Rockaway Beach Memoirs

by

07/12/2003

100 rockaway beach blvd ny

Neighborhood: On the Waterfront, Queens

I was nearly there.

Carrying my chair, beach bag and small cooler the few
final yards to my usual spot, I was almost past the part I dreaded.

It was the trek from the parking lot at Riis Park in the Rockaways, to my little beach at the start of neighboring Breezy Point.

To get there, I had to walk past the families bar-b-queing on patches of dried grass beneath the trees alongside the black tar parking lot, past the bathrooms and concession stand that never opened these days, past the lifeguards, and the wood jetties, and past the crowds of sunbathers who opted for the convenience of the closest beach.

It may have been only a seven-minute walk but my anticipation of the quiet relaxation that was so imminent made the walk seem longer.

Unlike many city dwellers who signed up for shares in the Hamptons or Fire Island, this out-of-the-way beach on the Rockaway peninsula was my ultimate salvation. Having grown up in Belle Harbor, about 20 blocks and a fifteen minute walk away, this beach had special meaning to me. Like the pull of the
tide, I felt myself drawn to it. Only now I made the commute every weekend from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Exit 11S on the Belt Parkway — “The Rockaways.”

I never leave my apartment later than 9:30 a.m. in order to
avoid beach traffic, keeping the half-hour car ride bearable.
As a kid, the proximity of the beach was something I took for granted, just a short walk or a two minute bike ride on my pink Raleigh. It was like a private club for the residents since parking was prohibited on the streets in Belle Harbor during the summer months. If you didn’t have a driveway, you were out of luck.

In this small beach community, everyone knew each
other and you went to the beach at the end of your block. My landmarks for various beaches were the distinct houses that stood directly behind the beach wall at the end of each block. Back then, you could actually pay to have someone store your beach chairs and set them up for you at the choice spots near the shoreline, awaiting your arrival. Neighbors assembled on the
weekends, forming large semicircles of chairs where the gossip flowed as freely as the snacks and soft drinks available from their well-stocked coolers.

The only times I ventured into Riis Park, against my mother’s warnings, was when my girlfriends and I, seeking some excitement, took the short walk to the chain link fence that separated Riis Park from the private domain of neighboring Neponsit and Belle Harbor. Crawling through the hole in the
fence that gave us access, we were out to sneak glimpses of the nude sunbathers that paraded around that section of the public beach.

It never took long before some older guy with a big belly rolled over on his towel and sent us, grossed out and giggling, scrambling back to the safety and homogeneity of our family-oriented beach.

So it was part instinct and part accident that landed me years later on this particular beach at the end of Riis Park. I came back to what was familiar. But things were different now.

I was part of the masses.

I required parking.

But situating myself among the hoards of beach-goers was just not possible for me. I needed space. I needed someplace quiet to read. I just kept walking until I found it.

Year after year, the same core of beach worshippers showed up at what became my adopted beach. I suppose we all shared the same love of the sea and surf but also a similar disdain for the crowds and noise. They were mostly fellow Brooklynites who ventured over the Marine Park Bridge into what was technically part of Queens.

My landmark was Jim, an eccentric ex-commodities trader who was always there by the time I arrived by 10:00 am. He got there much earlier, judging by the number of empty coffee cups
that surrounded his blanket. His bony body was greased down with oil and already tan at the start of the season. He was an odd duck, who went for dunks in the ocean clutching his SPF #2 tanning oil, dressed in his skimpy, colorful Speedo swimsuit and thick gold chain glistening around his neck.

Jim and I rarely spoke except to greet each other at the beginning and end of each beach day.

“I was gettin’ nervous!” he yelled to me from the shoreline in his
distinctive Brooklyn accent, when he saw me approach for my first weekend of the summer. He held his arms over his head making fists in the air, feeling triumphant for experiencing such a glorious day while the sun gleamed off his body.

I laughed at his intensity as I waved a greeting and moved on to
my spot.

I wouldn’t have known much about Jim if it hadn’t been for Carole, another regular. She was a school teacher from Starrett City, divorced with grown kids, and a talker. We introduced ourselves about three years back when we realized we would be seeing each other every weekend here at the beach. She filled me in on others I hadn’t felt inclined to talk to and ask what I
considered to be prying questions.

Carole didn’t have this problem.

She had the scoop on Jim and just about anyone else that frequented our beach more than twice.

There was always a bit of drama with Carole. During one of our
conversations the previous summer she said, “See that guy over there?” she nodded in the direction of a slightly overweight, silver-haired man with a hairy chest wearing cotton swimming trunks. “I dated him a couple of times and now he won’t leave me alone. I’m going to have to set him straight. I mean, it’s more annoying than scary but it’s time, you know?”

I watched my reflection in her large, plastic sunglasses, nodding my head as she spoke.

Every summer Carole updated me on her social endeavors, her e-mail dating, stock trading, and her countdown towards her retirement from her teaching profession. This summer I had to do a double take as she walked towards me—I barely recognized her without the thirty pounds she dropped over the winter. She was a new woman in her two-piece suit and long layered hair she had grown into a Farah Fawcett look. There would be no stopping her now.

I wasn’t always in the mood for conversation, but with Carole, sometimes there wasn’t a choice. “You look terrific!” I told her. “I barely recognized you.”

“Oh yeah, I decided it was time to eat healthy,” she looked around as she spoke and her dangling, earrings jangled softly. “It’s a new me.” I congratulated her further and began to inch toward my towel, longing to collapse into my beach chair and bury myself in my Philip Roth novel.

“No, I haven’t seen him but I wasn’t really looking,” I said as she set out on her mission.

I was standing at the shore, trying to get my legs used to the icy water and looking for a break in the waves when I could rush in for a quick dip. I wore my contact lenses to the beach and was reluctant to go underwater unless I had to. Suddenly there was a voice behind me, “Oh go on. It’s not that bad.”

I turned around to see Bill the lifeguard standing behind me. Bill knew all of the regulars on this beach since from the time I began coming, about five years ago, he had been the lifeguard assigned to this section. Now with all the cutbacks, beach goers at this end of the beach swam at their own risk.

“Hey Bill,” I said. “You know me—I’m a big sissy when it comes to the ocean. How’ve you been?” This was always a treacherous question to pose to Bill since from the time I met him, he was always miserable. The source of his misery was his wife who was a lawyer and someone he had been attempting to divorce for the past four years.

“Well, it’s been a rough winter,” he began, making a gallant but
unconvincing effort of not putting on “the voice.” It was the “poor me,” sad-sack voice reserved for special moments when he was seeking sympathy. My mother has been known to use it. “I have the kids so I couldn’t do the lifeguard job this summer. They wouldn’t work with me on the hours.”

Bill was a science teacher during the winter and supplemented his modest income with the lifeguard gig during the summer. The last two summers he had treaded his way up the political lifeguard ladder to “Chief Lifeguard” and substantially more money. But it seemed the tide was out on that arrangement.

“That’s too bad,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s nice to have time with the boys but I’m really gonna miss the money. It’s gonna be tough.” I didn’t know what to say so I kept quiet and left the talking to Bill.

He interrupted himself occasionally to say hello to other familiar faces walking along the shore.

I no longer worried about Bill. Something told me he would be okay. He would always manage to find a sympathetic ear.

I considered this section of the beach my home base but occasionally a newcomer would disrupt the harmony of the surroundings.

I remember one individual who approached me while I sat relaxing in my beach chair. I didn’t realize he had walked towards me until I got the sense, even with my eyes closed, that there was a presence nearby.

I opened my eyes to see a balding, heavyset middle-aged man a few steps away from my chair in white jockey underwear that was doubling as his swimsuit.

This wouldn’t have been a problem except that he had just emerged from the water. He stood near my chair and said hello and made an attempt at small talk; a ballsy move (you’ll pardon the pun) considering that as he stood there talking, his crotch, outlined by his clinging wet cotton underwear, was directly at my eye level.

While I’m usually preoccupied with avoiding hurting a person’s
feelings, in this case, I wasn’t too worried. I said, “You know? I
don’t feel like talking. I want to be left alone.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise while he undoubtedly filed me in the “bitch” category but did turn around and walk away. I exhaled a sigh a relief and closed my eyes until I felt he was gone. When I
looked again to see if the coast was clear, he had already moved on to the next female he spotted sitting alone.

The last couple of years, I noticed my beach getting more crowded. Groups of people speaking Russian have made the move across the Marine Park Bridge from Brighton Beach to this tip of Riis Park. The call of the gulls is often interrupted by ringing cell phones and animated conversation in languages I can’t understand.

I was wondering where I would go from here when a couple I’m friendly with told me they had decided to sell their coop in the Slope and move out to Rockaway, a block from my childhood home. “Our casa is su casa,” they said and I took them up on their offer and have returned to the luxury of a private driveway, five houses away from the beach.

I sit near the ocean and watch the semi-circles of families with their young kids running into the water to ride in waves. Occasionally I run into someone I knew from high school, and they introduce me to their family as they stand self-consciously in bathing trunks that show the extra twenty pounds they put on.

I try not to feel old and instead focus on the waves and the serenity I feel breathing in the salt air while I dig my feet into the sand. When my friends finally join me with their beach chairs and umbrella, we make our own semicircle and eat fruit I brought in the cooler.

“Want to take a walk?” I ask.

“Sure,” they say and we head towards Riis Park.

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