Coney Island Planks by Brendon Horton
I always woke up early the last day of school. My eyes would jump open and I’d sit up and look toward the windows in my parents’ bedroom to see if morning slid through the thick wooden blinds and thin white curtains. I’d jab the bottom of the bunk bed above where my older brother Johnny slept. Hey wake up, I whispered. I then scampered across the wooden floor in the tiny, dark bedroom and gently shook Rich, wake up sleepyhead.
Excited yet somewhat scared, I walked quickly and quietly through my parents’ bedroom, past the crib holding my sleeping baby sister to the narrow kitchen. I gazed at the round, old clock, calculating how long till I received my report card and then was dismissed for a summer of freedom and fun. My parents moved about, talking loudly, the baby started crying and the normal morning chaos of a too small house began as we rushed to use the antiquated bathroom, have breakfast and dress.
We were berserk with anticipation and dread—for we would be punished by our competitive and demanding mother if our grades were not top of the class. I threw on my uniform of white shirt, blue pants and knit tie and urged my brothers to hurry since I wanted to meet my friends early to plan today and the rest of our lives. During summer there was no more did you finish your homework, don’t forget to study your spelling, what’d you get on your history test. No more staring out the third floor classroom window at the broad green leaves and itchy balls on the tops of the London plane trees which lined our Brooklyn streets yearning to be outside playing ball.
As usual, we gathered in the concrete schoolyard with its six sorry metal hoops and the stickball strike zone chalked on the wall. Laughing and running about were hundreds of boys in their uniforms. On the other side of the school were the girls in their blue skirts milling about in a quieter, more dignified manner. In an hour or two we would all race out of the clean, worn classrooms onto the cracked sidewalks into the adventure and excitement of summer.
The familiar bell wailed, ordering us to line up quickly and quietly. But for once the din continued since it was impossible to remain silent with the promise of summer so close. We 6th graders talked and giggled our way into the massive white brick school with the polished marble floors and crucifixes in each classroom. Brother Warren, a vain and lazy man, smiled and joked as we climbed the stairs to our third floor classroom.
We squirmed in the small dark brown desks bolted to the floor and whispered about our plans or the Yankees or nothing on that hot June day in 1961. In his black habit with the large black rosary beads hanging down his side, Brother Warren was holding court with his favorites. His neat, slicked back white hair framed a ruddy face with shining white teeth. He was different—less serious, arrogant perhaps—than the rest of the Xaverian Brothers who taught the boys of Holy Name parish grammar, arithmetic and the Baltimore Catechism, all enforced with a sudden smack or wooden ruler across the hand. Since I was not part of his clique, I knew my report card would not be as good as usual. But it didn’t matter since my mother thought him a lousy teacher and all I could envision were endless games of stickball, stoopball, basketball and the other street games that were the addiction of all.
So I sat with 50 others until Brother Warren finished his lame jokes with the predictable responses of that’s funny Brother. Like a politician seeking applause, Brother distributed the report cards with a quip or a dig for each. Vinny, not bad for a tough guy. Frankie, you’re the best. Eddie, practice your foul shots this summer and cut out the butts. Pretty disappointing your spelling exam, Mr. Nolan, emphasizing my last name, a sly sign of contempt. Awards were given to the very smart and those who had lavished him with gifts at Christmas, his birthday and today. Cartons of cigarettes, cheap aftershave, Irish linen handkerchiefs, biographies of the saints and the like were opened as if he was 8 on Christmas morn. In a surprising bit of pluck, I refused to give any. Oh he doesn’t need anything, my mother said and I agreed, knowing he would hold it against me, but by then it was too late and I knew it.
Eventually this tiresome exercise ended, Brother Franciscus, a quiet older man, rang another bell by hand and we raced back to the schoolyard to compare our marks and plan the rest of the day. Brother Romanus, our 5th grade teacher, was standing amid the chaos and we gravitated toward this gentle, kind soul. Tall and thin, with a tuft of gray hair standing straight up, Brother always had a piece of candy or gum to hand out with his gravelly voice and quiet laugh. Kenny, Brother’s takin some kids in his class to Coney Island, wanna go, said my friend Haj. I have to ask my mother, knowing that she didn’t like Coney with its gangs, blacks, Puerto Ricans and crime. Com’on Kenny, it’ll be fun. Hey Brother, can I go? I asked. Of course, just make sure you ask your mother. Bring a towel and meet at noon in front of the Brothers’ House.
Riis Park in Queens was our family’s public beach, a step up from the teeming crowds and dirt of Coney Island. No subway stop near Riis and difficult to get there by bus. Although perpetually packed, there were none of the stories that you heard about Coney, the gang wars, the blacks from the nearby projects jumping kids for their money, announcing this is our beach now. Every Saturday and Sunday around 9 we would jump in the back of my Dad’s 1955 tank of a Pontiac and head through the streets of Flatbush over the silver steel Marine Parkway Bridge and park in Riis’ huge concrete parking lot. We would grab a blanket, a sandwich, our mitts and walk past the men’s huge bathroom with its perpetual stench of urine, the white washed refreshment sand onto the wooden boardwalk to Bay 14, the last one, where the Catholics sat with their coolers.
Like Brooklyn neighborhoods, each Bay at Riis was populated by a different group. On the other end a mile or so away near the bathhouse at Bays 1, 2, 3 were the blacks. In the middle 7, 8, 9, 10 were the Jews and at our end 12, 13, 14 were the Catholics. The crazy Puerto Ricans hung out on small worn patches of grass amid the scrub pine trees that lined the parking lot barbequing and blasting that bongo music. Why would they be so far from the water where there’s no breeze. They have to walk a mile to the ocean we smirked which only added to our sense of superiority
We ran to the surf, built sand castles, had a catch in the worn field of crabgrass, ate meager sandwiches and drank soda kept cold in an old metal Scotch cooler. Like everyone I knew, my parents liked to be with their own, away from the different, the threatening. And Coney was the future, crime and chaos, toughs hanging under the boardwalk, blacks everywhere, Puerto Ricans speaking Spanish loud. She’ll probably say no.
I joined other boys and girls marching the familiar few blocks from the schoolyard to the small red brick row house on Sherman Street. Well that’s not good, as she saw my spelling grade of 86. I braced for more harsh words from this woman who expected us to be the best: Only a 90, you didn’t study hard enough. 95, not bad, but what did Jimmy Dwyer get? I heard you got smacked in class, what did you do to deserve that? So I stood there in silent shock when she said, He doesn’t like you and I don’t like him. He thinks he’s something. You better do better next year.
Relieved. Hey Mom, Brother Romanus is taking some kids to Coney Island, can I go? Haj is going and Mikey Maronna, Frankie DeMarinis and some others from my class and kids from 5th grade, can I go?
I don’t know, she said wearily. You know I don’t like that place and how much will it cost?
I have money from my Tablet route so don’t worry, com’on Mom. I’ll be with Brother Romanus who she liked for his quiet faith and kind manner.
She paused which was always a sign of weakness for this short, tough woman of many loud opinions and few sympathies. Oh all right, just be careful and stay with him. Don’t wander off on your own.
Don’t worry, I won’t.
Before she could change her mind, I quickly changed into shorts, grabbed a bathing suit, a towel and made two thin spiced ham sandwiches with some Gulden’s mustard.
I ran out the door, up the block to the large red building adjacent to the church which housed the 12 or so mostly young men who joined the Xaverian Brothers and devoted their lives to God and teaching the snot nosed Irish and Italian kids of Brooklyn. They were revered and respected in this world of meatless Fridays, Communion every Sunday, statues of the Blessed Mother on every mantel and pictures of the Sacred Heart in every hall.
A motley group these Brothers were—saints and sadists, humble and vain. Mostly good actually. They coached basketball, baseball and track and made sure we were in the state of grace at all times. A few, however, should have never been allowed near children for they slapped a bit too hard, too often. Of course, in this working class neighborhood this was not unusual since parents often did the same and more. And Brother Romanus was
the mildest, most generous, a teacher who forgave when you forgot your homework, who took us to Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks or ice skating when Prospect Park lake froze.
I can’t recall whether the 20 to 30 boys boarded the Coney Island Avenue bus or whether we jumped on the F train, but eventually we arrived at Coney and headed to Ravenhall, a sprawling bathhouse on the boardwalk with its own lockers and enormous salt water pool. For 75 cents you were given a battered tiny locker, access to showers and pool. I shudda brought more money as I paid and pretended it was no big deal. I still had enough for a drink and the 15 cent token home. But now can’t buy anything else—no popcorn, cracker jack or cotton candy. All the other guys had plenty of money. I never had enough. We were given a key to a locker which was on an elastic band which fit around our wrist or ankle so we wouldn’t lose it.
We quickly stashed our clothes and sandwiches and joined the mob of people in the pool. We scattered about like sand in the wind, ignoring Brother’s pleas to stay together, don’t get lost and no trouble please. The saltwater pool was large and crowded and so much fun. We ran and splashed and played and left our towels where Bro. Ro stood in the sun. We saw others from our class and our school but stayed with my small group of four friends in and out of the pool until our skin wrinkled and hunger called. We returned to the lockers towels wrapped around shoulders to retrieve our warm sandwiches which we instantly ate washed down with a watery orangeade.
After awhile, Brother asked if we wanted to go to the ocean for a swim. So we walked to the exit, had our hands stamped with the ink you could only see under a special light and scurried onto the burning sand. The heat and the tightness on my neck and shoulders were signs that my too pale skin was turning pink and the anguish of sunburn would keep me awake this night. But that was later, now we ran into the surf with cheerful abandon, splashing and diving and getting tossed about by the waves. I knew how to ride the waves and loved catching one with my thin body and being driven to shore. I was careful to avoid the broken old clam shells and waited for the right wave—not too big or small—before I jumped headlong toward shore. Others, less experienced, were knocked about in the swirling surf, stood up spitting salt water, bathing suits filled with sand. The four of us rode the waves together, tossed wet sand and made sure each survived for we were taught to respect the ocean with its undertow and power.
In those days time was forever. Summer days were especially endless. You woke early and went to bed late. Minutes passed dropping slow and hours weren’t on fast forward as today. So who knows how long we were in the ocean and played in the sand. It seemed like hours but was probably much shorter. With friends, there was never enough time. Alone minutes were hours, days months. So eventually Brother Ro yelled that it was time and we slowly made our way back to Ravenhall. I was tired, burnt, sandy and wanting so much more as I turned away from the ocean.
The beach, scattered with litter, was mostly deserted as dinner time approached. We walked over the boardwalk with its flashing lights and noisy rides which couldn’t hide the age and decay of dilapidated Coney. We were waved through the Ravenhall entrance into a scene of cops in blue and medical personnel in white framing an empty pool. Wha’s goin on? Wha happen’d?
It was eerie, unusual on this happy, hot day to see adults whispering and moving with serious purpose in a place of escape, of fun. As we were taught, we gravitated to Brother Ro for protection and guidance as we pulled our wet towels tighter around our shoulders. A late afternoon breeze coupled with my sunburned body caused me to shiver. I wanted to change, wash the salt and sand from my body, put on my shorts and shirt and head home. I was tired now, afraid for we knew cops meant bad news, trouble. They rang doorbells and calmly stated Jimmy’s in the hospital or arrested.
Even though cops and fire engines and ambulances were common, racing through our narrow Brooklyn streets, we lived in a sheltered, insulated world of family, friends and faith. Holy Name parish was enclosed and protected by Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. It was a parochial world of small row houses, smelly tenement apartments, large families where everyone knew everyone. Our parents and, in some instances, our grandparents played on these same sidewalks and stayed despite the allure and space of the suburbs. Familiar faces sitting on stoops guaranteed safety, security. Sure we traveled outside the neighborhood, but only when we had to—to work, to play other basketball teams, to drive to Long Island to see your cousins. And when you did, you lost the expected feeling of belonging, of home that you had as you walked up the subway steps of the F train on Windsor Place.
As such, we were used to a rhythm, a certainty of life. Our grandparents lived with us or around the corner so we knew sickness and death. But it was always grandfathers first, then grandmothers even though we were taught that God in his infinite power could summon you at any time which was the reason we slipped into the dark Confessional every other Saturday. We, however, preferred a compassionate Lord whose absolute love would rarely harm and then it was someone else, someone old. So we stood in the shadows and waited as the cops milled about and the medical personnel put away their equipment.
A cop approached Brother Ro and then gently guided him away from us where they talked quietly. Brother Ro slowly shook his head.
Wha happened, what’s goin on? We looked at each other, a bit unsure, anxious now to be told that someone fell, went to the hospital, broke an arm, he’ll be OK so we can head home to the comforting and usual sounds of neighbors arguing.
I don’t know who first mentioned Joey, Joey Pesce as I stood in the waning but brilliant afternoon, a perfect June day of sun and breeze, the sky cloudless blue where you could see forever. It could have been Haj or Mikey or DeMo or any of the others. I just can’t remember. Like waves that envelope your body as you dive into them, Joey, Joey Pesce echoed through our group, surrounded my mind, swirling about as I searched for my thin, dark haired classmate with the quick laugh and ever-present Spaldeen. I looked among our freckled faces, short hair still wet, chewing on towels. All eyes were darting, heads turning. Nope, not here. But I had no idea who had come, who had gone home early, who was with us.
Even though we were young and television screamed of robberies and murders, we rode the subways and buses to Yankee Stadium, to movie theatres, to shop downtown on Fulton Street, to the Garden to see St. John’s or NYU basketball. With a friend you could travel almost anywhere as long as you asked your mother. This was a time where you were on your own almost as soon as you could walk—my mother walked me to school just once, the first day of 1st grade. After that, I was with my brother or on my own. Back and forth for lunch and then at 3 o’clock. Mothers had no time; there were always other kids, younger, babies that commanded more attention. So maybe Joey, Joey Pesce went with his older brother, Anthony in 8th grade, or someone else on some rides, to Nathan’s, to buy cotton candy, left early to be home for dinner since his father was strict.
Yeah, that’s right. We were in the schoolyard, 50-75 kids, playing basketball, slapball, maybe punchball and stickball too. It was around supper time when a muscular guy in a white tee charged in, looked around and angrily approached Anthony in the middle of a basketball game.
Anthony, Joey, he screamed, I told you to be home for supper on time.
Dad, we were just…Before he could finish, the belt was off. Whack. As hard as he could. Games ceased, everyone quieted, we stared at the pitiful scene. Whack. Joey ran to his father and started to cry. Whack. Anthony leaned away. Whack. You had to stand there and take it. Run and it’s death. Whack.
Stop Dad, Joey pleaded.
Get home, the father yelled. Whack. Now. Whack.
They flew out of the schoolyard.
I told them be home for supper on time, he murmured. The man looked around defiantly, put his belt back on and walked home where he could eat with his family in peace.
Public displays of discipline were rare, but we were all hit by a belt or a hand so we knew the feeling and sympathized for Joey and Anthony. Wait till your father gets home were words that we dreaded. You did what? Whack. The same in school. You talked, fooled around, stick out your hand or touch your toes. Whack. And if your parents discovered you had been smacked, you were hit again. Except harder.
Of course he left early. Who would be late with a maniac like that? Those Italians always ate together with grandma doing the cooking. Joey, Joey Pesce just had to have gone home. Yeah he’s probably home already.
Except, except you would get permission to be late since it’s last day of school and Joey was smart, always got a good report card and his mom would explain that he went with Brother Romanus who’s a saint and you know those buses are always slow he’s a good boy Tony he was so excited how could I say no.
I roller coasted between the fear of tragedy that frightened as we read the lurid headlines of the latest murder in the Daily News to the rational and usual that a kid lost is always found, a broken arm always heals, a trip to the hospital is never really necessary. Of course at the same time I may have whispered a quick Hail Mary as we were taught and wont to do in any unusual situation. We knew the power of prayer, how we prayed to St. Anthony when we lost something, St. Christopher whenever we took a trip in the car, the Blessed Mother for peace, to convert Communist Russia. Like baseball players, we had our favorite Saints and relied on them to help us pass our quizzes, make the foul shot, hide the hole in our brand new pants and avoid death.
We stood there waiting for Brother Ro to return and assure us that it was a mistake, some other person, don’t know him but he’ll be OK, just some stitches, let’s not shower, let’s change and head home, it’s been a long day, very long. But Brother Ro remained apart, waiting with the cops.
Joey was here, right? He was in the pool. Did he go to the beach? Did he leave? Was Anthony here? No, Anthony didn’t come. Who was he with? You guys see him? Did he leave early? Remember the time his father came to the schoolyard. Had to go home early for dinner, right. That guy was fuckin nuts.
He was here and now he’s not. We looked around and at each other then back to the lonely and forlorn pool with its chipped paint and faded signs. The shadows were longer, the day running away. Go ask Brother, Haj, go ask him, ask the cop, you can do it, find out, yeah, go find out Haj, what are you chicken.
Before Haj could decide, Brother Ro returned with sadness on his face and silence in his eyes. They took Joey to the hospital. They say he may have drowned in the pool.
I understood the words but couldn’t comprehend the meaning. The pool wasn’t that deep. I looked to Brother for a sign, a word, something to tell me it was a mistake, I didn’t hear right. He stood a bit apart, unsure and all I saw was a flawed, ordinary man in his simple bathing suit and shirt, no habit now, no rosary beads.
Questions were asked in whispers, with eyes, with looks of no, can’t be.
I don’t know what I’m going to tell his mother. I just don’t know what I’m going to tell his mother, was repeated by Brother Ro who went with the cops to the hospital.
We somehow made our way home, exhausted, confused and so upset. I told my parents who told me to say a prayer. I lay in bed and prayed that I would wake up in the morning, tell Johnny about the nightmare and he’d laugh or call me a dope and we’d start an argument, get yelled out and everything would be the same.
Mike Smith’s was the funeral parlor across from our red brick church. Everyone was waked here except my grandmother who was put in Duffy’s on 9th Street a mile away because of some minor slight of Smith’s many years earlier when my grandfather right off the boat died before I was born. The Irish never forgive even an innocent transgression especially when it involves sending a loved one to eternal paradise.
Wakes were high drama and ritual, the family sad at the death but proud of the good life. He looks better than he did when I saw him last week. Beautiful dress, she looks like herself. They did a fine job. Thank God he doesn’t have to suffer anymore. You walked down the narrow corridor, stopping to chat with friends, terrible, just terrible and waited to say a prayer in front of the corpse whose fingers held rosary beads. Very sorry for your loss. Thanks for coming. And you would sit and gossip and laugh as you told stories about the good times and the bad and then turned around to see what Mrs. Murphy was wearing and where’s her husband, probably still in Farrell’s the bum.
Joey with his short black hair neatly combed looked small and thin in his blue Communion suit. New black rosary beads with the shining silver cross entwined in his neatly folded yellowish hands told me he was really dead. Yet, I still wanted to reach in, grab his arm and shake him awake as my aunt Rita did years later at my Dad’s wake. Jack, Jack, she cried, oh Jack.
Let’s go Joey, to the schoolyard, box ball, you can serve. Hail Mary, full of grace…
His father, awkward in his suit and tie, shook hands silently and closely watched his wife shake with sobs as she sat in the high backed chairs closest to the coffin. All in black, the family clutched white handkerchiefs. Friends, neighbors, schoolmates sat in the folding chairs and stood everywhere else, spilling onto the sidewalk outside. Anthony and the sister Theresa were in the back, talking nervously, trying to be brave and failing.
We never discussed that day ever again, never found out why it happened, never cared. And we only whispered Joey, Joey Pesce on occasion. In our prayers, of course. When playing slap ball or box ball, someone would blurt out, Joey was the best, he could really put English on the ball or he was really fast. We would pause and stare at each other with knowing and somber eyes. Ok, someone would shout, let’s go. The game would continue as we shook the sadness from our mind.
On the first day in 7th grade, we sat in rows in our starched white shirts and pressed blue pants, trying to figure out Brother Corby, a large, gangly man with a crew cut of black hair. Tough, but fair we heard. He was going on about doing our homework, the subjects and all the other study hard, be good crap that teachers always say on the first day. I was in the second row next to last seat next to Tommy “Ferry” Ferraiolo, a good friend whose quick hands could snatch a ball whizzing by and who had a mischievous streak which often got him into trouble. Oh yes, Brother said bluntly, this is the class of the Pesce boy, the boy who drowned.
The boy who drowned. I remember those words and that snapshot all too often. The silence that greeted that matter of fact statement. We just looked down at our desks and then at each other. Ferry with the cow’s lick in the front didn’t even try to make a joke. Then we probably had to take out our books, learn some English or history or math and, after a bit, our 12 and 13 year old minds thought of different and better things.
And we grew up, went to high school and all, married and worked and did what people do. Except Joey who never made it to 7th grade. And Ferry who never made it to 20. He drowned 7 years later in Rockaway.
Ken Nolan is a lawyer who has always lived in Brooklyn. His work has been published in The New York Times, Litigation Journal and many other publications.