I have some very vivid memories of my early life both in the Catskills and at various locations in Rockaway, technically part of New York City, but abutting a beach with legitimate waves. Why do I say legitimate waves? Because the folks who went to Coney Island or Orchard Beach (in the Bronx) were basically swimming in bays without breakers. I will get back to surf later.
My first summer away from the Bronx probably took place in Liberty, New York, a town in the Catskills that was considered by the Jews from the Bronx and Brooklyn to be closer to the real mountains than nearby Monticello but limited by the fact that fancy hotels did not exist in Liberty. That summer, maybe 1948 or 1949, was most interesting for me because I learned something about my father, a man who had been orphaned as a teenager. He was from Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and then the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he made his bones as a brazen fellow. His nickname was the Ace of Spades. He could be an embarrassment to me, but he also helped me with my math homework.
My father made a trip to the mountains a unique experience. For most people without cars, at that time, going to the Catskills meant taking a “hack,” basically a livery vehicle that could accommodate multiple families on the same trip. Suitcases were tied to the roof and secured by racks that were imposing because they turned a car into a bit of a truck.
For some reason, probably because the families were charged for the number of suitcases they each had tied to the roof, my family, grandparents and some families that included my uncles, aunts and cousins from my mother’s side, believed it would be less expensive if they could pile all the things they would need that summer into a truck. My father, who loved his in-laws because they were not only warm people, but, needless to say, constituted the family that he lost at a young age. And being a well-regarded truck driver at that time of his life, he was able to convince his boss, Julius Rabinowitz, a candy and tobacco wholesaler, to let him borrow a truck for the weekend to deliver all the clothes, pots and pans, dishes, and cloth diapers, these families would need for the entire summer.
My father made all the pickups in the Bronx and delivered them to the various buildings in this summer rooming house. After dropping off a number of cartons, he thought he would save time and then stop being a beast of burden, and maybe enjoy the weekend before returning the truck. Loaded down with all these things, he tried to cut across the lawn that linked all the attached rooms and apartments. Unfortunately, he became stuck in what was a sea of muddy grass. It took him several hours of back and forth driving to free this large vehicle, and he was exhausted from doing his good deed.
That summer, he left the truck at the garage and came up by bus or hack, along with the other husband in the picture, on Friday evenings to spend the weekend with us. The trip was long and they had to turn around and leave on Sunday evenings. When their vacation week or two came around, they were with us.
Most of the time, we hung out around the small beach at the lake. One time, my father took me to a nearby string bean farm and I had my first experience as a picker. I am not sure if we paid for the right to harvest or we were there as freeloaders but the string beans were very tasty both in the field and at home when my mother cooked them. In those days, the greens were very overcooked by today’s standards. That was the first time I saw the connection between field and kitchen.
Cooking was done in a community kitchen, except for those people who could afford to have an apartment with a kitchen, known in Yiddish as a “kochalain,” or literally, cooking alone. I think my grandparents had that arrangement because my grandmother was not very good at getting along with other women in the kitchen. Much of the food that was purchased came from venders who brought their wares around by truck since few of the summer people had access to cars that could take them to stores. Besides, there were no supermarkets in that part of New York State during those years, although prosperity was on the march.
We, as children, were allowed to get treats from an ice cream truck that made the rounds of all the rooming houses and bungalow colonies in Liberty, Monticello and other towns in the Catskills, I became friendly with the driver of the truck, both because my father made friends with him and because I don’t recall having many friends my age in that location. One day, with my parents’ permission, the driver took me along as an assistant. Needless to say, I was paid off with ice cream. More importantly, I got to see all the other places where my tribe spent summers. Note that other tribes, e.g. Irish and Italians from the Bronx and Brooklyn, had their own towns and summer places to go to.
The Catskills were believed in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as earlier decades, to be mostly Jewish. That reputation was built around the remarkable hotels, such as the Nevele, Kutchers, and Grossingers, that attracted richer Jews, e.g., owners of garment manufacturing plants in Manhattan, and that had live entertainment, including comics and singers who later became starts of stage, screen and radio, as their agents would say. There have been several films made about summer life in the Catskills, including the well-known “Dirty Dancing”, “Sweet Lorraine,” the story of a rundown hotel, and the cleverly done, “A Walk on the Moon.”
The mountains were replaced by the shore when I was a pre-teen. I am not sure, as I think back, why my parents decided to summer in the Rockaways but I think it had to do with the men in my family. My father could get to the Rockaways by car from the Bronx, now that he was a salesman at Rabinowitz, in a short period of time, often in less than an hour. (The firm, housed in what was once an opulent branch of Bank of America, owned the car but the salesmen were allowed to keep it on weekends.) And much of the conversation with my uncles, who also started to summer in the Rockaways, had to do with the time it took to drive out there. The expression, “I made every light,” was probably founded in my family as they compared their travel times. This short distance and travel time meant that my father could be with us every night. While I know he was not always happy to see me, he did want to be with my mother at night. My little sister was also a favorite.
The other man who made the Rockaway the focus of the summer was my beloved grandpa, Jake. Came January, he got into a routine of wanting to start looking a potential rentals in the Rockaways. By now he was retired from being a pocketbook maker in a Manhattan factory and he looked forward to an entire summer at the beach. He loved to dive into the waves, despite wearing a two-piece bathing costume. The expression in the family was that grandpa started to smell the sea in the winter and had to be there. The Yiddish expression was “smak der yam,”
I was very close with my grandfather and my cousins knew it and acknowledged when my cousins and I were longer in the tooth that I was the favorite of Bessie and Jake. It was a nice recognition from the family and it was even nicer that grandpa Jake took me places. While my later years in Rockaway Beach were filled with friends from my softball playing, my earlier years were a mixed bag. I had a girlfriend from my Bronx neighborhood, Gloria Silver, who went with me on a date to the Penny Arcade in Playland, where I used up most of my money playing Skeeball, I didn’t have too many male friends. I did read a lot, taking books out of the New York Public Library branch which was only a few blocks from our rooming house.
Here is where some of the chronology gets confusing. One year, my father’s sister and her family joined us in the same house. I sometimes teased my cousins, Jerry and Alan, the sons of my Aunt Anna, my father’s older sister, and the wife of Morris, the cabdriver. While I was very young when this happened, perhaps seven or eight or younger, I remember, being on the inside of a rooming house on the glass enclosed porch, where I was making faces at my cousin Jerry. He took a poke at me from the outside and shattered the window. Only good luck kept either one of us from being injured. Jerry received some punishment from his parents and I think I was let off with out any.
That scary incident occurred before I became a voracious reader. Several summers later I was always seen with a book in my hand. The next fall, I was deemed nearsighted by the school nurse at Junior High School 44 and had to get glasses. (I was also turned in by a friend who told his mother and she told my mother that I was taking notes from his notebook rather than looking at the blackboard). But I digress from what was the location for many summer activities, and the source of an important memory. I read most of my books, mostly novels, that summer at the age of twelve on the large but not so well-lit porch at night, where the grownups spent their time telling each other jokes or gossiping about those who were not on the porch. Once in a while, they would attempt some live entertainment, imported from the mountains, in the form of a party, with the centerpiece being a mock wedding.
The mock wedding was a primal ritual performed only by men. One man, the bride, dressed in a woman’s costume, complete with makeup and false tits. Another man would be the groom, usually shorter than the bride, with a large salami hanging from his belt, representing a cock, of course. Finally, the couple would be married by a mock rabbi, usually depicted as a putz or a fool. I think this event was derived from the many times families spent summers together and men were able to let off some steam without doing damage to each other. I think women laughed to go along and maybe get it over with. It is a ritual that I hope died when the Jews became more affluent and had summer homes and sent their children off to camps in Maine. The mock wedding was straight from the old music halls with comics with leering expressions and dirty jokes. For children, it was venture into the sexual word of adults; and it seemed to happen only in the summer.
I note that there were some moments at the seashore when adults didn’t matter. I learned to body surf on my own in the waves, although I don’t think what I did was given a name. Sometimes my mother couldn’t get me out of the ocean and she would scream, “Your lips are blue,” a sign that I had been in too long and was freezing.
While the waves allowed us some freedom, the other end of the beach, the boardwalk, also was for kids, especially teenagers. We didn’t spend so much time walking on it as much as hanging out under it. The old rock and roll song, “Under the Boardwalk,” must have been written by someone I knew back in the 1950s. Being under the boardwalk gave teenagers privacy to smooch and a way to get out of the intense heat on the beach. It was a place to play radios without getting scolded by parents and grandparents. It was spooky and great at the same time.