The last sewer ball





Chapter Eight
Whitey is always late. I stood by the mailbox under the el just like I did the night before when we decided that we’d venture to Rockaway by ourselves for the first time. Our last big subway un-chaperoned adventure was when we went to the St. Patrick’s parade downtown, last March. Besides almost getting the shit beat out of us, by drunken chicks as well as guys, that trip was well worth the risk. When you go to the parade on Fifth Avenue with your parents when you’re little, they try their hardest to shield you from the shit-faced revelers soaked in green beer, wearing plastic green bowler hats. It scares you when you’re five or six, still holding hands with your mommy. But by the time you get the picture that drinking can be loads of fun, as evidenced by assorted stewed relatives at Sunday get-togethers or weddings, you dare to wander from your parents in order to enjoy the parade sights, like teams of girls peeing in the bushes in Central Park, or drunk guys climbing way up trees right on Fifth Avenue and singing “Wild Colonial Boy” to the cheering crowds below. I kept an eye out for Whitey, looking down 238th Street where he’d be walking from his building. It was early in the morning and I knew the longer I waited there for him, the greater the possibility that a neighbor could spot me standing there with a brown paper bag in my hand. All of a sudden, I almost collapsed completely to the ground because some wiseass got me with the old trick where the back of your knee is pushed in just the right spot. “Have a nice trip?” Whitey laughed. “Hey, here comes the train!” he yelled, pulling me by the shoulder, right through the traffic on Broadway. We ran up the station steps two at a time just as the train was arriving. “Here’s a token. You can pay me later.” We just made it into the last car of the train and unlike on our St. Paddy’s Day journey, it was completely empty. Whitey walked over to the subway map and ran his finger across it to illustrate how far we would be traveling. “Can you believe we’re going from here all the way to the ocean for only fifteen cents!” “My old man says the subway is too expensive for the crappy service you get,” I said, repeating one of my father’s usual rants. “And look, we’re going through four of the boroughs of the city: the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The only one we’re missing is Staten Island.” “My old man says the only things Staten Island has are garbage dumps and cemeteries.” “Alright with your old man, already!” I shut up and thought maybe Whitey didn’t like me talking about my old man because he never talked about his. I wasn’t even totally sure if he’s dead or alive. The train didn’t get very crowded. Whitey seemed pretty good at leading us off at 168th Street and following the signs to the A train which would take us all the way to Rockaway. We had to take an elevator at 168th that was scary as hell even though it had an elevator operator. That had to be one of the worst jobs on the planet. It stunk like piss and vomit, and a black bum was in there when we got on and stayed on when we got off, even though the only two stops on that elevator were where we got on and where we got off. Maybe he and the operator were friends. When the A train arrived, I was thrilled to see it was one of the old-fashioned cars with a train conductor wearing a peaked hat riding between cars and actually hanging outside the train. Inside the car there were dim, bare light bulbs, large, slowly rotating fans suspended from the ceiling, and cushioned cane seats. It looked like the kind of train car you’d see in a W.C. Fields movie. Once we got into Harlem there were lots of blacks getting on, mostly families. I was more than a little nervous going through Harlem because there were a lot of race fights going on all over the city. There were rumors that they were going to close Palisades Amusement Park in Jersey because there were so many fights between blacks, whites, and Puerto Ricans every night. There were black and Puerto Ricans teenagers getting on, but none of them bothered us. I think Whitey is starting to look big and tough. I wish I did. Once we got into Brooklyn, more and more families got on with beach umbrellas and bags filled with food and blankets.

Some of the kids were already in their bathing suits. When the beachgoers got off the train at Rockaway Boulevard to switch to the Rockaway line, we followed them, and it was a good thing we did, because it was complicated. That line went across a bridge right above the water, and you went by crummy houses that were built on stilts in the bay. It was kind of like going through a slummy version of Venice, Italy, I guess. Then it was the stop we traveled almost two hours for – Rockaways’ Playland! We could see the top of the roller coaster and hear the screams of the riders from the el station. “I can’t believe it! We’re here! And it only took a couple hours!” I excitedly said as we bounded down the station steps. “When we drove out here last summer it took three hours because the car kept overheating. Do you know where we’re going?” I asked Whitey as he led the way down the street crowded with people carrying buckets, coolers, umbrellas and chairs. “Let’s start at Playland,” Whitey said, pulling out a pack of Marlboros as we hurriedly walked along the bungalow-lined street. “That’s easy enough to find. Then we’ll look for the guys.” “Oh, fuck!” I said, stopping dead in my tracks. “I forgot to bring Flynn’s address!” Whitey stopped and coolly used the opportunity to light his cigarette properly. After it was lit, he took a deep drag. “Eh. We’ll find ’em.” I thought Whitey would be pissed off at me for forgetting and I was relieved he had such a nonchalant attitude about it. The farther we got from the train, the more freaked out I started to get. What was I going to tell my parents? How were we going to find Flynn and the other guys? What was I going to tell Flynn’s parents? Where were we going to eat? Did I have enough money? What if we got mugged? Where was I going to go to the bathroom? What if we couldn’t find a place to sleep? Would we take the train back home at midnight? We’d get mugged for sure then! “Man, look at those chicks over there!” Whitey said, elbowing me. Across the street on the corner was Boggiano’s Clam Bar. My dad took us there every time we were in Rockaway. There were two barefoot teenage girls in short shorts and bikini tops drinking sodas by the outside clam bar. “They’re barefoot right on the filthy sidewalk!” I said, amazed at the sight. “They have feet? Look at the curves on those babes!” Whitey said, standing tall and straight, shoulders back, sharply flicking his ashes several times with his thumb. I started to get a funny feeling standing next to him he was a cool teenager, and I felt like a squirt. He could probably walk over there, offer those girls a cigarette and talk to them. I was nervous just watching them from over here across the street. “We’ll catch them on the rebound,” Whitey said, crossing the street against the light. We followed the crowd towards the wild sounds of Playland right down Beach Boulevard. Whenever my parents took us to Rockaway, I could tell they were steering us clear of certain situations. My mom usually led the way and if we saw a group of noisy teenagers we’d take a detour to the other side of the block. But Whitey was leading us right into all the action. We were still on side streets a couple of blocks away from Playland, and there were groups of teenagers hanging out by parked cars outside ramshackle bungalows, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer out of small brown paper bags that the cans fit snugly inside of. I know my mom would have crossed the street, but Whitey led us right through them. I was scared shit, but Whitey didn’t break stride as we torpedoed down the sidewalk. These guys looked like Italians from Brooklyn with greasy hair slicked back, tight pants and pointy shoes. They stared at us as we passed by. Whitey flicked ashes by their shoes and we kept going.

We turned the corner onto the main drag where the entrance to the amusement park was just two blocks down. The sidewalks were jammed with baby strollers, groups of greaser guys, and girls in flip-flops and bathing suits who looked like they belonged on the cover of a Beach Boys album. There was a parade of Puerto Rican, black, Irish, and Italian families balancing candy apples, pizza, and hot dogs with stuffed animals, balloons on sticks and kewpie dolls. It looked like every storefront was either a food joint or a carnival game. Regular looking storefronts were filled with skee-ball or bust-a- balloon with dull, crooked darts, or maybe knock-over-the-lead-milk-bottles with a baseball that was about as hard as a rolled-up pair of socks. The biggest places with the brightest lights and biggest signs were for Fascination, a game where you sit on a stool and roll a spaldeen down a slightly inclined wood board into holes, trying to get five holes to light up in a row. You compete against other people and it’s one of the few games in Rockaway where you actually win money and not some piece of junk made in Japan. It’s always smoky in there and mostly filled with grown-ups who sit in there for hours. There were packs of tough looking kids everywhere, but with all the families around I didn’t feel too scared. And every once in a while, you’d see a chubby cop walk by with his hat crooked, shirt tail hanging out, sweating, and eating an ice cream cone or something. I have a feeling the cops liked working this beat. But still, it made me nervous when I wondered what it would be like without the families and the baby carriages, and the chunky cops, if all that was left was us and the tough looking Italians and Puerto Ricans from Brooklyn. “Shouldn’t we go look for Flynn and those guys?” I asked Whitey, tugging on his arm. “Later. Come on! We’re at Playland!” Whitey said, pushing through the crowd that was getting more dense every step we got closer to the main entrance. And there we were: the grand entrance of Playland. The screams and the roar of the gigantic rickety wooden roller coaster were so loud, you had to yell to be heard, just as if you were standing next to the el back in the Bronx. Signs featuring a clown wearing a top hat were everywhere, but he looked more like a maniacal phantom of the opera than a jolly clown. People streamed past us in both directions, bumping into us as we stood under the main archway to gaze at the excitement all around us.

Suddenly we were both thumped pretty good by two shoulders. I instantly thought the next move was going to be a fistfight between us and two Brooklyn greasers. That was, until I caught a glimpse of the two perpetrators. “Wow! It’s those chicks from Boggiano’s!” Whitey said, staring at the two cute teenage girls, wearing shorts so short you could see the bottom of their butt cheeks when they walked. One was a tall redhead and the other was a small brunette. “Let’s go!” I said, pushing Whitey hard in the middle of his back with both hands. “They’re getting away.” We hurried through the crowd and could see them walking briskly ahead, turning back to look at us and giggling. Not wanting to be too obvious by breaking into a full tilt sprint, we moved as fast as we could past the very things I thought would be the very reasons we were there in the first place. The haunted house, the bumper cars, the BB gun shooting range, even the Atom Smasher roller coaster all went by in a blur as we tried to catch up with the two cuties wiggling away from us through the throngs. They zipped past the Davy Jones’ Locker, the Fun House, and Ride the Goats, and disappeared into the Penny Arcade. “Now what?” I breathlessly asked Whitey, as if we had cornered two wild tigers in a cave. “Let’s just hope they don’t go out the rear exit,” Whitey said, leading the way into the arcade. “Got any dimes?” We stopped for a moment so our eyes could adjust as we went from the bright sunlight into the cool darkness of the arcade. We scanned the large room, which was loud with clanging bells, cackling glass-enclosed gypsy fortune tellers and banging skee-balls. I nervously jangled five dimes in my loose fist, catching Whitey’s attention. “You look like you’re jerking off, jerk-off.” I shoved the dimes back into my pocket and started having extreme anxiety. Whitey lit up another Marlboro. What the heck were we going to do once we found the two elusive lovelies? My stomach started to feel like I’d just swallowed a bee hive. I was secretly hoping they had run right through the arcade, exited onto the boulevard, and ran for the beach. How did we even know that their banging into us at the entrance was a come-on, anyway? Maybe they thought we were a couple of dorks and just being mean. “There they are. Come on,” Whitey said, punctuating his coolly-delivered directive with a long drag on his smoke. I could see the backs of their red and brown heads bouncing up and down, past all the baseball, football, pinball, shooting, and horse racing arcade games that made up the many aisles of dime-driven contraptions. “What are they doing back there?” I asked, lagging behind Whitey. They were in the old-fashioned part of the arcade where they kept the old-style games that nobody played anymore: the bike racer where you spun an iron wheel as fast as you could to move two stupid needles on a meter a crane where you picked up sand and dumped it in a hopper the atomic bomber where some footage from World War II was on a tiny screen and you drop an atomic bomb. Plus insane games like the one where the entire point is to see how long you could hold onto a handle as you’re zapped with high-voltage electricity.

But the girls were even beyond those games, down the end of the aisle in a small even darker room illuminated only by red light bulbs inside paper Chinese-style lanterns. I knew this was the room little kids weren’t supposed to go in. I knew because one rainy day when my mom brought us into the arcade after fleeing from a storm on the beach, I wandered in there and she dragged me out, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket and not explaining why I couldn’t play those games. She gave me a handful of dimes to shut me up and plopped me in front of Peppy the Clown while she tried to win a cigar ashtray by playing skee-ball. Peppy the Clown isn’t a game at all. It’s just this glass-enclosed box with a marionette clown suspended in it. When you drop in your dime it plays stupid songs like “The Old Gray Mare Ain’t What She Used to Be” and you push buttons to make it dance. What’s creepy about it is that you can’t tell if the puppet is a boy or girl. But seeing the legs on those two honeys poking out from between two rusty arcade games in the forbidden room made me want to go in there more than ever. “What should we do?” I whispered to Whitey as we stood just outside the entrance. “We’ll go in and work our way back checking out the games. I’ll offer them a cigarette or something when we get close and start rapping to them,” Whitey instructed me. We took two steps towards them and I already could tell we were someplace not meant for kids. Against the wall were two life-size cutouts of a man and a sexy woman with real barrels around them like they’re naked! On the man’s barrel it read, What every woman should know before and after marriage! The bare facts revealed! By Professor Kinsley. On the woman’s barrel it read, A hammock built for two, with a silhouette of two nude lovers on a hammock. There’s a peephole to look into the barrel, for a dime. “What do you think it is?” I asked Whitey, stopping him to study them further. “I heard about these. They’re peep shows. You know, dirty stuff.” “Man, I want to look in the girl’s barrel!” I looked around, making sure some surrogate parent wasn’t going to tackle me when I put my dime in the slot and peered in. I read the writing again: What every woman should know before and after marriage! The bare facts revealed! By Professor Kinsley. I had often thought about married people having sex, which still kind of grossed me out. I mean, there were kids in my building with fat, smelly parents. I couldn’t imagine them screwing. What if this showed something disgusting like that? I dropped in my dime and heard something whir inside the barrel. A panel moved from the peephole, and a light came on. I looked inside and I was stunned! “Oh, shit!” “What? Let me see, let me see!” Whitey said, pushing me away. “Ha! What a sucker you are!” The light went off and the panel swung closed in front of the peephole. “A freaking cookbook! What a stupid rip-off! It’s just a dumb joke.” Whitey was practically on the floor, laughing his ass off. I was just about ready to kick him in the ass when we were stunned into silence. There they were. Right next to us. “What’s so funny?” the cute brunette asked, smiling. She was wearing a yellow polka dot shirt with the top three or four buttons open, revealing a red bikini top underneath. Her hair was raven black and thick, like mattress stuffing. Her skin was as white as the cream filling in Oreos. I stood there like a moron, not knowing how to answer this Irish beauty.

Luckily, Whitey chimed in. “I don’t think girls could handle what’s inside that barrel,” he said, straightening up and pulling a cigarette out. “Says who?” the taller redhead asked, like she was itching for a fight. She took a cigarette from the Marlboro box Whitey held out to her, and lit it with Whitey’s. She stood in front of the man’s barrel and ran her finger across the words as she read aloud quickly. “‘What every woman should know before and after marriage! The bare facts revealed! By Professor Kinsley.’ Who’s Professor Kinsley?” “My big sister told me about him. They learned about it in college. It’s something called the Kinsley or maybe Kinsey Report and it’s about… you know…” The four of us looked at each other. I caught a glimpse of the brunette’s red bikini top. The redhead, whose striped shirt with the first few buttons open revealed a blue bikini top underneath, looked at the brunette. Whitey’s head whipped from the two girls to me. Then the brunette said it. “Sex.” I felt tingles shoot down from my head and up from my feet and they landed point blank right in my crotch. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. We’d just met these girls and we already were talking about sex! “Here’s a dime,” Whitey said, holding one out to them. “Look in there if you dare.” The redhead snatched the dime, looked at her friend, who nodded, and dropped it in the slot. The machine whirred, the light came on, and the redhead looked in. “Oh my God! How stupid!” “What? What?” her friend squealed, pushing her out of the way. I watched their asses as they took turns, bent over, peeking into the eye hole. I could not believe any of this. Whitey looked at me and winked. “Let’s see what’s in the other barrel!” the redhead said excitedly. Again she ran her finger across the words as she read aloud, “A hammock built for two.” I held out a dime, which the brunette snatched from me, dropped into the slot and stuck her eye onto the peephole. “Ahhhhhh!” she screamed as she pulled the redhead into position, who also let out a hysterical yell. “Let us see before it closes!” I said, wanting to get my money’s worth, but it was too late. “Is it dirty?” I asked the two giggling girls. They looked at each other and laughed like hyenas again. “Yes, it’s definitely dirty!” the brunette said. “I gotta see this,” Whitey said, snuffing out his cigarette, putting in a dime and looking in. “Oh, yeah. That is dirty!” I pushed him out of the way and there it was: a lady’s bra draped across the inside of the barrel, dirty from hanging there for who knows how many decades. “This is fun!” the redhead shouted. “We have dimes, too! Let’s see what else there is!” I looked at Whitey. Our exchange of silent glances meant that we knew we were onto something here, and we followed the girls down the row of naughty machines. Right in a row were three machines made to look like a brownstone you might see downtown in Manhattan. Right in the middle of the building was a round peephole, not unlike the peephole that was on the front of the barrels. Each of the three machines had signs on top: “Art Studio,” “Doll House,” and “Peeping Tom Headquarters.” The four of us looked at the machines in silence. “Yeah, what kind of stupid joke will these have?” I asked, reaching into my pocket for dimes. But there was something different about these machines. They weren’t as goofy looking as the barrel peep shows. In fact, except for the sign that read “Peeping Tom Headquarters,” I wouldn’t have thought there would be anything risqué on display here. “The Art Studio probably has a painting of Whistler’s Mother or something,” Whitey said, using his foot to snuff out yet another cigarette on the floor. “Doll House probably has a Shirley Temple doll in there,” the redhead said. “Yeah, it’s all stupid. Why waste your money?” the brunette said, sounding like she was trying to dissuade us from finding out what might be inside.

The brunette wasn’t the only one feeling a little nervous. I decided the Art Studio would be the most likely to have another silly sight gag, so I dropped my dime in the slot. Lights appeared from behind the opaque windows and I could hear the panel slide from the peephole. I looked in, and man, was I surprised! There in full color was a huge photograph of a totally naked woman, posing with her huge breasts, gigantic erect nipples, and pubic hair showing! It was obvious to the others that I wasn’t laughing. “What is it?” Whitey said pushing me aside. “Whoah!” “What? What? Let us see!” the redhead said, knocking Whitey away and taking a peek. “Huuuhhh!” She gasped, then pulled away from the peephole. “Look at this!” she said to the brunette with a look of disbelief across her face. The brunette slowly approached the peephole, but there were whirs and clicks and the lights in the windows went out before she had a chance to look inside. “What did I miss?” I looked at Whitey. He shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head as if to say, I ain’t saying nothing. The redhead grabbed the brunette, cupped her hands over her mouth and began whispering frantically. The brunette’s brown eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “You guys are filthy pigs!” she said, madder than hell, and stormed away with the redhead right behind her. Whitey and I rushed after them. “Wait! We didn’t know! I swear!” I said, touching the brunette on the shoulder from behind. She stopped in her tracks and turned around and I almost smashed into her. I couldn’t believe how pretty she was. Her eyes were brown, but so dark they were almost as black as her hair. I don’t think she had on any makeup, but her lips were as red as if she had been licking a cherry lollipop. “Really?” she said softly, almost frightened. “I swear, we didn’t know!” As I stood in front of the brunette, I noticed Whitey and the redhead were in a similar position with each other. “Want to go on a ride or something?” I suggested meekly, knowing full well I was overwhelmed by the brunette’s beauty. She looked at the redhead, who nodded her approval. “Let’s go to the fun house!” Whitey said, pulling out his pack of Marlboros. The redhead picked one out and we headed back to the midway. We watched their asses wiggle wildly as they zigzagged through the crowd with us in tow. They were running so fast, I was thinking that maybe they were trying to ditch us, but there they were standing at the ticket booth waiting. I handed Whitey fifty cents and he bought the tickets. The fun house would be perfect for getting to know the girls. We could help them through the tilted room by holding hands or putting our arms around their waists. But just as we rounded the corner for the entrance to the fun house, the girls stopped short, causing us to almost crash into them. They turned and extended their arms to block us from going any further. “No! We can’t go in the fun house,” the redhead said, leading us quickly in the opposite direction. “In fact it’s time for us to go, isn’t it, Debbie?” The brunette looked at me, giving me a subtle eyebrow tilt that I think was supposed to be a signal of some kind. Girls were always doing that, although I could never figure out what exactly they were trying to communicate until it was too late. “Yeah, we’ve got to go now,” Debbie agreed, almost sounding sad. “Bye!” the redhead shouted, and they disappeared through the crowd, running. I was crestfallen.

Just like that, the two cuties were gone and I was certain we’d never see them again. Whitey lit up another. “Come on, let’s see what made them change their minds so fast,” he said, walking back towards the fun house. “There’s the reason right there,” he said, pointing his chin towards the entrance. Taking tickets was a tough looking guy with slicked-back black hair, cigarette dangling, tight white t-shirt with a rolled-up sleeve with Lucky Strikes inserted. “Him? He looks like he’s twenty-one!” “Yeah, well, he’s the reason they ran away. He’s gotta be the redhead’s boyfriend.” “Maybe it’s her brother?” “Are you kidding?” “What’s the difference? We’ll never see them again, anyway.” “Rockaway’s like a small town. We’ll find them. I’ll bet Flynn and those guys know them. What street are they usually on?” “101st, I think.” Whitey led us out of Playland and towards 101st Street. It was cooling off as the sun was setting, and more and more loud teenagers seemed to be crowding the streets. I think if I’d been alone, I’d have been scared to death. I don’t know if it was the cigarettes or what, but I sensed that the tough kids were looking at Whitey and deciding to leave us alone. If I didn’t know Whitey to be the goofball that I’ve known him as my whole life, I probably would have thought he was a tough guy. We turned right onto 101st Street and it looked just like a scene from our block back home. There were piles of kids everywhere. Little brats screaming and chasing each other. Girls in packs playing their pattycake games. Boys crowding the sidewalks with box baseball and in the middle of the street, probably the last game of stickball before it got too dark. The street was lined with bungalow colonies, long narrow courtyards with small bungalows, each with a covered front porch. In front of every row of bungalows, grown-ups sat on porches, with more grown-ups on beach chairs in the courtyard. Barbeque grills were smoking up a tasty storm of hot dogs and hamburgers all over the place, and kids just seemed to show up, get food plopped into their grubby hands, and run off again. As we walked down the sidewalk, the older kids were eyeing us suspiciously. I asked a fat little boy eating a hot dog if he knew Flynn, and without saying a word he pointed to the bungalows across the street. Of course! There it was, the Flynns’ bungalow court. There was a white picket fence across the front, and each bungalow had two flags waving – an American flag and an Irish flag. Although the buildings were probably as old as the el train that ran just a block away, each one was freshly painted and spotless on the outside. There was a string of Christmas lights that ran the length of bungalows, but rather than being fitted with red and green bulbs, the lights were a patriotic mix of red, white and blue. The first bungalow in the courtyard wasn’t the typical single-story type, but a two-story job that looked more like a regular single family home. I heard that was the bungalow that Grandpa Flynn built first, so he could live there year ’round as he built the others with his bare hands. He was gone, but according to Flynn’s father, his emphasis on bungalow colony Godliness, cleanliness, patriotism, and family togetherness was his legacy. “This place is different from the other courts,” Whitey said. We stood in awe, watching the string of lights give a magical glow to the flags and bungalows as evening was settling in. A calico cat appeared and gave us a loud yowl. “That’s Nogard!” I said, recognizing the Flynn pet from back home. “Nogard?” Whitey asked. “That’s dragon spelled backwards. There’s Flynn!” I said, spying him on the upstairs porch of the bungalow palace. A second later I could hear him stomping down the wooden steps. “Hey, guys! When did you get here?” Flynn said, excitedly slapping us five. I couldn’t believe how different Flynn looked after not seeing him for only about a month. His skin was suntanned so dark, he looked like an Indian. And his hair, which was Beatles-long, had bright sun-bleached streaks.

He was barefoot, bare-chested, and his ragged denim cutoffs were like short-shorts. He also appeared to be as tall as Whitey all of a sudden, which made me feel like a shrimp standing next to them. “We took the train and got here a little while ago,” I said, looking back up at the porch to see if his parents were there. “Are your parents around?” “My mom’s down the block at the Finnerans. My dad’s back in the Bronx, he had to work.” I was happy to hear that. Flynn’s mom is a real nice lady, and like most moms a much easier touch than dads. Flynn’s dad is a good guy, but I know he can be strict at times. Flynn told me they weren’t allowed to watch the Three Stooges. Now that’s strict! “Is it okay to smoke?” Whitey asked, holding his cigarette pack up. “No. My Uncle Bobby is around somewhere.” “Well, we were wondering if there was someplace where we could spend the night,” Whitey said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’m pretty sure you could stay with us,” Flynn said. “But I have to ask my mom just to make sure.” “What do you think she’ll say?” I asked nervously, because if she said no, we’d really be screwed. “Well, I think she’ll say you could stay over. My cousins aren’t here this weekend and there’s some extra room. How’d you get permission to come down and stay over without knowing where you were going to stay?” “I didn’t tell my parents,” I admitted sheepishly. “You better not tell my mom that or she’ll be on the phone with them right away.” “We ain’t saying nothing,” Whitey said, cupping an unlit cigarette in his hand. “Hey, do you know a cute little brunette named Debbie who hangs out with a tall sexy redhead?” “Debbie and Deirdre? Sure, why?” “We almost picked them up in Playland,” Whitey said, proudly. “Deirdre goes out with one of the Lynches! He’s like twenty-one and he’s nuts!” I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. What if he saw us chasing after the girls? We’d be deader than those fake cats in the Kill the Kat throwing game on the midway. “Yeah, well, those two liked us. Screw him.” That may have sounded good from somebody as big and tough as Whitey, but from where I was standing, knowing that greaser might be after us was scarier than anything in the Haunted House. We got a tour of the bungalow from Flynn, and it was like going through a living time capsule. Our apartment at home still had the same furniture from when my parents got married in the late forties, but the bungalows seemed to be furnished with stuff from the turn of the century. The toilet had a pull chain with a tank several feet overhead. The beds, dressers, and mirrors all looked like they were out of a silent Laurel and Hardy movie. And strangely, everything seemed much smaller. Yet every furnishing was neat and tidy, except for the bits of beach sand on the linoleum floor, which apparently is impossible to completely get rid of. They called the living room in the Flynns’ big bungalow the “parlor,” and it even had a potbellied stove in the corner. In the winter, that was the heater and everyone would sleep in that room instead of the bedrooms upstairs. There were ancient photographs hanging on the plain wooden slatted walls, many of them oval shaped and framed with glass.

Flynn gave us a history lesson of how his ancestors came over from Ireland, and were even instrumental in unionizing the construction industry in New York City, at great peril to themselves and their families. One of his relatives was beaten to death by a bunch of cops breaking up a union protest. “So where can we find those two babes?” Whitey finally asked, nervously fingering his unlit cigarette. “They’re usually on 98th Street by their bungalow court. Want to go there?” Flynn said, matter-of-factly. “Hell, yeah. Let’s go now. It’s starting to get dark,” Whitey announced eagerly. Flynn threw on a white t-shirt, put on a pair of flip-flops and led us out onto the sidewalk. To avoid the crowds, we walked down some side streets to 98th Street. We passed an old brick building that had a fading painted sign, an ad for Camel cigarettes from World War II, with a soldier waving and the tag line was “The Soldier’s Pack.” Ninety-eighth Street was the street right next to Playland. In fact, according to Flynn, the roller coaster was literally right across the street from the bungalows where the girls were staying. The roller coaster looked like a giant honeycombed wall of white two-by-fours. When the cars came flying around the curves the entire structure seemed to shake, rattle and roll as the girls screamed bloody hell, and the steel wheels screeched and thumped across old rails and ties. “How do you get used to that racket?” I asked. “What racket?” Flynn asked, oblivious to the deafening noise, Tootsie Pop in his mouth. “Never mind.” Then suddenly, there they were! Deirdre and Debbie, sitting on the steps of a front porch in front of a humongous, three-story bungalow. “What kind of bungalow is that?” I asked. Flynn explained how these big old places used to be mansions at one time, then were changed into boarding houses. Now they just rent rooms and the renters have to share a bathroom with others on the same floor. Entire families cram into single rooms for weeks and months of the summer. One rackety old rambling house can probably have six or seven broods of maniac kids running round. We stood next to some bushes out of sight of the girls. After much deliberation we decided to venture in and make friends again. Whitey lit up and led the way. “What happened to you two?” Whitey asked, holding out a pack of cigarettes. “Put those away!” Debbie said in a desperate whisper. “My mother could be watching!” Whitey stashed his pack and extinguished his cigarette on the slate sidewalk. Both girls began craning their necks nervously, obviously trying to see which of their nosey neighbors were watching. They quickly led, or should I say ran, with the three of us following them down a path between houses that led to the main boulevard across from the boardwalk. We dodged traffic, and Whitey and I followed as Flynn and the two girls hopped from a bench onto a concrete checkerboard table, then onto and across the boardwalk, and down the stairs onto the beach. I had almost forgotten why half of New York City comes to Rockaway – the ocean! The lampposts on the boardwalk made dusk seem brighter, but by the time we walked to a spot far down the beach we liked, it was pitch black.

The roar of the ocean drowned out the street noise and a ribbon of white waves crashing to the surf was all anyone could see. The ocean was just a black nothingness that melded into the dark horizon. The girls and Flynn immediately kicked off their flip-flops and merely left them by the stairs as we started our trek through the sand to the water’s edge. Whitey and I kept our shoes on. “You’re Billy Calhoun’s cousin, right?” Debbie said to Flynn, walking a little too close to him as far as I was concerned. “I remember you when you were a little kid,” Flynn said, smiling. “You’ve really grown up.” I didn’t like the way Debbie smiled back at him. “You were one of the big kids,” Deirdre said to him, positioning herself next to Whitey as we were drawn to the surf’s edge. Deirdre and Debbie ran towards a large lifeguard chair. It was about six feet high, and the seat was wide enough for four people. Flynn and Whitey ran after them and right behind them up the ladder. I stood at the bottom, looking up at the four of them sitting there, giggling. “How’s the view up there?” I asked. They didn’t respond. Whitey began lighting four cigarettes. I thought Debbie liked me, but, like Popeye said, “You can bet your last nickel that women is fickle.” I walked down to the water by myself and ambled along the shore, trying not to get my sneakers wet. I heard feet hit the sand and turned around – Debbie had jumped off the chair and she was walking right towards me. Holy crap. Now what do I do? Part of me felt like running into the water and swimming away, I was so scared, but another part of me wanted to run towards her in slow motion, like one of those corny toothpaste commercials. “Hi,” Debbie said quietly when she caught up with me. “Hi,” I responded, probably just as quietly. We walked along the beach, leaving the other three laughing and goofing around on the lifeguard chair. I don’t think we could have walked any slower. For about twenty steps, I was afraid to even look at her. “Do you have a boyfriend?” I couldn’t believe what I had just asked her. But ever since I’d laid eyes on her that’s all I could think about. It just came out. “No, we broke up.” I wanted to run around in circles and scream in glee. But instead I just said, “Oh.” She was walking so close to me, the smell of her Prell-washed hair was beginning to overpower the smell of the salt water spray. Her bare arm brushed against mine, sending a chill up my spine. I swallowed hard, and felt my abdomen muscles tightening. I let my hand brush against hers briefly, and then I reached out for her hand for real. I couldn’t believe it! She held hands with me! My head was spinning like I just sniffed a tube of airplane glue. I was afraid to look at her, but finally in twenty more steps I looked to the side and she smiled at me. I didn’t hear the three of them on the lifeguard tower anymore. I didn’t even hear the ocean. I think I actually could hear my own heartbeat. “Is Deirdre your best friend?” “Yeah. What’s your name?” “Vinny. Whitey’s my best friend.” “How long are you in Rockaway for?” We kept walking and I explained how we were on an adventure from the Bronx, and were hoping that we could sleep in a bungalow at Flynn’s and we didn’t tell our parents and everything was up in the air, and before I knew it we were so far down the beach I couldn’t even see the lifeguard tower when I turned around. “Look how far away we are!” I said turning her around. And as I did, I realized my arm was around her and she didn’t push me away.

I even thought I could hear her heartbeat. I leaned forward, closed my eyes, and put my lips to hers. I think my eyeballs begin spinning around and I could hear the calliope of the merry-go-round in the distance as the whole world began to spin. I pulled her closer and we began to move our heads slowly in a circle with our lips closed tightly against each other. I could smell bubble gum and Prell and cigarettes and sea salt and sand and sweat and popcorn and holy crap! I might faint! I think I’ve stopped breathing! I pulled back and we both slowly opened our eyes. I couldn’t believe this was me kissing this strange girl in Rockaway on the beach at night, without my parents in the same borough, even. I could tell by her eyes that another make-out session was eagerly anticipated, when suddenly a distant high-pitched scream cut through the sound of the crashing surf. “That’s Deirdre!” Debbie said, pulling me as she ran full-speed towards the lifeguard chair. As we got closer I heard male voices shouting too, and saw a small crowd flailing away at the base of the tower. I dropped Debbie’s hand as I ran faster to the scene. I got there and two older guys were standing over Whitey, who was curled up in a fetal position in the sand. Shit! It’s the guy from the Fun House. I stood there in shock, not knowing what to do. Should I run? Should I yell something? Should I act crazy like I’m a tough guy? He looked and sneered at Whitey, and then he kicked him hard in his midsection. Whitey grunted. Deirdre was sitting in the lifeguard chair, crying hysterically. The two guys were old. At least twenty-one. They even had sideburns. Flynn was nowhere in sight.

The guys started to walk away backwards, and the one from the Fun House pointed up at Deirdre and shouted, “You fuckin’ bitch! I’ll take care of you tomorrow!” They were about twenty yards away, turning their heads to watch us, when Flynn ran up to us. “What the hell happened?” Flynn asked, out of breath, as we both helped Whitey stand up. “Where were you?” I asked Flynn. “I was under the boardwalk taking a leak.” Whitey wasn’t wearing his glasses. His face was bloody, with blood trickling from his nose and his lower lip. Deirdre jumped down and ran into Debbie’s arms. They both cried, like they were the ones bleeding. “How do I look?” Whitey asked, wiping blood from his mouth and then examining his hand. “Those motherfuckers!” Whitey screamed at the top of his lungs, stunning us, and even making the girls stop their wailing momentarily. “Come on, there’s three of us now! Let’s go get them!” he urged us. I doubt I hid the expression on my face very well. I didn’t want to chase after two big guys in the dark, on their turf, even if there were three of us. I might be okay in a fight with somebody my size, but that was probably somebody in the seventh grade, at that stage in my physical development. “Gee, I don’t know…” I mumbled. “What? Are you kidding me?” Whitey said softly and intensely, with a look of total disbelief on his bloody face. He took a few steps, reached down and retrieved his glasses from the sand. “The heck with you guys,” he said without emotion, and walked down the beach. I stood there and just watched him disappear into the night. Debbie and Deirdre were still slobbering as they walked in the opposite direction without so much as waving goodbye. “Want to see if it’s okay to stay at my place tonight?” Flynn asked. “Yeah,” I said, feeling like a total pussy, wondering how I could ever face Whitey again.