Rockaway Beach

The View From Argyle Heights: Rockaway Beach
By Homeowner Harry (Another in a series of observations about life in West Midwood as it is lived today…or maybe not)

Every weekend between May and September for the past 25 years, my wife would insist we drive to Rockaway Beach. Notice the phrase “weather permitting” did not appear in the prior sentence, because for “she who must be obeyed” it would take an actual drenching rain to postpone a trip. The ritual was always the same: I would park the car by the sea wall somewhere in the uncrowded Beach 130’s or 140’s, put the blinkers on, walk the gear down to the surf and plant the umbrella. When our son accompanied us, in a time before adolescence outlawed mingling with - UGH! - parents, this would be our cue to shout in unison “we claim this spot on behalf of the Enright Clan!”  Then we’d set up the blanket and chairs and I’d drive the car back to the huge parking lot at Reiss Park, a half-mile away, since there was no parking allowed anywhere else on weekends. It used to cost a buck to park there all day and then somehow morphed to a sawbuck just this year. By the way, using “sawbuck” to signify a ten dollar bill stems from the Roman numeral X that once appeared on the bill which looked like a sawhorse that carpenters use to hold wood. I have a whole book of these explanations for obscure words/phrases, which frankly is the hard cover I would take to a desert island, with my Van Morrison & The Chieftains album, if allowed only one of each. So where was I? Oh yeah, these were some of the thoughts I had during my walk back from the parking lot on September 29th – sometimes I would take the beach path, other times, like that windy Saturday afternoon I’d just saunter down Rockaway Beach Boulevard – this time with my pocket camera in hand. Hmmm…I wonder if these Rockaway malls were inspired by Albemarle and Glenwood Roads? Click. 

A candy wrapper blew by.  M&Ms.  Mmmmm. I love M&Ms. Yup, twenty minutes of alone time, thinking Homer Simpson thoughts, quality walking time, unhurried (unless I heard thunder) – my favorite time of the summer as I contemplated the Everything Bagel with cream cheese from Fairway in Red Hook that I’d be eating shortly… 

About 175 bagels before then, in August 2000, back on another beautiful sunny afternoon – no cloud in the sky, no breeze at all – we were baking on the beach and I was catching my breath after spending an hour in the waves making sure Jamie didn’t suddenly attempt to swim the Atlantic. Gradually, we became aware of a commotion down toward the cyclone fence that demarcated Riis Park – sand and debris were swirling around and people were yelling and then suddenly umbrellas were flying into the air and the maelstrom was coming right for us. With one hand I grabbed our umbrella pole and threw my arm around Virginia and Jamie, expecting us to be transported to Kansas any second…And then it passed. As we wiped sand off our faces, we saw the windy spout dissipate quickly until only 50 feet beyond our position, it was gone. Since this was the age before mobile devices and broadband, we had to wait to get home to our AOL dial-up to find out we had just experienced a “sun devil” or “whirling dervish” apparently created by superheated air above the sun-baked parking lot rising to meet the cool air above Rockaway. 

A year later as I recall, we raced across the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge to escape a very dark thunderstorm, which soon overtook us and pelted the car with large hailstones and terrific winds. I crawled along at 15 MPH down Flatbush Avenue while the women in the car pleaded for me to pull over, but I know Brooklyn drivers – stop in zero visibility and you get rear-ended – best to move slowly ahead in the right lane with blinkers and brights on…As we drove out of the darkness, we saw a funnel cloud off to the left going toward Midwood. Man. That made us all yearn for the sun devil thing – that was “kewl”. The mini-tornado was more in the realm of “Did we just almost die?”  Definitely not cool. 

But on September 29th, 2012, all was calm if a bit chilly on the beach.  We dressed in hoodies, reading and watching the waves – a coastal storm 500 miles out in the Atlantic was kicking up some big ones - delighting some wet-suited surfers nearby. I estimated only about two dozen folks were on the beach that stretched from Riis Park at Beach 149th Street all the way to the start of the boardwalk at Beach 126th. We were sitting around Beach 142nd, another mall street - sort of the dividing line between Neponsit and Belle Harbor. The weekend calendar was filling up for October and the weather was changing, so this was probably our last visit of the year. 

I couldn’t help but reminisce about the years gone by and got antsy to take a walk. So I left Virginia, engrossed in a thick novel,  and took a stroll down the beach to the boardwalk, past the place where Jamie and I used to get “ice-ies”…past the Flight 587 Memorial to the hundreds of victims of the November 11, 2011 plane crash on Beach 131st Street…Then further along, where the old Belle Harbor Twin used to stand on Beach 116th in the 1970s – nice place to take a date since you couldn’t beat the romantic atmosphere of a moonlight walk on the boardwalk after the flick…Then down to the shopping mall and fast food joints by the water. I remember Jamie and I scoffing down burgers in the outside seating area right on Jamaica Bay. Best ambience of any Wendy’s we ever ate at. 

I came back along Newport Avenue and grabbed a snack on Beach 129th – the only commercial strip west of 116th if you don’t count the concession stands at Riis Park. Many’s the time I grabbed a slice here on long bike rides when I was rehabbing from a foot injury – always good to set yourself a nice destination at a time like that. I’d get the slice to go and pedal down to the beach, enjoying the sights and wondering how the heck I was going to find the energy to ride back home.By the time I got back to the beach, it was much windier and the waves were about ten feet from our umbrella. No sooner had I plopped myself into the beach chair when a rogue wave engulfed us – our umbrella, blanket, chairs, bags, and all, creating a soggy mess. Virginia and I looked at each other. “You think the ocean’s telling us something?” I asked.  “Time to go,” Virginia sighed mournfully, another season passed…

As I write this, the Riis parking lot is filled with gigantic mounds of rubble with large swaths of the peninsula heavily damaged...Many residents wonder whether they will be able to rebuild...The dunes, the boardwalk, the sea wall, the stores...most are gone, swept away by Sandy. But they will be back. 

They have to come back.  Just like the Jersey Shore, just like Red Hook, just like Coney Island and the rest of our battered seashores. The sea is what makes living in these parts bearable. Or, as my son used to sing, changing the Ramones lyrics just a little bit, “It’s not hard, not far to reach, we gotta boogie down to Rockaway Beach.”

Year in Review/Odds ‘N Ends.  I’d like to take a minute here to recommend Shop Rite on McDonald as the best alternative until Fairway comes back…Go Brooklyn Nets!...Also thanks to Arthur Rhine for pointing out that in the story on Duke Snider, in which I wrote that Jackie Robinson retired rather than be traded to the Giants after the 1956 season, “Several days before the Dodger brass announced that they were trading Jackie to the Giants, he had already sold the rights to an exclusive story regarding his retirement to Look Magazine. Jackie had decided he was retiring because he felt his skills were fading and Look made him keep it secret in order to maximize sales.” So another piece of Dodger folklore bites the dust – just like the notion that Walter O’Malley schemed to move the team to Los Angeles when it now appears Robert “Let’s Take The Car” Moses was the true culprit…And finally, a shout out to all the folks who worked so hard in the days after Sandy to clear our streets of all the downed trees.  Sanitation, Parks, Fire, Police, thank you. Especially the Sanitation Department – you guys rocked! And I cannot say enough good things about the efforts of neighbors to provide help to those battered by Sandy in Red Hook and Rockaway. I am proud to be a West Midwoodite…er, I mean Argyle Heightsian. Here’s to a happy and healthy 2013 for all!

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