Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #6: Everybody’s Got a $3 Million Lifeguard Shack (or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Procrastination).

Today is a good day. It is the last day of the lease on our hurricane car.

For three years, this car has mocked me. It is the first new car I’ve ever “owned.” I signed on the dotted line without ever test driving it. It was the product of poor decision making brought on by stress, geographic dislocation, and exhaustion.

We lost three cars during Sandy. It is one of those super boring TL;DR stories but the gist of it is that on the morning of October 29, 2012 we had three perfectly good cars of varying vintage, and inadequate insurance. And when we woke up on the morning of October 30, we had zero cars. Well, we had three dead cars, and no hope of any kind of insurance check. So, you know, roughly $17,000, gone in a couple of hours.

Anyway, we didn’t have a car, nobody we knew had a car, and we had a shit ton of work to do and no way to get anywhere. Having depleted our savings to buy the “new”-est of the cars a few weeks before the hurricane (but having neglected to upgrade the liability-only insurance policy), we had very little cash. We needed to figure out how to get a car, where to get a car, how to get to where to get a car, and how to pay for said car. Do you know how hard that is without the Internet? Without even a newspaper? And without a car?

We were desperate, we were exhausted, and we were not thinking straight (oh, and we were also pretty filthy) when we headed out in search of a car a week or so after the storm. We had great credit but not a lot for the down payment. We had no idea what car to get. We didn’t even know what kind of car we wanted. We were afraid to buy a used car in a place that had so recently flooded. We had no idea what a good price was. And there we were, heading into northern Queens in my sister’s car, with nothing more than an iPhone that only got service once we got a few miles from home. We wandered about from one dealership to the next, and unable to make a decision.

We are not the sort of people to lease a car. I have always bought used cars, and driven them until they die. I just don’t CARE enough about having “a  nice car” to spend a lot of money on “a nice car.” But you know, we need a car.  I was so worried about spending what cash we had that all I could think of was NOT putting money down. And how many other bills were mounting as we dealt with the heat and the basement and the electric and all the tools that needed to be replaced and…. please just give me a car so I can go home and sleep in my cold filthy house? We wound up signing a lease on a Honda Civic just so we could go home and get some sleep. We figured it was less of a commitment.

Today–three years and thirty-six monthly payments later—I turned in that car.  I could have bought a good used car for way less than what we spent, and yeah, I’d have done some repairs, but I would have a car now with no payments. What was I thinking?

Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking. None of us were.

I have been beating myself up over this almost since the first day, but I’m trying to let it go. There were a lot of decisions to be made and none of us had the time, energy, mental stamina, or research capabilities to make well informed and well thought out choices in those weeks and months after Sandy. We were not ourselves, and these worn out people, fearful people that we’d become behaved much less rationally than we would have under different circumstances. So, now we were stuck with what I like to call my own personal $3 million lifeguard shack. Everyone has one.

Indulge me in this metaphor.

Here in Rockaway, there’s a running conversation/argument/complaint about the city’s, well let’s just say ‘hasty’ decision to impulse buy thirty-five prefab trailers, to serve as public restrooms and lifeguard shacks, at a price of about $3 million a pop. They are, some argue, ugly. They are definitely over priced. And they are not holding up to the elements. They were the result of a rushed and rash decision on the part of City Parks, in order to get something, anything, in place before the summer beach season began. There was, undoubtedly, some palm greasing and price gouging involved.

I think that most would agree that, whether you like them or not, the purchase of these trailers was a hasty decision. We’d all have been better off if we had kicked the can down the road a bit, put in some temporary trailers, and weighed out all the options before we committed to these oddly post-modern but clearly poorly constructed (with leaks and rust the first  year) AT-ATs. And now we are stuck with them.

Meh.

They’re like trailers, except PERMANENT!

On the other hand, there’s another running conversation/argument/complaint about how long it is taking to replace our boardwalk, when other towns on Long Island and along the Jersey shore quickly replaced their damaged promenades. It took almost three years (and will have taken almost four when it’s done, if not longer), but our inaugural, mile-long snippet of new boardwalk is beautiful, functional, and already much beloved by most people I know.  It is the product of what seemed like endless community meetings and surveys. The locals chimed in, the Army Corp of Engineers did its thing, and NYC Parks listened as ideas were floated and shot down. The plan was adjusted along the way (and yes, delayed), but everyone had an opportunity to be heard.

Yes, we could have had the same traditional board back in place quickly, and then prayed that another superstorm (or a fire) would not come along to destroy it.  What we wound up with is not the same as what we had, but it lovely, it is resilient, and it is ours.

The boardless-walk. I had

The boardless-walk: Long wait. Lovely results.

My point, I guess, is just that rash decisions are rarely good decisions. When making decisions—from purchasing a car to building a boardwalk—taking the time to do your research, weigh your options, identify potential problems, and adjust the plan accordingly should always be part of the process. My big lesson from Sandy is that if you can kick a decision down the road a bit, then you probably should. Procrastination has perks:  it’s never a waste of time to mull things over. Ultimately, you may decide NOT to do something, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done nothing. I wish the city had procrastinated on those stupid trailers–because what they built when given more time (and scrutiny from the community) was much better. And I wish I’d procrastinated on that car purchase, because I know that for my purposes, a used car would have been a better deal.

Now when I feel pressured to make a decision and it’s keeping me awake or making my stomach churn, my first line of defense is to just not decide yet. I’ve accepted that I have limited decision making skills, and when they are overtaxed, I don’t perform well. So I prioritize my decision-making facilities, focusing my energy on things that must be dealt with and procrastinating on anything that can wait, even if it means living with some inconveniences or uncertainty or complaints from the masses in the meantime. I don’t ever want to have the equivalent of a $3 million lifeguard shack in my driveway again.

Sometimes progress means just standing still for a while. I don’t think I really ever appreciated that until I was in a situation where procrastination was not just an option.

Please Don’t Drown: A Public Service Announcement for Beachgoers.

Since the productivity/parenting stuff on NarrowbackSlacker has sort of taken on a life of its own, I’ve decided to parse out my local interest stuff to a different site. Please visit Oceanus11693 for musings on all things Rockaway–including today’s post, wherein I waste valuable work time editing a NYC Parks Department handout.

Oceanus 11693

I was at the Peninsula branch of the Queens Library yesterday, and I saw this lovely and informative card sitting at the checkout.

A valiant attempt, but I find it wanting. A valiant attempt, but I find it wanting.

I was, at least initially, delighted. Because: People drown here. Like, every summer. A few times a week, it seems, in July in August, you’ll be sitting on the stoop or making dinner on the grill, and you’ll hear the tell-tale sign of helicopters over the beach. You’ll look at our watch. Yup, it’s after 6/before 10. No lifeguards. Someone is in trouble, possibly dead. You might laugh a cynical laugh or roll your eyes, until you find out the details. There is not a single parent on this peninsula who is not haunted by stories like this one:

“Four cousins wading in knee-deep water at a beach in Far Rockaway, Queens, were swept away yesterday by the fierce…

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Rockaway, or the Rockaways? They’re both right.

 

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I’ve lived here for most of my 45 years, and spent much of my professional life dealing with editorial conundrums and questions of usage, as well as reading communications scholarship on language and meaning. So, you know, I probably think about these things more than most people. But recent chatter in the twitterverse has made me obsessed with this question.

In all my years as a Rockaway Beach local, a journalism student and eventually a book editor, and armchair student of local legend and lore, I’ve never come across any universally consistent rules for the name of our fair peninsula. Pour over writing old and new you’ll come across “The Rockaways,” “The Far Rockaways,” “Rockaway, NY,” “Driving out of Rockaway,” and so on. All the text evidence I’ve seen—and I’ve searched through published books and newspaper archives going back a century—indicates that there is simply no precise or exclusive name for our little corner of New York City.

In their study of the peninsula, Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York (Columbia University Press, 2003), Historians Lawrence Kaplan and Carol P. Kaplan explain the terminology thusly:

Rockaway, New York, located in the southern part of New York City’s borough of Queens, is a slender peninsula, the westernmost of the barrier beaches that reach from the eastern tip of Long Island to New York’s harbor. It is also known as Rockaway Beach, or simply the Rockaways, a name derived from a Native American word meaning “sand place.” Outsiders sometime refer to the whole peninsula as Far Rockaway, but this is the name of only the largest and most built-up of the smaller communities that compose the Rockaways.

So, really, there’s no right or wrong answer. While people like to think language has hard and fast rules, the rules often bend to accommodate different contexts and convey specific meaning. So a writer must choose the language that most clearly conveys his or her intended meaning, and the editor must ensure that the usage is consistent within a published document. It’s all about ensuring clarity and consistency.

My Rockaway Style sheet. In publishing, copyeditors usually rely on a standard guide (such as The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style) to determine how to treat specific terms, and publishers also create their own rules (“house style”) that sets guidelines for the books they publish. Copyeditors and authors fill in the blanks left in these style guides on a per-project bases, generating “style sheets” for specific books or projects. With that in mind, and lifetime of Rockaway chatter ringing in my head, here are the guidelines I would put in place were I editing a book on Rockaway Beach/Rockaway/The Rockaways right-this-minute.

  • Rockaway. “Rockaway” is a shorthand/generic term for “The Rockaway peninsula” is used to refer to any place, person, or thing related to that geographic location (I’m biking out to Rockaway; I’m wearing my Rockaway tuxedo).Informally, it’s an appropriate term for any or all places on the peninsula, or as a modifier that relates people, places, ideas, etc. to the Rockaway peninsula (I’m a Rockaway local; it’s a Rockaway thing; he has a thick Rockaway accent).
    However, the word “Rockaway” lacks the specificity that is needed for more formal and informative communication. It should be avoided when possible, in favor of specific neighborhood names (Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park, Far Rockaway, Arverne-by-the-Sea, etc.), or used in conjunction with those names so that locations under discussion are very clear.
  • Rockaway Beach. “Rockaway Beach” has two very specific denotative meanings: It refers to the neighborhood (my neighborhood!) located roughly between Arverne and Rockaway Park (basically the 11693 zip code, minus Broad Channel), and also to the New York City public beach that runs along the peninsula. So, you don’t live in Rockaway Beach unless you live in the Beach 70s/80s/90s, but if you are sitting on the sand anywhere east of Riis Park, you are on (or at) Rockaway Beach.
  • The Rockaways. While “Rockaway” is a geographic term, “The Rockaways” is a political term that refers to all the neighborhoods on the peninsula. It should be used only when discussing all the neighborhoods on the peninsula collectively.* So, if you’re talking about flooding, or insurance, or economic development that affect us all? Use “the Rockaways.” If you’re talking about one neighborhood or the other, use the name of the specific neighborhood.

The Case for “The Rockaways.” Even though I say “Rockaway” all the time, I prefer “the Rockaways” in certain specific circumstances because the term acknowledges something very important: That this collection of neighborhoods is geographically distinct and physically isolated from the rest of New York City, and that despite the socioeconomic and ethic/racial differences that seem to divide the peninsula, these neighborhoods have many shared concerns brought about by that geographic isolation. So, I think that there are specific instances when “The Rockaways” is absolutely appropriate, for example:

  • Congressman Gregory Meeks represents all the neighborhoods in on the peninsula, so he should make use the collective term when addressing the concerns of his Rockaway constituents (People in the Rockaways have the longest commutes in the city).
  • A business opening up in one neighborhood but hoping to attract customers from across the entire peninsula might wish to indicate that by using term the Rockaways in its name or promotional materials (Serving the Rockaways for more than 50 years).
  • A sign on the Cross Bay Bridge welcomes visitors not only to Rockaway Beach, the neighborhood it spills into, but also to all the other neighborhoods on the peninsula that it eventually leads to; in that context, we are in fact welcoming people to the Rockaways (though arguably we could still say “Rockaway Beach” to welcome them to the beach).

I think all our local newspapers should (and generally do) take care when using all of these terms, distinguishing between events occurring in specific neighborhoods (Far Rockaway athlete wins scholarship; new restaurant opens in Rockaway Beach) and issues that affect all neighborhoods (Flood recovery continues in the Rockaways). Again, I think it’s fine to use the generic “Rockaway” as long as the specific neighborhood is clarified somewhere in the story (New coffee bar coming to Rockaway’s restaurant row,” with a mention of Rockaway Beach specifically within the story).

 So there’s my take, from a book editor who is not really a copyeditor but still has read and reviewed a lot of copyediting.

SURVEY:

Personally, I always say, and always have said, “Rockaway Beach,” mostly because I love my spot here in the creamy delicious center of the Rockaways. And also: Because Ramones.

But I’m not going to end this with the Ramones. I’m going to end it with local legend Gerald Bair’s Rockaway anthem, which you should totally buy right now if you don’t already have it. 

 

 * There is a separate discussion to be had about whether the term “The Rockaways” includes Broad Channel. I’m really not sure. BC readers, chime in!

Photos from Rockaway Beach, 1988

#TBT: A few images of Rockaway Beach from the dark days.

Oceanus 11693

In 1988, I took a few pictures of places around the neighborhood because I was bummed that I hadn’t taken any of Playland before they tore it down. They are not particularly good photos, but I thought people might like to see them for a wee stroll down memory lane. I do miss Boggiano’s hot dogs, but I can’t say I miss the sad state of Rockaway Beach in the 1980s.

You can see the empty lot where Playland used to stand reflected in the glass.  ©narrowbackslacker  You can see the empty lot where Playland used to stand reflected in the glass. ©narrowbackslacker

Here are a couple from the Cross Bay Bridge. Courthouse hasn’t changed (other than to further deteriorate) but the restaurants on the Bay sure have.

View from the Cross Bay Bridge, 1988. There's the old Pier 92 (now Bungalow Bar) and Bridge Cafe (now Thai Rock). View from the Cross Bay Bridge, 1988. There’s the old Pier 92 (now Bungalow Bar) and Bridge Cafe (now Thai Rock). ©narrowbackslacker

Bait and Booze: The old Bridge Cafe, 1988. I did my underaged drinking there, but don't blame the owners. My fake ID was excellent. ©narrowbackslacker Bait and Booze: The old Bridge Cafe, 1988. I did my underaged drinking there, but don’t blame…

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An Ode to the A Train (or: Why I miss my morning commute)

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

There’s an interesting experiment going on over at WNYC’s New Tech City. This week’s podcast (which you should totally subscribe to, by the way) talks about the value of boredom, and invites listeners to put away their phones, and just allow themselves to zone out for a bit. Various experts say that being bored from time to time may have benefits, and that by filling every moment of our day with texts and emails and Facebook and Candy Crush, we’re starving our brains. Brains, apparently, need time to wander and ponder aimlessly. Thinking about nothing at all, it turns out, is an important step in thinking creatively.

It got me thinking about how much time I used to spend trapped in subway cars, just killing time doing nothing. And  how much I miss it.

I spent a solid ten years commuting into the city, most of them from Rockaway Beach (1.5 hours each way on the A Train) with stints from Forest Hills, Queens (25 minutes on the E or F) and Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (about 25 minutes on the F from the other direction). But since 2001, I’ve been freelancing from home, and my commute amounts to the time it takes me to walk from my bedroom down to the basement.

But you know what?  I miss it.

No, you didn’t misread that. I really miss the A Train.

More specifically: I miss my morning commute on the A train. You see, the one benefit of a long commute is that it usually means you’re at the end of the line, so you catch the train on schedule every day, and usually get a seat. I preferred the 7:40am. A Express from Rock Park, front end, corner seat by the window, on the east side of the aisle. From there, I could enjoy the morning sunshine and views of  Jamaica Bay before the train headed underground, at which point I’d let the monotonous roll of the train on the tracks rock me into a trance. (The evening commute? Not so much. The train back to Rockaway is crowded for most of the ride, and there is often a connection that must be made, outside on a freezing cold, wind-swept platform. It takes forever and is generally pretty miserable.)

But in either direction, commute time was time that I had entirely to myself, even as I sat (or stood) in a sardine can packed with strangers. For the whole of the 1990s, I spent in excess of 15 hours each week in that corner seat—or tethered to a pole on the way home—during which time I devoured novels,  listened to albums (Entire albums! On CD!), or just stared into space. And looking back, despite all the stalled trains, funky smells, “sick passengers,” and subterranean preachers expressing concern for my eternal soul (and let’s not forget the occasional grope), I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Once you’ve got a family and a house and even just a part-time job at the same time, spending three hours a day sitting still, alone with one’s thoughts (or one’s Sony Discman) seems positively decadent. And today, when we are never far away from a pinging text or email, it seems completely impossible.

While I don’t think I’m overly attached to my cell phone , I do find that the intertwining of life and technology does make it difficult for me to just NOT BE DOING for a little while each day. I guess that’s what I miss about the commute: It was a time when I had an excuse to zone out and let my mind wander, or indulge in something that might, on its face, seem unproductive, like reading a novel or listening to music. These days, I spend much of my time just absorbing information—Important information! Things I should know! Keys to becoming more productive! Info I can use on the job!—that I  sometimes neglect to take proper time to ponder and process it all. Thinking and reading and learning all great, but it’s  pretty hard to hold that stuff up at the end of the day and say to yourself: Look at what I accomplished!

I never felt guilty that I wasn’t Getting Things Done on the train. I mean, what could I do, really, other than read and reread and re-reread advertisements for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor? But as a work-at-home freelancer (and a parent, and a less-than-enthusiastic home manager), the thought of sitting on my couch for an hour staring into space, or even just taking the dog for an hour long walk to nowhere, seems almost irresponsible. I should be working! Or cleaning the house! Or tending to that neglected project! Or reading that Important Book by that Important Person about that Important Thing! 

Why do I feel like every hour of my day is supposed to be devoted to Getting Things Done? Maybe a ride to nowhere on the city’s longest, coolest line every day would straighten me out.

I’m sure my romantic feelings about the A Train are colored a little bit, at least, by nostalgia. After all, one reason why I freelance is that the thought of going back to an 11+ hour work day (factoring in a minimum of 8 hours at the office plus the commute) sends shivers down my spine. I’d also wager that,  were I commuting every day, I’d quickly evolve into one of those people who can’t go for a second without checking her phone. But for now, when I do head into the city for a meeting or to meet up with friends, I still find myself sitting in that corner seat by the window, taking in the view and letting my mind wander.

I know a lot of people hate the A Train. Yes, it could be better (and I, like every other Rockaway local, do have some thoughts on that).  But I just wanted to tell all the haters out there that  there’s still a few of us who really love to Take the A Train.

Just ask Duke Ellington.

Lesson from Hurricane Sandy, #4: Picky eaters are less picky when they’re really, truly hungry

I made a joke on Facebook the night before the storm hit, joking that (to paraphrase the Talking Heads), I had some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days. My family has been in this neighborhood a long time, and we knew that this block had never flooded (not even during Hurricane Donna), but we thought it was likely that we would get some water in the basement. So our plan was to ride out Sandy as we had ridden out every other hurricane–to stay close to home so we could man the sump pumps and the generator. Like most of our neighbors, we battened down the hatches and hunkered down, with candles and flashlights at the ready. I had groceries up on the high shelves in the basement, and the second fridge was well stocked with a few gallons of milk, some beer, and frozen food.

Of course, that was all in the basement. So, that didn’t quite work out like I’d hoped.

Food-wise, the first day or two after the storm were kind of hilarious, as we all emptied our pantries and thawing freezers (the ones we had up in our kitchens, that is) and fed anyone who was there to eat it. I introduced some of my neighbors to Irish sausage; my next-door neighbor ate a granola bar for the first time in his life. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when another neighbor came around with a tray of just-thawed shrimp cocktail, and we all stood in the cold, covered in basement sludge, feasting as though we were at a country club.

But as time went on, the whole sustenance thing became decidedly less entertaining. For the first few weeks after the storm, there was just a ton of work to do, and we were all burning every minute of daylight mucking out and cleaning up. There was still no power, no heat, no refrigerator, or hot water to wash dishes. I had two kids who were not particularly good at eating things that they weren’t used to eating. So, sorry kids–I’m not making you Kraft mac and cheese or rolling up plain turkey cold cuts today.

But guess what? Apparently, picky eaters become less picky and more adventurous when they’re really hungry and choices are limited. For weeks after the hurricane, we were living on canned goods and the kindness of strangers. When you’re hungry, things that might have smelled weird to you a week before suddenly smell delicious. My son still talks about the amazing Jamaican jerk chicken he ate, delivered from a church van that was just trolling through the streets, offering food and comfort. My daughter ate chili from a Red Cross truck (yes, they did eventually make an appearance) and everybody dug into a huge pot of jambalaya delivered by one of the local surfers. My kids have never been big in the appetite department and would have lived on nothing but milk if they could have. But now they were, probably for the first time ever, hungry enough to get past the novelty of new textures and flavors and realize that not only did they feel better after eating it, but they kind of liked it.

I guess the point is that when it comes to getting our kids to try new things, it doesn’t hurt to tell them there’s just nothing else to eat. The thing is, I didn’t really have to wait for a natural disaster for it to happen; I’ve found a similar phenomenon occurs in less dire circumstances. If I don’t pack junk and snacks when we go to the beach, they’ll get hungry enough to just try what’s offered. That’s how I got them to consider foods that they’d previously wrinkled their noses at: hummus, fish tacos, sweet potato fries, a frozen banana. So the moral of the story is, if you don’t let them have the junk, they’ll eat things that are not junk–eventually, and after a lot of whining.

The other lesson for me was that as a parent, we fall into habits as much as our kids do. My son was 12 when the Sandy hit, but I was still playing by the food rules that we’d surrendered to established when he was a toddler and refused to eat most fruits because they were “Slippery.” In the two years since, he’s become a much more adventurous eater. I can’t say this is entirely (or even partly) due to the hurricane experience–most likely it has more to do with the fact that he’s hitting his growth spurt and is just way hungrier than he ever was before (but still not hungry enough to eat slippery fruit). And, it’s not like he or my daughter have gone and become vegetarians over night: when the junk was available again, they went right back to it (and as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t really believe in banning anything outright). But: They have at least started to open themselves up to new food experiences, which is the first step toward a greater appreciation for different kinds of ingredients, flavors, cuisines, and textures. That’s as much a part of growing up as reading more complicated books, or learning to work independently. Having them expand their palettes has made dinners easier and our family life richer: we’re no longer cooking two different meals for the kids and the grown ups, and we can finally go out together to a restaurant (my favorite thing to do) that doesn’t have chicken nuggets on the menu.

So go ahead, starve your kids a little. It will be good for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson from Hurricane Sandy #2: Everyone should own a radio.

I should have known better: We’d lost power on our block for a week after Hurricane Irene the year before. But the neighbors were kind enough to let us piggy back on their generator, so we could charge our phones there, and it was of fun “roughing it” for that warm week in August. I mean, we just ate out a lot, since all the stores were open. The kids hung out outside, or played cards in the evening.

But after Sandy, we woke up to not just a physical disaster, but a complete communications void. No power, sure. But also no cell phone service. You couldn’t even get a text through. The last Facebook post I’d seen before I lost my cell coverage was from a friend who lived a couple of miles east, in Belle Harbor. It read:

Rockaway is burning. Please help.

And there we were, without a radio. The one we had was a big old boombox, and it was, of course, floating somewhere in the basement. We had no idea what was happening, anywhere, or how far the disaster went (was it just us in Rockaway?) or what, if anything, was being done to help. No land lines, no cell, no internet, no tv (what we would have done for a little NY1!), no newspapers, and no freaking radio.

I snagged an old walkman a few days later from my mom, and spent much of the remaining month plugged into it. And this tech devotee gained a new appreciation for good, old fashioned analog, even if the news was confusing, and real information was, especially for the first few days, very hard to find.

Anyway, having spent the better part of a month with the radio, following not only the disaster coverage but also the 2012 presidential elections, I’m now a radio devotee. Yes, I still stream music and podcasts, but I spend my morning with good old fashioned real-time broadcasts. And after free riding on WNYC for so many years, I finally became a sustaining member after I realized I’d have been completely lost without it. They covered Rockaway better than anyone, and kept covering us long after the rest of the media had moved on.

Obviously,  I finally got a radio (this one):

It has great reception, runs on the smell of a battery (and has a hand crank in case of a power emergency), takes up little to no space, and travels with me from room to room to garden without any wires, bluetooth connectivity issues, or recharging needed. And I love that it has dials instead of buttons.

It’s technically an emergency radio, but I use it all the time now. You’ll never be packed away in the basement, little friend.

Rockaway Beach Reads: Jill Eisenstadt’s 1987 novel “From Rockaway”

A few months back, I stumbled upon a review of Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonder World  in The New York Times Book Review. It’s a memoir by a Colorado skater and writer who moved to New York City and I guess wound up discovering himself by surfing in Rockaway. That, on the heels of Rockaway, Tara Ison’s 2013 novel about an artist who retreats to the peninsula in 2001 in search of inspiration for her work.**

    

 

It is striking that both of these writers cast Rockaway as a destination, a place where one chooses to go, indeed, chooses to be, to stay. For most of my life, this was a place you talked about escaping from, but never really did. Yet here it is, presented as an artist’s escape, a young hipster’s salvation. I suppose that shift is a microcosm of the changes that have affected all of New York City over the past few decades, but somehow, Rockaway’s geographic isolation seemed to both separate us from the lowest lows of the 1970s and 80s while at the same time magnifying them. I grew up watching all my friends’ famillies leave Rockaway to head toward greener pastures “out on the Island,” believing that a quiet suburban life would protect their children from the drugs and violence and blight that was creeping over Rockaway and the rest of the city at the time. I wonder how that worked out.

Anyway, all this literary chatter about escaping “to Rockaway” reminded me of what I suppose must be the definitive Rockaway novel: Jill Eisensadt’s 1987 From Rockaway

 

Jill Eisenstadt, From Rockaway. Knopf 1987

Eisenstadt was affiliated with what was at the time hyped as the “literary brat pack,” a group of young writers out of Bennington College in the late 1980s (more celebrated–and prolific–members of that posse include Donna Tartt, Tama Janowitz, and Brett Easton Ellis). The novel  got a fair bit of buzz when it was published, with mentions in The New York Times, Glamour, and elsewhere.  I had read it back when it came out, and while I was fuzzy on the details, I remember thinking it captured a lot of what I felt about this place at that time, perhaps mainly due to the fact that  I, like the book’s four protagonists, had just graduated from high school. I wasn’t social enough to know if the details were right, but I do remember really connecting to that  dead-end-on the-edge-of-the-big-city vibe:  yes, people want to escape this place, but as the old  timers say, once you’ve got that sand in your shoes, it’s very hard to do. I decided to revisit From Rockaway, and see how it well it holds up.

First, the back cover copy, from the publisher:

“In Jill Eisenstadt’s savvy, heartfelt novel we enter the world of working-class kids in Rockaway, New York, a beach community where beer cans and cigarette butts stud the sand instead of seashells. Peg, Alex, Chowderhead, and Timmy play, drink, and dream together. Their circle breaks apart when Alex gets a scholarship to a “rich kids’ school” in New England. Soon the rituals described in her anthropology text seem less bizarre than the games in the dorms around her. It is back in Rockaway, reunited with the old gang for the summer, that the explosive depth of feeling in kids with no options beyond the local deli and the lifeguard stands shows Alex what it means to face adulthood.”

One sign of changing times, I guess, is that my ten-year-old was deeply offended by the description of our beaches (“This book LIES!!!”). But I remember avoiding the filthy beaches when I was her age. I had to have a little heart-to-heart with her (“Sweetie, let me tell you about the 1980s….”).

I’m about midway through now, and the one thing that’s striking me about it is how much it feels like a period piece: the local and pop culture reference are so of that moment, of that time and place, that they almost feel like nostalgic renderings written by a sentimental author trying to hang on to memories from her youth. Little details (the slogan on a Clearasil container, references to the Slice of Life pizzeria, the rumors that Frank Sinatra had bought up all the empty lots in anticipation of legalized gambling) had me spinning back to 1986 like it was yesterday. Moreover, that feeling that you’d never get out of Rockaway (remember when we called it Rotaway?) is tangible. At one point, a character refers to a map of New York:

“Rockaway, just a tiny strip that hangs off Queens as if it isn’t sure whether it wants to break away and become an island of its own or hang on tighter, desperate not to be abandoned.”

Yup. That about sums it up.

It’s definitely a local story, and it’s a work of fiction: There’s truth in the spirit and in many of the details, but of course the author has exercised some artistic license as well.  I was tickled by some of the copyediting errors that made it through (you have to be from here to know that it’s “St. Francis on Beach 129th Street” and not “St. Francis on the Beach, 129th Street”).  I can’t speak to the lifeguard culture that Eisenstadt describes in the book, other than to venture a guess that the “Death Keg” party she describes might be a literary invention: To my recollection drownings while guards are actually on duty seem too rare to have developed a real ritual around them (and in any event, I just can’t imagine local Irish boys getting quite so theatrical).

Anyway, there’s much to be said about From Rockaway, and how it reflects a Rockaway that once was and and is no more, but at the same time reflects the Rockaway that will always be. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on it, both dyed-in-the-wool locals and new arrivals. It’s out of print, but I was able to score a used copy on Amazon for a couple of dollars (Note to Random House: Rockaway is having its moment. You might want to reprint).

 **I confess I haven’t read either of these novels yet. Too many books, too little time. If anyone has, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy (#1): It’s all just stuff, and we have too much of it.

Here in Rockaway Beach, NY, there are two sorts of people (well two sorts of homeowners, at least): Those who lost their homes on October 29, 2012, and those who just lost the basement. I am grateful to be in the latter camp. The Atlantic rolled up our street and quickly filled it up, meeting with Jamaica Bay at the end of the block. By the time we hit high tide, the water had crested the top step of my front stoop outside, and filled the basement to the ceiling; but just as tide clocks predicted, the water then leveled off and started to recede, having gone just two inches into the joists of our first floor. We lost our cars, all of our utilities, tools, appliances, and everything we had stored in the basement, but our main living space was dry. We know we were very lucky. Many of our friends, family, and neighbors were not. Some of them are still displaced. We just had a shit-ton of work to do.

Our basement had been semi-finished. I had my home office down there, and a multipurpose playroom/workout room/whatever room (aka The Room of Requirement),  plus a utility space with the washer/dryer, tools/workshop, and  storage of out-of-season clothes, holiday decorations, crap I meant to give away, and other things that just didn’t have anyplace else to go. I had been wise enough to move what I thought were the most important things in the basement up the night before: boxes of photographs, my computer and printer. There was still a ton of crap down there: all of our tools, lots of furniture (used and unused),  bins full of clothes and linens, plus toys, guitars, sports equipment, a huge TV and approximately eleventyzillion Legos. We figured we might take on some water, but with everything stored on the high tables and shelves we figured it would be ok.  Needless to say, it was not.

When we finally got the water pumped out (it took a few days, with a pair of wee sump pumps hooked up to the neighbor’s generator) we were faced with 750 square feet full of saturated things that used to seem important.

After the water was pumped out, 10/2014

Vintage furniture, waiting to be refinished. Work tables and bookcases. And Legos, Legos EVERYWHERE–including stuck to the ceiling.

 

Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Making matters worse, our oil burner had leaked, so all of it was infused not only with the lovely funk of sewage and seawater, but also a touch of petroleum. There was nothing to salvage. Everything must go.

It’s been 18 months now, and the process of mucking out/cleaning up/watching my neighborhood rebuild has been exhausting, but also enlightening. Having to throw away All The Things makes you think a little more carefully about which Things you actually want/need to replace. And after living for a few weeks without the essentials of life (heat, hot water, electricity, laundry, transportation, and let’s not forget Wifi), you start to wonder how much of this garbage you really needed to begin with. The tools were a huge loss, along with a lot of things I hadn’t thought about in terms of value until I had to replace it all. And yes, there were a some sentimental things that it just gutted me to lose. But what about the rest of this mess?

The kids were outgrowing those toys, anyway. Those books were probably never going to be re-read. Was I ever going to get around to refinishing that adorable little chifforobe? Was I suddenly going to start using all the craft supplies that had been sitting in boxes for years?

The point is, it was all just stuff. And it was clear that we had too much of it.

This the first in a series of posts wherein I shall mull over the lessons that Sandy taught me (in no particular order).  I don’t speak for everyone who went through it, obviously, and especially not for those who lost everything. But the process of clearing out a cluttered basement and prioritizing tasks and purchases and time and money as we clean up and rebuild has been valuable in many ways. Feel free to chime in in the comments with any lessons you learned.

Who doesn’t want to go to Irishtown?

I’ve been a fan of the Bowery Boys podcast ever since I first stumbled across their charming investigation into Rockaway Beach back in 2012. Having grown up here, and listened to every old timer’s take on what happened, how, and why, it was refreshing to listen to two outsiders’ impressions of our little peninsula and its unique history. They do their homework, combing through books and newspaper archives, and they talk about the place with the unabashed enthusiasm of people discovering it for the first time (there are people in this city who’ve never heard of Irishtown!). After that podcast, I was hooked, and so was my son. We always download an episode or two when we’re heading out for a car trip, and learn a little something about NYC history, legend, and lore along the way.  Check out their blog for primary sources, photos, and more.

For RBNY locals, the Rockaway Beach (episode 140)  and the Robert Moses (100) episodes are  must-listens. The latter, in particular, left me pondering whether what Rockaway need now is a  Moses-esque dictator to reign in the bureaucracy and get the boardwalk replaced already. Moses’ legacy is complex, to say the least: he built a lot of stuff, and destroyed a lot in the process. But going into our second summer without a boardwalk, it’s worth considering that maybe getting something built that doesn’t quite please everyone is better than getting nothing built at all.