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The International Writers Magazine: Rockaway Beach

Far Rockaway & The Spirit World
Dean Borok
Every summer about this time, the Fort Tilden Beach in Far Rockaway gets hit by an infestation of biting flies that incubate in the Gateway National Recreation Area, which lies directly behind it. The area is a disused army base that is now overgrown, and you forget that you are in New York City at all.


The flies are so thick and voracious that even the strongest bug spray is useless against them. They attack your body in droves, and their little stings smart like like hell. There’s no relief. Even if you jump into the ocean, the flies follow you right in the water, attacking your head and shoulders until they themselves drown.

No human can survive these flies. Some days the temperature can be really hot, and the sun shining, and Fort Tilden Beach will be totally deserted, being overrun by vicious, nasty flies.

A couple of miles down the beach, however is a lovely neighborhood called Belle Harbor, with a pristine, finely groomed beach. Belle Harbor is a closely knit neighborhood with extravagant mansions overlooking the ocean. One block in are more modest but still lovely homes that have been in the family for a century or more.

On the days when the flies have driven us out of Fort Tilden, we go to Belle Harbor and try to have a nice day at the beach, but it rarely happens because, for whatever reason, we start to argue. This has been going on for a really long time. Like, for decades. I remember back to 1998. I was damaged over the loss of my designing job, which wasn’t coming back. I was using my retirement account to finance my retraining as a paralegal, and I was finding myself in an environment of dorks and misfits, the type of people I used to laugh off as useless parasitic twits when I had a career.

So it didn’t matter what kind of beautiful day it was in Belle Harbor, with the sun shining over the pristine sea and the seagulls and cormorants diving into the water. To make matters worse, Belle Harbor is right on the flight path of the jets landing at nearby JFK International Airport. Every afternoon, we had a beautiful view of the Concorde coming in, not to mention giant airliners flying in from every other part of the world. I knew I wasn’t flying anywhere soon. No more weekends in Paris or Miami, never mind vacations in Mexico or Italy. It was problematical whether I was going to even have a roof over my head at all.

Looking back on it, a reader might surmise that I was alarmist, and I eventually was able to at least fashion a partial solution, which is more than a lot of people, but maybe I was right to be concerned because any less of an alarmist attitude might have caused me to take my situation too lightly, which could have led to disastrous results.

With regard to airliners, the big news back then was that Airbus Industries had announced plans to proceed with building the A380, the world’s biggest airliner, profiting from a study that had been commissioned and later discarded by Boeing. In my mind, this was typical of wrongheaded Americans throwing away a clear advantage, and I complained bitterly about it. I suppose that in my mind losing the A380 advantage was a reflection of the same totally vacant social malaise that was resulting in forcing me to abandon a perfectly profitable career and start over in a milieu of total idiots.

It hurt then and it still hurts today, and the incoming planes flying overhead every minute, reminding me of all the places where I wasn’t going anymore, made it worse. It wasn’t mitigated by the heavenly sunshine and the azure sea, which I wasn’t sure I would ever see again.

Rockaway Beach is one of the most beautiful oceanfront scenarios that you are likely to see. It extends 12 miles from the end of Breezy Point to the Nassau County line, and the beaches are more stunning than those of Los Angeles. Back at the turn of the 20th century, Rockaway was a luxury destination for New York’s elite society, with elegant (in the American sense) hotels and guest houses. When the automobile took over, Rockaway lost market share to destinations in Long Island, further afield. In the 20th century, Rockaway’s beachfront became the location for atrocious public housing projects and, with the shooting and the gang violence, fell into disuse and became grown over.

They had one huge housing project for poor whites and several for poor blacks. These petrified populations never went into the water, but they used to complain about the dearth of KFC fried chicken stores and multiplex cinemas, which is some people’s idea of a good time.

For years I was freakin amazed that New Yorkers could have such an atrocious psychology of letting this prime oceanfront real estate go to waste. Think about it. You don’t believe that the populations of London, Paris, Rome, Madrid etc. would kill to have a beautiful Atlantic Ocean beach that you could reach by subway? It just goes to show you the limit of stupefying idiocy that New Yorkers are prepared to accomplish. I used to rail about it bitterly. Maybe I should have taken life easier. I was obsessed with the wastage of New York’s beachfront real estate, having met Parisians and Montrealers who had never even seen the ocean, who couldn’t even imagine it. I even wrote a fiction story about a New York mayor who moves heaven and earth to accomplish what they did in Miami, turning a derelict beach into a world-class, 5-star destination.

Of course, considering the logic of the times, what did it matter? New Yorkers were accustomed to using their waterways for open-air sewers. All of the aforementioned occurred before the EPA came into existence, and the water and air were just convenient disposal methods for industrial waste. When I went to work at Harmal in 1985, one of the main targets for the vociferous bitching on the part of the bosses was the EPA, who had forced them to install filters on their exhaust fans to prevent them from expelling paint and latex cement spray into the New York City air. Shit, General Electric is on the hook for cleaning a century of toxic waste that they dumped into the Hudson River. They argue that forcing them to clean up the river will create more of a mess than it solves, from stirring up the sediment that has calcified into the riverbed. Charming, no? Forget about the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which is so stinking putrid after decades and generations of using it for a cesspool that they don’t even have a concept of where to begin cleaning up that mess. The Gowanus Canal happens to be the home of paint and flooring companies that dumped so much lethal toxins for so many years, that it is a putrid foul mess that stinks up the whole area.

A few years ago I worked on an insurance case involving a major floor covering manufacturer that had its production facilities at the Gowanus Canal. The suit was a class action whose plaintiffs were school districts and local governments that had installed linoleum flooring, and when the veneer got scuffed off it released pure asbestos into the air. In short, the linoleum they were producing was pure poison. How much of the by-product from this production process got released into the air and waterways over the course of decades and generations cannot even be estimated, but you can get a small idea of the magnitude of the filth released by these companies by taking a little ride on the G train, which passes directly underneath this mess, and stinks like the last circle of hell. How do you suppose the people feel riding that train every day? Like millionaires? Now that they are qualifying happiness as a quotient of public health, do you suppose living downwind from the Gowanus Canal is good for a person’s life expectancy?

I once wrote a piece of satirical fiction about a Texas roughneck who worked in a refinery and who derided environmentalism, declaring, “If people want clean air, let them make some money and buy a place in the country, where there’s plenty of clean air”. That was a joke, but the truth of it is rather too much for me to bear, when you consider that there are segments of the population who consider a salubrious environment to be a function of personal wealth. For years New York beaches were insalubrious places where it was not unusual for trash bags of medical wastes and AIDS-infected syringes to wash ashore. This compelled people to travel long distances to Long Island beaches for a lovely experience. As recently as ten years ago, Rockaway Beach used to receive waves of filth released by ships steaming into New York Harbor so that the shipping companies could save a few bucks on waste disposal. You would be having a nice swim in the ocean, and all of a sudden find yourself in the midst of a Sargasso Sea of disgusting ship sewage mixed with motor oil.

This is a distressing conjecture, and I don’t have all the facts, but my anecdotal experience dictates that New York’s beaches are much improved since 9/11. Now all ships are inspected before they are permitted to enter New York Harbor, and I suspect that the EPA is accompanying the national security team onto the ships, as a burecrautic afterthought, and enforcing environmental compliance. All I know is that Rockaway Beach is now as beautiful a beach as any on Long Island or anywhere else in the United States (if you remove the unsightly people).

rockaway During all these years of environmental degradation the tightly-knit population of Belle Harbor endured and persevered. It’s a beautiful beachfront haven during the summer months, with immaculate houses and lawns. As for the other 9 months, Belle Harbor reverts to a community of working - and lower middle class Irish-American strivers.

Since it is isolated on a four block-wide spit of land bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by Jamaica Bay, and practically severed from the rest of New York City by an obsolete, antiquated infrastructure, the residents are folded back on each other like an ingrown toenail. Insular would be an appropriate adjective, and suffering from a tribal cultural deprivation, like an aborigine tribe. These Irish-Americans are all wired into the city’s public service network, with jobs in the police, fire department, court system, etc. Their families are socially and professionally networked going back for generations.

I don’t find them particularly edifying to be around. My girlfriend, Magpie, likes to drag me into the neighborhood bars in Rockaway after a day at the beach, in search of local color. One place, The Wharf on 116th Street, boasts a terrace overlooking Jamaica Bay, with a stunning view of the sun setting over the Coney Island parachute jump and, far behind it, the Verrazano Bridge and the Lower Manhattan skyline. How many French impressionist painters would have cut off their ears for so much visual inspiration?

Americans have got money, and the residents of Belle Harbor are blessed with an infinite bounty of petty greed, but as far as using their wealth to enhance their cultural awareness, it isn’t happening. The Wharf stinks from the smell of burnt grease from the food they serve, and the ambient conversation is charged with references to amateur baseball leagues, children and pending divorces. Guys dressed in plaid Bermuda shorts stagger around hefting cans of Budweiser with the sound system blaring Barry Manilow singing “Copacabana”. The unbearable tackiness taking place in the midst of such a breathtaking natural setting takes your breath away. I don’t like to go there.

Whatever Magpie is seeking in terms of local color, she is deceived by her own high expectations. To be fair, Magpie grew up in Astoria, another part of Queens, and she is at least comprehensive of the white working class, the same as I might be going into a hillbilly bar in Chicago. You could argue that these stiffs are possessed of a certain indefinable charm that is indistinguishable to the uninitiated. Seen through that prism, you could grant low-class white New Yorkers a certain modicum of indulgence, like the colorful working classes depicted in old black-and-white movies.

But I, for one, am inured to their dubious charms. Go into any saloon in Manhattan and out of 10 persons you talk to, you are bound to find at least one who has something interesting or amusing to say. In Far Rockaway the figure is zero, a sucker bet. The residents of Belle Harbor might be sitting on a desirable piece of real estate but the impoverishment of their spirits will never permit them to appreciate how blessed they are.

One day, Magpie and I decided to walk to 116th Street instead of taking the bus. Once you go in a block from the beach the houses are decidedly more modest, but still immaculately groomed and attractive to see. As we walked, we ran into a grizzled old guy on the sidewalk. “Are you from around here?” he challenged us. “No, we’re just taking a walk”, I replied breezily.
“Well, keep walking” he growled. Charming.

What do you say in defense of a place whose most notable product is Bernard Madoff?

Not that I mean to impugn the Irish especially. Rockaway is entirely populated by mindless twits of whatever ethnic background. A couple down the beach is located a huge Mitchell-Lama (subsidized housing) complex built especially for white people. The place is overwhelmingly white, the original families having bequeathed their apartments to their idiot progeny. What know about the place is from Stanley Cohen, a tall, elderly guy who worked as the purchasing manager for Harmal Industries when I was the designer there. Stanley was a working-class Jew with cheap Sears Roebuck dungarees. We got along OK, but since we had to work closely together, some minor conflicts did arise. Low-end people from Queens can’t restrain themselves from letting you know what they think of you, and since negative reinforcement is always the order of the day, it’s rarely helpful. Somebody from Queens, it’s only a matter of time before they tell you, “Do you know what your problem is?” or “You don’t know what you’re talking about”. Educated people might fondly attribute this to the borough’s egalitarian culture, but to me they are just a group of useless pricks. Mutherfuckers could be talking to Einstein and they would eventually tell him, “You don’t know what you’re talking about”. Stanley held it in for as long as he could, in the interest of professional collegiality, but he finally broke down in a dispute over an order and blasted me, “You’re nothing but a fucking grease ball!”

(I admit, I wasn’t anybody’s idea of a respectable professional person, with gold chains, my hair slicked back with pomade and greasy skin conditioner on my face. All I lacked was a freakin hairnet and a wifebeater undershirt, and I would have been indistinguishable from a Bay Ridge baseball bat thug. But that’s my business. After all, we weren’t working in banking, but in a huge, noisy handbag factory in Long Island City.)

But Stanley was smart. One time I became enraged at this broken-down broad whom the boss used to keep around for charm, a knuckleheaded bleached-blonde name Lorraine who marketed a line of atrocious hair accessories out of the Harmal showroom, and who decided to get my goat one day, just out of a spirit of pure malevolence. I gave her the Italian bent-arm salute (very professional!) and she immediately called the boss in the showroom to try (unsuccessfully) to get me fired. Stanley, who happened to be in the room, told me, “You get mad at the wrong things.”

Anyway, Stanley had two passions: handicapping the horses at Belmont Park and inspecting the female flesh on Rockaway Beach with binoculars from the terrace of his Mitchell-Lama apartment.

Now that the water is cleaned up, interest is growing for gentrification. Naturally the Russians are taking an interest in all this beachfront property to be had for a song, so I expect that in ten years’ time, this stretch of beach will be unrecognizable. It’s already started. Manhattan-style bars and Mexican restaurants have sprung up on 95th Street to accommodate the surfing enthusiasts and tattooed hipsters that are populating that beach as recently as this summer.

Nevertheless, my focus is still on Belle Harbor, which is clean, orderly and tranquil, being separated by a chain-link fence from the animal activity taking place in adjacent Riis Park, which is mobbed by Hispanics throwing chicken bones in the sand and gay guys in tiny bikinis blatantly cruising each other. Geez, no wonder the Irish are so protective of their turf, if you think about it. They’ve been keeping their neighborhood immaculate for generations. The last thing they need is a tsunami of savages and degenerate freaks making the place too scary for their kids.

Unfortunately, their phobia extends to me as a Jew as well. I have a very tiny Jewish star, about the size of a U.S. five-cent piece, that I wear on a tiny gold chain. I like it, OK? Unfortunately, the anti-Semitic Irish-American pricks, who got their start in this country by burning down Manhattan during the Draft Riots of 1862 (which disaster dwarfs the World Trade Center by comparison), are dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites since time immemorial. If you don’t believe me, you can read “Ulysses” by James Joyce, who took his leave from the Emerald Isle and never returned, preferring to die in exile. So I am not making this stuff up.

As with all anti-Semitic bastards, the Irish of Belle Harbor can detect a Jew at 500 meters. Even if I wasn’t wearing the chain, they would still sniff me out, you better believe it! Anyway, when I am on that beach I get a lot of sideways looks from the neighborhood inhabitants. That doesn’t bother me so much as the bad feng shui that is in the air from the spirits of dead Irish that continue to inhabit the place.

Don’t tell me that they are not around! I believe in the spirit world, and how, particularly when you are referring to the water, which is why sailors are so superstitious. Remember, in The Odyssey, how Ulysses was swept around the seas for twenty years at the whim of the gods. Where the hell else are the spirits of the dead Irish of Belle Harbor going to go? A million light years into the universe, where there is only dead rock and planetoids, and not a glass of beer or an Irish band to be found?

No way! The spirits of the Rockaway Irish are still there where they died. They’re swirling around like schools of fish, and they are not enchanted to see a radical Jew like me desecrating their hallowed gentile beach. That is why I always have a lousy time in Belle Harbor, because of the spirits messing around with my metaphysical equilibrium. New Yorkers are eminently practical people, and they do not accord recognition to the effect that the spirit world exerts on their lives, even though it’s totally obvious.

Even though I am a minority of one person against a whole city of rationalists, I am going to continue to adhere to my particular belief in spiritualism. Look at what happened last week with the rape case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the facts of which took place in the spiritually charged locale of Times Square, which has been the object if immemorial folklore emanating from the pens of such writers as O’Henry, Damon Runyon and Jimmy Breslin. This rape case was not built on logic, but on feelings. Even females who recognized its absurd fallacies were not insensible to the emotional gravity of its transcendent meanings.

Just as New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. was about to commence a press conference to announce the abandonment of the prosecution against Strauss-Kahn, the whole east coast of the United States was hit by an earthquake. Live cameras reported journalists running out of the building, like a movie. Immediately after, a monster hurricane smashed the whole eastern seaboard. Was this a measure of the displeasure of the African spirits? If so, this hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo packs quite a metaphysical wallop.

Is it possible that the world can survive based on fear of retribution from ancient spirits? Ask the profoundly superstitious Chinese or the Brazilians, who are almost paralyzed with superstition. I have read some wild stories of Brazilians who will go to the most absurd lengths to avoid catching bad luck. Maybe Europeans are a little smarter in the near term by ignoring supernatural instincts and barreling full steam ahead, but maybe that’s an illusion too.
© Dean Borok September 2nd 2011
1912 Rockaway 1912

Read "Ghostal Regions, A Symphony of Fear" by Dean Borok

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