In the cold steel evening of early winter I could see down at the end of the block a kid lying in the gutter while another kid kicked him in the gut. The attacker’s body pumped up and down as his leg swung the heavy engineer boot again and again.
On our street there were only catholics and jews and I thought for a minute that one of the jewish kids was taking the beating. But it would be rare that the underlying tension would take such a visible and identifiable persona.
I mean the underlying tension between the jews and catholics wasn’t anything special. There were ONLY catholics and jews in these towns. There was ALWAYS a violent aura in the neighborhood. And it was directed against whatever convenient target happened to appear in the material or imaginary world. Sometimes it was the jewish kids but it was also kids from other schools, kids from other neighborhoods, kids from our own catholic school who happened to piss someone off. I once got chased down the block by a mother swinging a garrison belt at me because she thought I pushed her kid (which I didn’t). I was 9 and she was a big, ugly adult – didn’t stop the belt from flying. But it would be rare that there’d actually be a fist fight between a catholic kid and a jew, let alone that it would degrade into the beating that kid was getting – for some reason I think that level of a beating would be overstepping the line. I don’t know why I feel that; I may be wrong.
“Rockaway is a glorious peninsula of wide white beaches and an Atlantic Ocean that sometimes comes thumping in with enough waves to make it a favorite surfing place.
At one end, in the 140’s, wealthy people live on the oceanfront and the blocks running up to it. At 126th Street a boardwalk begins that is crowded and popular. But Rockaway goes until Beach 1st Street. It starts running down in the 90s where the streets turn into junkyards and the houses are three story summer homes now turned into packed rooming houses. In the middle of this desolation is Beach 84th Street with enough parking for a convention. They drive from all over to get here for the beach is splendid”. this is Jimmy Breslin writing in his entertaining crime novel “I Don’t Want To Go To Jail”.
In January 1952 we moved from Nolan Street in Falls Church Virginia, where Dad worked at the Pentagon, to Zuckerman’s apartment building next to Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. Then in 1956 Dad got stationed in Thule, Greenland for a one year assignment. He put Mom, Kay, Meg, and me out in a 2 bedroom walkup at Beach 132nd Street in the Belle Harbor section of The Rockaways. The houses on the street were wood and shingle comfortable homes – some enormous in size – some just tiny. We were a block from this beach which was indeed splendid.
We were in the ocean every day from mid-May until school started after Labor Day. When my father came home to visit he’d ask us to
swim out 50 yards to the sand bar and dig up fresh clams which he’d pry open and eat on the beach blanket.
Life was idyllic in mid-50’s Norman Rockwell style. The Dodgers had just won the series and the subways were safe for 6th graders to ride alone. We’d go in the usual gang down the Flatbush subway line into Brooklyn Heights to swim in the great saltwater pool at the famous Hotel St George. All evening in the fine weather we’d play stick ball in the streets, or stoop ball, or box ball, or other games using the pink rubber “spaldeen” ball. There were versions of kick the can or ringolevio which enlisted the whole crew. When the deep snow fell to 6 to 20 inches, as it did about 3 time each winter, we had an ingenious way to compensate for the lack of sledding hills. First you’d get some of the parents to drive their car up and down the street several times to pack the snow down. Then all the kids would wave for cars to turn onto 132nd off the boulevard. One of the kids would stop the car and ask the time, meanwhile the others would get on their knees holding onto the rear bumper and as the car took of you’d slide down the whole block.
But within the neighborhood the kids were tough on each other. Not a week went by that someone wasn’t fighting someone in a front yard on the grass, fists flying in wild roundhouse swings, but there was little damage done. I was targeted for a period of a couple of weeks. Each day of the guys would try to pick a fight with light but annoying punches and shoves to the arms and chest. The others would gather round with taunts and jeers – I didn’t want any of it. I wasn’t afraid but I didn’t understand this different code where everyone had to be fighting someone – these were my friends. One lunch time, as I knew the guys would be waiting for me on the street, I decided to cut through the back yards and driveways. As I came out from a side alley across Beach 132nd from the house 3 or 4 of the guys jumped me out of the bushes. The old guy who lived downstairs in our house jumped off the porch yelling “get outta here you little snots” and the guys took off. I knew that there be no respite until I faced them. Shortly thereafter as we played a pickup football game up in Neponsit the fight started. I put the antagonist in a kind of reverse full nelson and held him yelling “I’m gonna killya, I’m gona killya” that was about the only way I could get my heat up. Of course the pack thought this was crazy and were rolling on the ground in hysterics.
But it was almost always fights within our group. Some one was always irritating somone else and the guys loved to mix it up.
In our world there were all the usual derogatory terms and they were always used freely – wop, kike, mick, spic covered the 4 types of people that we knew of. “Spic’s” were the Puerto Rican’s but they didn’t live in our part of The Rockaways but there were lots of urban lore about them and they were the
legendary source of our 2 most desired weapons: switch blades and Zipguns. Of course the word nigger or coon was pretty much unheard of; there were no black people living in these neighborhoods or anywhere close. I cannot recall every seeing one in the year I lived in Belle Harbor except for the guy that drove the express truck up and down the boulevard. But every other type of slur from scum bag to little snot to queer was in the air – and we were only 11 years old. It was Brooklyn and it was Queens and that’s how everyone acted. Everyone was looking for an target and thinking about starting something just for the fun of it.
I don’t think there was anti-semitism in our group, We kids, at age 11, 12, or 13 didn’t really know what was different about a Jew or a Catholic. We just knew that there were some classifications. I remember meeting my first “protestant”. She was a cute 12 year old girl standing on the corner of Beach 132nd and Rockaway Beach Blvd. I curiously asked her the first question one always asked a new kid: “Are you Catholic or Jewish”? She replied “Neither, I’m Episcopalian”. I went home and promptly asked my mother “ What’s an Episcopalian” – she said “That’s a protestant”. OK, I’d finally met one..she was cute!
Sure the nuns had told us more than once that “The Jews killed Jesus” but we also knew “Jesus was a Jew” – I don’t think we really cared. We had to memorize the catechism, serve mass, learn the latin, wear the cassock and surplus. But I wouldn’t say we were religious at all.
It wasn’t that much longer until we realized that, according to the nuns, french kissing would damn us to perdition, ie: eternal hell fire. No one believed that. I think that what was going on was that every body was always looking for some trouble to get into and it didn’t really matter what group you were part of, the trouble would be directed to the other clique.
You hung with the guys you went to school with and we went to Saint Francis de Sales, a catholic nun place.
The nuns were vicious in a way that would land them in jail today.
One afternoon we made so much noise running up the metal school stairs after recess that 2 nuns lined up forty 7th graders up against the wall. One nun started on each end and slapped the boy twice hard in the face: left slap then right slap; bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam… they crossed in the middle so each kid got 4 good ones. The poor punk in the middle got four in a row. Believe me they could punch!
As a good friend, Kathleen Rottiers, said last night at dinner “The kids ran the neighborhoods” – that was sure true in Queens and Brooklyn as it was in Palo Alto.
In the early fall of 1956, when I was 11 in 6th grade, P&G introduced Comet Cleanser. They had a brilliant idea and on a Tuesday, hired a battalion of people to walk the streets and put a small canister in a red net bag on each and every doorknob in New York City. Our guys, led by the 7th and 8th graders promptly came behind and stole those red net bags and cleanser canisters.
Friday evening, after the Boy Scout Troop meeting let out at 8pm was the time for roaming the streets. In the Eisenhower 50’s New York was very safe and 6th graders didn’t have to come in until 10 or later. So about 20 or 25 of us catholic kids began to move through the streets, peeling off the stickers from the Comet can tops and throwing the cans at passing cars. At one point a city bus came by and it was pelted with 20 or 30 cans. As the cans spun in flight and bounced off the targets the light green cleanser powder shot out in massive clouds – all over the windshield, side windows, and top. Bizarre sight!
Then one of the guys said, “Let’s go get Joanne’s’s father”. Now “Joanne” (name not remembered) was a nice 8th grade girl at our school. Of course she was catholic; she was also terrifically pretty and tall. All the guys were infatuated with her but she was shy and that hit us a “stuckup” ( a common misinterpretation that has led to more hurt feelings that most anything I know of). Joanne’s father was a cop – and from his formidable size was obvious the source of Joanne’s tall & shapely figure. He had roughed up some of the boys – not bad but just to let them know to watch how we treated his girl.
They lived right on the magnificent flat and sandy beach. There was a small 3 foot concrete wall blocking the sand from pushing up their sidewalk. We all squatted down behind the wall and opened a couple of canisters each. One of us snuck up to the doorbell, rang it, then scooted back over the wall. The cop came out the door onto the stoop and looked to the left and right. At that moment 20 or more snot nosed punks let lose with a barrage of tiny Comet cleanser cans. The hit him on the head and chest, the slammed into the door and walls behind him, and most beautiful of all, they landed on the small slanted roof over his head and rolled down powdering his head and shoulders like a Restoration Duke’s wig.
After the pelting stopped and as he waved his arms trying to clear his sightline and get the dust out of his nose and mouth we all burst into cheers and raucous whinnys. Well it took him no more than 3 seconds to collect himself and then, with a bellow that could be heard across the Atlantic, the race was on. We boys took off running for dear life up the beach. We ran and ran but he kept coming. Normally we kids had little know alleys and gates to cut through when we needed to make a get away – but we weren’t in the blocks – we were on the miles long clear beach. The cop kept coming. I was next to a buddy named Peter Larkin. Peter was a bit overweight and wasn’t the most athletic..he kept saying “ I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it, I can’t keep it up”. I said “Come on Pete you gotta make it, he’ll beat the hell outta you”. Well as we went up the beach we faded into the beach front streets and yards and before long were out of danger.
About 3 weeks later word spread that the police were looking for some kids who had climbed the wall into the grounds of Temple Beth-El, a conservative synagogue down near 121st St and damaged the grounds, throwing rocks and breaking some of the windows. We knew it was some of the 7th or 8th graders from St Francis De Sales who had done the damage the night of the Comet cleanser.
In the last years several tragedies have hit that community. Last summer Hurricane Sandy decimated many of the homes. At Breezy Point, part of the peninsula maybe 3 miles further out towards the west tip of the peninsula, at least 80 houses burned to the ground.
Scores of houses in Belle Harbor were damaged or destroyed. This community suffered one of the nations most concentrated losses in the 9/11 attacks. 59 people from The Rockaways died, 70 counting summer and former residents – mainly Irish Catholic firefighters and Jewish and Catholic Wall Street traders. Then On November 12 – 2 months after the World Trade Center collapse, an American Airlines Airbus A300
crashed on take off from Kennedy into Beach 130th Street – its ruined nose pointing directly towards our homes – coming to firey rest barely a block away. 5 of of the neighborhood were killed along with 260 people on board.
It’s been 57 years since I’ve met or talked to any of my close friends from there. About 6 houses up from our duplex was the McManus family. That is their house in the bottom center of the plane crash picture – 5 from the corner. This was a classic Irish family with at least 4 boys all running upstairs and downstairs in the large 3 story home. Peter was the oldest and toughest kid in the area. He was my sister Kay’s age and they were friends – I heard he’d become a detective. Brian was one of the younger ones – he was a close pal of my little sister Meg – they were in 3rd grade and we have a good picture of him holding a cross bigger than he in an Easter procession. I ran into him fortuitously when I went out, during a New York business trip in 2001, to see the AA crash. Marty was in my class and he was, without a doubt, the leader of our pack. He was fearless, energetic, and full of charisma. The only competition for him as the hefe was Joey Gardner who lived up in Neponsit. We’d all hang out in the warm glow of the McManus house after shooting hoops in the cold winter evenings in their driveway. There would be a veritable passel of guys from 8 to 15 hanging out in the many rooms. Thoughts of Louisa May Alcott come to mind. Mischief and adventure would be in the air until dinner bells were rung and we had to scoot. When I went there in ’01 I talked to Mrs McManus – she remembered my little sister – she must have been quite a woman raising all those guys. Marty works for the Bishop of Brooklyn as the Comptroller of the Diocese. I am pretty sure it was him in the engineer boots in that cold winter evening, but maybe not. We’re having lunch in January and I’ll ask him.
UPDATE TO FAR ROCK..6 MONTHS LATER: Margo and I had lunch with Marty McManus in January..it was long and lazy italian near the dioceses headquarters. It was wonderful to reminisce about old friends. Marty still lives on the same Beach 132nd street and one of his sons lives in their old house. He is an articulate, gentle, hard working father of 4 (I believe). His older brother Peter has died. As have his parents. But he is surrounded with family and friends from the old days. He told me who the protestant gal was and on summer days on the beach sees her and Suzanne DiBogio ( I think I have the name right) on whom I had my first crush in 1956. His younger brother Brian, whom I met up with again after the AA crash just missed their house had recently written some thoughts as well that parallel my bemusement with the Jewish Catholic relationship in NY City ’50’s, the pondering of which first started me to write this. Here is what Brian has written about those times in Belle Harbor:
It’s My Turn
Where’s the story?
By Brian J. McManus
Denis Hamill’s story about playing stickball with the kids he grew up with on 11 Street inBrooklyn reminded me of when my family used to spend the summer months at one of our boarding houses on Beach 114 Street in Rockaway Park in the 1950s.
Our family owned two boarding houses, each with fifteen single rooms about 30′ x 25′ in size, with a small fridge, stove and usually three kids and two parents per “flat.” No one locked the doors and never once in the 65-plus years did we have a theft or break in.
There were only two other “exclusive” beach blocks in all of the Rockaways similar to Beach 114 during that time, and those were Beach 113 and Beach 115 Streets.
Each of those blocks had about 22 of these summer boarding houses. There must have been more than 100 kids who came from the Bronx, Inwood, Brooklyn and Queens who came to these three blocks for the summer.
At age six, you could leave the house by yourself and walk two minutes and be in the ocean (neighbors kept an eye out for each others’ children).
Within a few feet of our backyard on the 113 Street beach block, Esther lived with her husband Harry and their two boys, Bernie and Seymour. My parents referred this hard-working Jewish family of European decent as a “devoted” family. My parents were Irish Catholic. They referred to families of “our own kind” as ‘good families.’ “Devoted” was much more special than “good.” It is as close as you can get to “saintly” without being canonized. Over the years, I noticed that my parents had given the “devoted” name to only a very few select families—and they all happened to be Jewish.
Harry and Esther’s family was in the “devoted” category and we all knew why. Their two boys, Bernie and Seymour, were always helping their mom and dad with the 13-room boarding house they owned by cleaning the rooms and bringing the laundry down for washing every day. We never, ever saw them lounging on the beach. They worked all day long.
In our house, a family of six boys, there was no such thing as an “allowance.” Period!!! If one of my five brothers or I needed a baseball glove or comic book, we earned the money! Rockaway was the perfect spot for enterprising kids to do just that. The 300,000-plus people that took the trains and buses to the beach daily left thousands of bottles for kids to pick up, wash, and bring to the A&P for the deposit. The deposit money supplied me with everything I needed every day, plus a dime for my saving account. I bought Spalding balls, an occasional hot dog, bait for fishing, ice cream, movie tickets, you name it.
Gathering soda and beer bottles from garbage cans along the beach was easy enough for a six year old to do. There was only one catch: We had to get all the bottles we wanted off the beach before the NYC Parks Department garbage trucks passed, emptying every garbage can in sight by 9:00 p.m. That meant that we, kids, had to leave the house right after dinner to go rummage through the trash for bottles. There were no recycling bins, so you had to go through all kinds of garbage to get to the bottles.
After a night of digging through trash cans at age 6 or 7, we had to wash the bottles the next morning and take ’em to the A&P to collect the deposit. The 8-ounce bottles had a onecent deposit, 12-ounce bottles for 2 cents, while beer bottles—the Ballantine, Rheingold and Schaeffer quarts —raked in a nickel per bottle. In hindsight, it was an exciting and incredible experience, with the smell of the ocean, the sound of waves crashing, the stink of the garbage with seagulls screaming overhead, and the occasional breathtaking sunset.
Bernie and Seymour collected bottles for deposit money along with us but their aspirations were super high! While my daily goal was about 25 bottles— with my record of up to 100 bottles— Bernie and Seymour consistently collected ten times that many—i.e. 500 to 1,000 bottles per day.
Bernie and Seymour would head for the beach just when everyone would head back to the city and spend about three hours hauling huge quantities of bottles back home, only to head back for more. In the morning, they would wash out each bottle and pack them in boxes. You had to wash the sand out of the bottles or the supermarket wouldn’t accept them.
Bernie and Seymour would run a production line, washing hundreds of bottles out in the morning. By the time I had my 25 bottles, or so, in a wheel cart ready to go for my deposit money, Bernie and Seymour would have cases and cases of bottles cleaned and ready to go. They would have already made several trips on foot to the supermarket to cash in all they collected, and had several more to go.
I used to watch in awe. We would try to guess what they were going to use all the money for. We all figured they’d buy a Schwinn Black Phantom bike, a “high-end” record player or perhaps they were saving for their college education. This went on for days and weeks until Labor Day arrived. We prepared to move back to our winter homes. Just as we were checking to make sure that everything was securely shut, we heard the loudest scream ever. It was Esther crying and howling and we all thought Bernie or Seymour fell off the roof.
My mom, dad, brothers and all the neighbors went running to our backyard to the top of the six-foot wooden fence to see what had happened. To our surprise, there was a huge yellow ribbon wrapped around a brand new washing machine AND dryer with a “To Mom, love Bernie and Seymour” card. My mom had a slight tear in her eye, knowing how hard these kids worked and the meaning of it all. I was amazed beyond words. I will never forget that day. For years later, we would always give Bernie, Seymour and their mom a most “devoted” hello. Yes, mom and dad (now in heaven), that was the day that I finally learned what “devoted” really meant.