said to my daughters, you see a bear and me in a fight, stop and help the bear because I’m going to make it.”
Things got better. “They know if I caught them out there, they could give God their heart because their ass was mine,” he said laughing again. “My old man always taught me when I left home, ‘Son, momma may have and papa may have but God bless the child that’s got his own. He told me when you go out there you may stumble but don’t fall. That’s what I try to do. Don’t fall, right Frankie? Stumble but don’t fall.”
He was born in Charleston, where his father worked on the waterfront before signing on with the Seaboard Coast Line. The family, with 10 children — Jim was the oldest — soon moved to his mother and father’s home town, Old House, where his father, a church deacon, always had a boat. The boys and he would go fishing before daybreak and sell the catch or use it for barter while their father went to work. “Follow Deke,” people said, if you wanted to find the fish.
It wasn’t fishing but farming that led him to Shelter Island. Two men who had farms here also leased land to raise vegetables near Old House. Jim used to gather crews to work for them. They gave him the job of driving a flatbed truck loaded with farm equipment to Shelter Island. What made him want to stay, he said, was water all the way around the place. “I thought it was alright because I seen the water. That’s all I wanted was the water and a boat and with that I could make it.”
He lived in a farm cabin for a time and with different roommates and families. Off-season, he’d head back to Old House, where he still loves to go and “meet up on Sunday afternoon with a big fire outside roasting and barbecuing, having a party. I like to go down there because I see people I haven’t seen in a long time just to hang out and listen to some of the stories.” Stories that are “wild, man.”
He kept up farm work, too, but he eventually got a job caretaking and chauffeuring for Dr. Arthur Antonucci, a physician at Roosevelt Hospital in New York who had a house on the Island. He worked for him for 46 years. Meanwhile, the Island’s farms disappeared to development.
During that time, he married his wife, whom he met while bouncing and bartending at the Chequit (he also bartended at Pinckneys in Bridgehampton); built his house; started the restaurant on the advice of a seafood wholesaler in Riverhead; and raised two daughters.
“You know my mother taught us how to cook, wash, iron, sew before we left home … she said you got to be able to take care of yourself and that’s how I survived. Shoot, I can iron a shirt better than any lady or anybody else. I still got my old washboard that I kept.
“Still got that old rub board. I show it to my kids once in a while and say, ‘Here. Try this.’ This was back in the day everybody thinks it was peaches and cream but it wasn’t. I made it the hard way.”