The Irish Riviera

by

07/11/2021

Neighborhood: Queens, Rockaway Beach

Barbara, Joan, Pat and someone at Rockaway Beach 1956 (photo by Robert A. Pryor)

On a muggy summer morning in 1961, with my parents still asleep, I crept into the kitchen and turned on the oven. I was seven years old.

I closed the living room window to let the heat build in the apartment. After it did, I turned the oven off to let the metal cool and eased the window open when I heard mumbling from my parents’ bedroom.

As a boy, I welcomed a broiling summer weekend like a wino waking up and finding a half-pint stashed down his sock. I wanted to be in water so bad that if I saw the temperature headed towards 90, I’d do a jig. 

On this subject, my conniving was bottomless. My target that day was my domineering father’s nostalgic longing for the New York of his youth.

Dad welcomed heat like an old friend. He did not sweat. In the Navy he slept under a steam pipe and spoke about it affectionately. Dad was a water rat, but he hated public pools and didn’t drive, so the only way to get him to take me swimming was to convince him to go to Rockaway Beach by bus.

Why that destination? My father’s dramatic sigh each time he reminisced about his bodysurfing youth in the Rockaways.

My mother had a skin condition and wanted no one to see her legs. She hated hot weather and sought shade. In the summer our apartment lights came on at night only for reading.

Sitting in the stuffy kitchen paging a Life magazine, I sweated freely. Mom and Dad straggled in.

“Jeez, it’s hot in here.” Dad said.

Mom swooned.

I smiled under my breath.

“Dad, Uncle Mickey said the waves at Rockaway are six feet high.”

“Tommy, call the weather.”

I dialed WE 6-1212 and Mom said to Dad, “You’ve got to be kidding, stick your head out the window, it’s friggin hot!”

After I gave Dad a trumped up report on the heat, he said, “Let’s synchronize our watches. Call time.”

I dialed ME 7-1212, “It’s 8:09!”

With a dumbfounded look on her puss, Mom said, “That’s another dime down the drain, Mr. Rockefeller.”

“I married down.” Dad said.

We were out of the house in fifteen minutes.

We walked to York Avenue where Dad hailed a Checker cab, “Johnny, 61st Street and Roosevelt Avenue.” Half way across the 59th Street Bridge, through my open window, I smelled the bread baking inside Silvercup’s factory as we headed to the bus in Woodside. 

The line was long but we found two seats. Going over the Cross Bay Bridge I spied sailboats in the water. My heart picked up its beat. Dad leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Next stop, the Irish Riviera.”

End of the line, Beach 116th Street. I jumped off the bus and ran ahead of Dad to Curley’s Bath House, a worn wooden structure that I mistook for an ancient ruin from the original Irish landing in the Americas, which I imagined had happened hundreds of years before.

Tommy at Rockaway Beach (Rheingold Tall Boy behind him) 1956

At Curley’s we shoved our street clothes into a locker and hurried out. On the beach, we laid out the bed sheet with Dad’s cigarette burns on it, threw our towels down, took off our shoes and sneakers and raced to the water – no going in slow, get it over with, dive into the curl of a chilled wave. Bodysurfing? I caught on quick and my rigid father had a difficult time coming up with a correction or a barked order the way he did when we practiced baseball and football. He and I were in cahoots regarding water play. After warming up, we started riding the waves, bodysurfing, trying to take one all the way in, catching the wave as it broke and swimming frantically, struggling to stay in front of it. A few times, a whitecap overwhelmed me, trapping me in a orbital swirl; it wheeled me around and I tumbled towards shore.

Coming up, I heard Dad yell, “Are you OK?”

“Yep.”

“Let’s get a good one,” he said and clutched my arm easing my effort to get back out to the right spot. Dad was an outstanding swimmer, so I felt safe in the deep water where I bobbed my head and used my toes to push on and off the bottom. A seagull squawked over my head, I looked up at the cloudless blue sky. The ocean was clean and the surf, deceptively rough. Positioned where the waves broke, Dad picked me up, waited for a tall one, lifted me over his shoulders, and said, “Straighten your body and get ready.”

The moment the breaker smacked Dad; he hurled me out onto the top of the foaming crest.

We ate a meal, hot dogs and sodas, no beer for Dad. He sensed this type of day was a once in a blue moon event. Ten minutes later, we were back in the water, not waiting the universally required half hour to digest our food. Mom would threaten me with death or tackle me if I wolfed down a sandwich and tried to dart past her to go back in too soon.

Peeing in the water was OK, so there were no bathroom trips. We exhausted ourselves in the bumpy swell of the sea. Breathless and sweaty, we only took short rests on the sheet. 

In the sky, I saw a plane pulling a banner for the amusement park, Freedomland. On the beach, a guy with a hankie tied around his neck was dragging an ice chest along the sand yelling, “Beer here! Cold Rheingold! Beer here!” There was an Italian ice lady not having much luck, and a goofy older kid with a sailor’s hat on selling cotton candy. Did anyone eat that junk?

Rockaway Beach 2012

In the water, I pretended I was a running back weaving through and bouncing off the defensive players trying to tackle me. I was getting ready to play for the New York Giants. The frequency, height and force of the waves made me a little sick to my stomach, but I enjoyed the sensation. Dad and I laughed when we saw seaweed and broken shells on each other’s head after we finished a rough ride. My salty skin itched and my chubby belly felt tight like Dad’s.

Walking back to Curley’s I was sore all over but pleased. Entering the bathhouse we passed into near darkness and cooler air. Echoes rolled around the space. I smelled damp wood, lotion, cigarettes and cigars and heard ladies yapping in the women’s section. 

After I took my bathing suit off at the open-air shower, Dad said, “Don’t forget to clean everything.” I was chilly with my feet on the wet wood. As the water warmed up, I teased myself. I stuck one arm under the spray and noticed the difference between the air and water temperature, and then slowly passed my whole body through the shower. A rope of water pounded my neck, easing my weary muscles. I looked down and saw the runoff disappearing beneath the wood slats. Going home made me sad, but the shower softened my blues. Back at the locker, I reminded myself the only good thing about having a crew cut – it was easy to dry off.

Leaving Curley’s shade we walked down the hot sidewalk to the bus stop near the pharmacy with the floats, chairs, buckets and shovels hanging all over. Settled in our seats, it took seconds for my spinning head to drop into Dad’s lap. I was learning the man. If I brought out the boy inside him our alone time together was peaceful. I finished that thought and went to sleep before we crossed the bridge.

***

Thomas Pryor’s work has appeared in The New York Times and other periodicals. His memoir, “I Hate the Dallas Cowboys – tales of a scrappy New York boyhood,” was published in 2014 (YBK). His short stories are found in Thomas Beller’s, “Lost and Found: Stories from New York,” Three Rooms Press, “Have A NYC 2,” and Larry Canale’s, “Mickey Mantle – Memories and Memorabilia.” Pryor’s blog is: “Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts” 

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§ 14 Responses to “The Irish Riviera”

  • Lynn Gaffey Byers says:

    My family spent ever summer in a tiny wooden bungalow on the Irish Riviera. Best time of my life. Loved it so much I live here now. Originally from Yorkville. Thanks for the memories of a wonderful childhood!

  • Dan says:

    I loved your story, this was part of my childhood as well. I was taken to see the bay meeting the ocean during hurricane Donna. My brothers and sisters said I may not see this again. I remember the beach being packed with people, mostly young people. Later in my life as a young mechanic I would repair the lifeguards vehicles in the parking lot while they were on duty. When their shift was ended they went to their second jobs as bartenders. Most of them became firemen or policemen for the City.

  • david noven says:

    Great one, Tom! Milo liked it, too.

  • Thomas Pryor says:

    Thank you, Milo & Dave the Rave!!!

  • Thank you, Lynn & Dan!!!

  • TSB says:

    An echo of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.”
    Which you should read–another treatment of nostalgia, related to this one, but different.

  • CityGirl Tours says:

    This is beautiful – every word brought back memories of hot summer days in New York when we’d get that rare chance to get out to a Brooklyn beach. Bread baking at Silvercup. Every detail of being in the surf. Bringing out the boy in your Dad. Truly beautiful . Like an old, loved photo album come to life.

  • Deborah says:

    Loved your story, took me back to my youth. I lived in Brooklyn and went to Breeze, Riis, and the Rockaways every summer all summer and still do. I visited family in Yorkville as a child, when I grew up I moved to Yorkville over thirty years ago.

  • Jonathan Calvert says:

    No one captures the sights, sounds, feel, grit and soul of an experience and puts you in a time and place like Tom Pryor. The bed sheet with cigarette burns! Never escaped my hot tenement for the Irish Riviera before (though this evoked memories of digging through the sand to the concrete at man-made Orchard Beach) but now we all have been taken there. Thank you for the ride.

  • Thomas Pryor says:

    Thank you, TBN, I will read “Once More to the Lake.”

  • Thomas Pryor says:

    Thank you, CityGirl Tours!

  • Thomas Pryor says:

    Thank you, Deborah!

  • Thomas Pryor says:

    Thank you, Jonathan!

  • P. says:

    Well, many Irish Yorkvillites here! I went to the Irish Alps more than to Rockaway, a woods-and-mountains person then and now. But I like your scientific approach in the shower!

§ Leave a Reply

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