In my last blog, I left you on a bitterly cold February day in 2011, as my reluctant husband, Liam, and I drove out to Far Rockaway, to explore the possibility of securing one of the few remaining 1920’s bungalows still standing in paradise.
I had contacted the president of something called the Beach Bungalow Preservation Association, about which I knew nothing, and arranged to meet him at his Rockaway bungalow. Walking into his restored bungalow on Beach 24th Street was like a trip back in time. The small rooms, the old floors and molding, the smell and feel of the place, the front porch, was exactly as I remembered. I half expected to see my mother cooking something delicious in the kitchen. The walls were adorned with incredible paintings by Richard, the owner, and his 85 year old mother, both artists. They described Rockaway as it was when they first moved there in 1984, when they mistook the sound of gunfire for cars backfiring, having never heard gunshots before.
Richard went on to give us a tour of the three blocks of bungalows that still remained in the area. Liam’s preconception was not far off. The bungalows were wrecks, and the neighborhood edgy. Men loitered outside of bungalows, looking somewhat menacing. I witnessed several drug transactions, and noted some needles in the gutters. But the boardwalk was there, and the sea air and the light were beautiful, even in February, and we continued to look. And then we saw it; our bungalow, white with blue trim, half a block from the beach, a wreck inside, with a non- existent bathroom that looked like a litter box, linoleum ripped floored, three tiny bedrooms that had been rented as SROs, each with it’s own lock, a tiny living room, and a tiny kitchen, wiring on the floor, the entire house measuring 550 square feet. “This is it”, I said, and Liam agreed.
Richard wasn’t sure that this house was for sale, so we went back to his bungalow, where his mother, the one and only Carmela, awaited us. Carmela defies description. A beautiful Italian dynamo with piercing blue eyes, a cross between Olympia Dukakis in Moonlight, Bea Arthur and Mrs. Lovett. When she learned of my Rockaway history, she said, “You want that bungalow? You got that bungalow!”, and she proceeded to call the owner, who was reluctant to sell, the bungalow having been a family bungalow in the 40’s and 50’s. She told him "You're selling that bungalow", and, we had the bungalow. We arranged to meet the owner, and agreed on a price. Suddenly, it was ours!
Liam immediately set to work. He pulled and burned off 4 layers of linoleum (it had originally been laid down with tar), and found original pine flooring, in quite good shape. He knocked down the wall between one bedroom and the kitchen, giving us a two bedroom house with a large kitchen, he repaired the front porch, which had a rotting floor, and built a back deck off of the kitchen. And, wonder of wonders, he and one helper built a real bathroom, complete with floor, shower, sink and toilet! At the end of this, Liam had surgery for a torn rotator cuff, but we had a bungalow that we could stay in by May!
During the process of our rebuilding and restoring my kids and grandkids came out to see the bungalow. They did not get out of the car. My eldest grandson, who was 11 at the time, said, in bewilderment, “That’s Grammy’s dream bungalow?”, as I had referred to it. Both sons vowed that their children would never come out to that neighborhood. A friend came to visit, and watched a police chase from our front porch. “This”, she said, “is better than Law and Order!”
We met our neighbors. Next door is Claire, a writer, who has become a very dear friend. Down the block is Bob, a cabaret singer, and his husband, Raymond, an extra at the Metropolitan Opera. In back is a filmmaker and a photographer, and, also down the block, my elder son who, having fallen in love with Far Rockaway, bought a bungalow 5 houses down from us. His son, and our other grandkids are frequent visitors. The drug houses vanished with hurricane Sandy, and the block is a wonderful mixture of full time residents of all races and ethnicities, artists, musicians, writers, families, extended families; in short, a real community. We meet on porches, drop by one another with food and drink, start and end the summer together, and sometimes parts of the other seasons. I’m home again, and I love it. Liam loves it. And, my sons and grandkids feel as I did as a kid about Rockaway. It’s different than it was, but also the same. And, I have gone home again.