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. 

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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.