Photo by Howard Brier
It’s hot. We have one air conditioner and one TV. The TV is black-and-white; the air conditioner is in my parents’ bedroom. I usually sleep with my door wide open, letting in a cool breeze from the back door to our attached row house, the access to our backyard. Back then no one imagines someone might sneak in and kidnap a sleeping child—even though we live in a Brooklyn neighborhood with the ominous name of Gravesend. When the temperature soars above 90, my parents unfold a cot in their room, and I dream next to the droning motor of their luxurious air conditioner.
Sometimes I sleep on a second-floor terrace just one story above the Brighton Beach boardwalk, where my friend Susan, her parents, two corpulent brothers, and a German Shepherd squeeze into a two bedroom apartment. The dining alcove has been converted into her “bedroom,” but we much prefer bunking out on her tiny terrace, the closest we will come to camping in the mountains—or anywhere. We listen to the pummeling waves after we run out of conversation around 3 A.M., and we don’t mind when the bright sunshine wakes us a few hours later.
Time for the beach! Towel to towel, blanket to blanket, we etch out our patch of sand, lathering ourselves with baby oil because no one yet warns about UV rays and Ozone holes. We swim out just a bit farther than our courage allows, convinced that the whistle-blowing lifeguards will never spot any sharks in these waters, just as we believe jellyfish have migrated south to Florida.
I don’t realize how fortunate I am to live so close to the beach, unlike millions of sweating Americans in land-locked states like Iowa who never see an ocean let alone walk to one. “Lazy,” my mother reprimands when I ask for carfare to ride the bus less than a mile to the ocean. And my accountant father teaches me a short lesson in finance: “If you save fifteen cents on the bus, you can buy a knish for lunch.”
I do, sometimes two, at Mrs. Stahl’s, where the salt air mingles with the sweetness of cherry cheese. Across the street looms Brighton Beach Baths, a private pool club where I believe the idle rich hobnob. I don’t yet know that real jet setters are sunbathing topless on the Côte d’Azur—and not playing gin rummy for ten cents a game or lounging around an over chlorinated cement-decked pool where toes don’t get sullied in the sand.
We never cross Ocean Parkway, the boulevard some compare, with une peu d’imagination, to the Champs Elysees. Ocean Parkway divides the familiarity of Brighton Beach with the uncertain terrain of Coney Island. Only once a year on my summer birthday, my Orthodox grandmother gives my older brother five dollars and says, “Spend the day together in Coney Island.” Six feet tall, he is my escort and protector. Five dollars buys more giddying rides than we can handle, with money left over for lunch at Nathan’s—someplace my kosher grandmother would never enter.
I don’t go to camp when the beach is near enough that interlopers park in front of our house and trudge their chairs and umbrellas a mile to nirvana. Weekdays are quieter, after my father rides a stifling D train for an hour to work in what’s now called Tribeca. Our camp is the street. The gutter, actually. My brothers’ friends put mesh goal posts on either end of East 7th Street, setting up a tar hockey field. When the occasional car beeps its way through, the pick-up teams remove the goal posts until the coast is clear.
Every Tuesday night we walk to Shore Parkway, where long ago, it seems, we sledded down Suicide Hill, aptly named because if you don’t steer your sled correctly you’d end up in the service road of the parkway. We climb the ramp on the overpass above the highway. The noise of cars whizzing behind us fades when the weekly fireworks explode from a barge in Lower New York Bay. Our entire neighborhood—Italians and Jews, immigrants and holocaust survivors, first generation professionals and 1950’s housewives, children who have never been west of New Jersey—cluster above the highway for a partial, but adequate, view. The fireworks are rudimentary compared to today’s rock and celebrity-studded celebrations. Yet we all harmonize a collective “Oooooh!” and “Ahhhhh!” to exult every boom.
If there is a breeze anywhere in this borough, it’s atop this highway. After the last blast, we descend slowly. If our behavior has been worthy this past week, our parents might reward us with chocolate ices on the way home. It will give us all a few more minutes outside…before meandering reluctantly back to our stuffy houses.