Maybe, Just Maybe, You Can Go Home Again
On a cold February morning in 2011 my husband, Liam, and I set off to explore Far Rockaway, in Queens. Our aim, or at least my aim, was to look for a wreck of a summer bungalow that we could fix up, half a block from the sea. Liam was not at all enthusiastic about exploring Far Rockaway, known, at that time, to be one of the most dangerous areas in NYC. His feeling was that he had grown up in a neighborhood like that, and he didn’t want to return to one. I, too, had grown up in a neighborhood like that…in fact, in that exact neighborhood. My family and I spent every summer that I can remember in Rockaway, known then as “the working class Riviera”.
Every February we would all go out to pick a bungalow rental for that summer. Rockaway was desolate in February, and we walked from one moldy smelling bungalow to the next, looking at rolled up mattresses on the beds (it helped with the mildew), until we found one that was suitable for the coming summer. Then, in July, as soon as school was out, we would pack linens, dishes, pots, food, and all our clothing into cartons tied with rope, and haul them on the Long Island Railroad out to Rockaway. We didn’t have a car, so the LIRR was the magic carpet that bore us and all our belongings to Rockaway. We stayed there until Labor Day…my father would close his grocery store on Saturday afternoons and stay until Sunday night. I remember those summer months as the best times of my childhood and adolescence.
The bungalows were 550 square feet, and we crammed into them along with my aunt and uncle, but the lack of space didn’t matter. We kids were out of the house from the moment we woke up till the moment we went to bed. The streets had no paved roads…just sand… and we could walk to the boardwalk and the beach, but the best thing was that we were free, really free, to do whatever we liked so long as we turned up for meals. Nights, we roamed the boardwalk, playing games at the penny arcades and, when we were old enough, going to the “Old Time Movies” that were played at an open air “theater” on the boardwalk. We saw silent films starring Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and, my favorite, Rudolph Valentino, on whom I had a crush long after his death, while a live pianist played suitable music on the old upright to accompany the films. There’s a movement of a Tchaikovsky symphony that I will always associate with Valentino in “The Sheik”.
Rockaway wasn’t dangerous then, unless you wandered from the leftist, Jewish areas of Far Rockaway and Edgemere into the Irish areas near Playland and Rockaway Beach, 50 blocks further up the boardwalk. Then we would get chased and threatened by the Irish kids. We stopped going to Rockaway when I was 16 or so, and I would take summer jobs in the city. But those Rockaway summers remain idyllic in my memory. We didn’t wear shoes from July to Labor Day, and it was where I fell in love, at 15, for the first time. Soon afterwards, Robert Moses razed the area and, in his version of city planning,built housing projects there, left much of the land undeveloped, and turned the few remaining bungalows into SROs. The A train, post Robert Moses, takes passengers out to the Rockaways on the elevated line that used to be the LIRR.
And so, in February of 2011, Liam and I were on our way out to Rockaway, because I had a dream of returning to those summers.
And, I think, I’m going to have to continue my Rockaway saga in my next blog, on Dec. 10th, when I’ll write more about Rockaway, then and now. Please tune in and share the adventure with me!