The way we were …
This is my second favorite time of year to wax nostalgic over my childhood. One, of course, is Christmas, and the other is summertime and my crazy life as a street-kid.
My country cousins played in mountain streams, some of my adult friends grew up near lakes, one dove into the icy waters at a stone quarry. I’ve visited or played in all but a quarry. The cold waters of the mountains was a shock, sliding along river rocks, a precarious adventure. The murky waters and mud bottoms of lakes hearkened images of creatures rising from the deep.
Someone posted a picture of a plastic contraption that is attached to a hose … a fun game for children to slide along wet plastic or grass nearby. I believe I left a comment to the effect that I had never had this experience. But I’ve run through the rushing waters of a fire hydrant with dozens of other urchins.
And prejudice to the last, nothing in my memory was quite as wonderful as the beach. I’ve always felt sad for land-locked souls, and wondered how other children survived growing up without the expanse of an ocean. My dad called me a water baby, said I was born with salt water in my veins and swore in two languages that I should have been a boy so I could join the Navy.
I enjoy using my alter-ego, Antoinette, to express the fun we had each year, but in truth, fiction can never compare to the reality of growing up Brooklyn-street-wise, and full of mischief and vinegar.
Wiry, wise-cracking, and rebellious to the last, even in dresses I was hardly a little “lady.”
We played on the streets from dawn to dusk. No one cared or bothered where we were, we never wore helmets or knee protectors … you fell and scraped your knees, rubbed it with your filthy hands, and kept moving. We moved on foot, on one bike seven kids “took turns” riding, and naturally on street skates. Solid steel on concrete and asphalt … total insanity racing down hills and into traffic.
Rag-tag street urchins, we climbed the hills and for a mere dime, spent a day in the pools of Sunset Park.
There was a once a year trip to our Poughkeepsie family, rides on the Hudson River Day Line, walks along the bay at Shore Parkway … and naturally … Coney Island.
From the book-Sunset Park …
That evening for supper, Carmela treated her family to strawberry shortcake with whipped cream, Antoinette’s favorite. “Once Victoria finishes training, I’ll be able to spend an entire month home.” For the first time since Antoinette was born, Big Frank hired someone to work the kitchen and give his wife a month with their daughter.
Antoinette bounced in her seat. “Can we go on a boat ride up the Hudson?”
“Yes, that’s one of the day trips we have planned.”
“And what about Rockaway Park?”
For the first two weeks, Carmela organized groups for the Hudson River Day Line, the Statue of Liberty, and a ferry ride to Staten Island to visit Michael’s aunt and uncle. The rest of the time they did what they did every summer since she was born, took the subway to Coney Island.
You can swim to the second barrel …
Carmela and her friends did not believe that a day at the beach was any excuse to fall down on their duty to provide their children with three square meals of good, hearty, homemade food.
They thought nothing of dragging eight or ten screaming kids from babies to teens from the streets to the subways and back. Off they’d go with baby carriages, a wooden wagon, beach chairs, blankets, towels, wet soapy wash clothes wrapped in wax paper, metal drinking cups, a change of clothes and diapers. They prepared hot and cold food, fruit, drinks, hot thermoses of coffee, and a pecan coffee ring for the ladies.
Coney Island in the 1950’s was the summer playground of thousands of adults and children. Its long wide beaches stretched out for miles, separated by what was called a “Bay.”
They began their journey meeting on the corner, three or four women with upwards to ten or more children. If one of the mothers worked, the other women brought their children along. Matilda was in the front as point guide, their sidekick, Angelina guarded the middle,and Carmela, the organizer, pulled up the rear. On this day, Angelina’s cousin, Trudy, joined them.
Everyone looked to Carmela for guidance and instructions … and no one in her charge moved unless she said move. They were met on the train by a fourth woman, and the children’s least favorite gossip, Millie Abruzzi and her only child, Connie.
The women huddled under the umbrella, creating a circle, while their housedresses blew up in the wind. Their sun worn faces strained watching the endless waves and endless heads bobbing in and out of the surf.
They thought of Trudy Malingone as the “baby” of the bunch. Barely twenty-five, she was long and thin, and the only woman sporting a two-piece bathing suit, her curly auburn hair piled high on her head. She had the blush of youth and no sign of giving birth to three children in four years. She was content with her three-year-old under the watchful eyes of Antoinette and her twin girls snuggled safely under an umbrella.
Trudy poked Carmela, pointing to their kids. “It’s like watching a band of marauders swimming to shore to rant and pillage.”
Carmela corrected. “No Trudy, it’s ‘rape’ and pillage.’”
Millie sucked in air like a giant blow fish, “Carmela Louisa, you should wash your mouth.”
Millie was a bleached-blonde with dark brown eyes and bright red lipstick and polish on her fingers and toes. She was fond of heavy black mascara and powder blue eye shadow. Millie was what the women called a “prima-donna.” She was a silly woman. Silly and slow, her favorite group activity was gossip.
She suddenly looked worried. “What is it, Carmela? What did you see anyway? Who are these marauder bands … those Spanish from below Third Avenue who always take over Bay 15?”
“You’re both wrong,” With an involuntary chortle, Matty told Carmela. “It’s ‘rob and pillage.’”
Carmela pulled her long dark braid towards the front of her chest to adjust the ends that had come loose “Yeah, Millie the Spanish are coming.”
They all laughed, watching as the kids began running towards the blankets and another food break. Matty turned around with a smirk and the wink of an eye to Carmela. She picked up the empty pitcher behind her, handing it to Millie. “And you take them to the water-fountain this time Millie. It’s been your turn since last Tuesday.”
And true to their fashion, the band of marauders encircled their prey kicking up sand and splashing water, grabbing for food and towels and making a spectacle of themselves.
All day Antoinette and Michael raced from the blanket and food, to the water fountain and into the ocean. They were both like little brown berries, their skin silky soft. When it was getting near the time to go, Carmela took out a red scarf and tied it to the top of their umbrella. No messing with Carmela. The first kid to spot the red scarf waving in the summer breeze passed the word along.
“We have to get back. The General put up the red scarf.”
If the organizing and packing was a marvel at the beginning of the day, the packing and washing was even more so at the end of the day.
Each child was encircled in turn in a large blanket held by two women. They changed out of their wet suits, washed and dressed in clean dry clothes, bathing suits wrapped in wax paper in one bag, and towels and blankets shaken to removed sand, in a second bag. One person rinsed out containers, glasses, bottles and spoons in the water fountain, while another returned the rental umbrellas.
Once feet were dry and sandals or sneakers put back on, the women marched their procession off the boardwalk and to Surf Avenue. Each of the children was allowed two treats … one ride and one soft ice-cream cone … period.
No kid ever whined or complained. If they did they would get neither a ride nor an ice-cream, only a good smack on their bottoms. It made sense and kept down the noise levels.
At home, Carmela barked, “Don’t waltz around, Antoinette, you’ll track sand all over the house.”
Antoinette stopped in her tracks, awaiting further instructions from her mother.
“Well don’t just stand there. Get in the tub and shake the sand off your clothes so I can wash it down the drain.”
After the blankets were put on the line and the wet clothes shook and hung with them, Carmela turned her attention to supper.
“Don’t be all day in there. Put your clothes back on and get the bread for supper.”
What about you reader?
What body of water cooled you during the hot months of summer?