It's My Turn
If you've ever walked down Beach 130 Street between Newport and Cronston Avenues in the last 30 years, chances are you've exchanged at least a wave and a "Howya'doin'" with Mike Sweeny. If you are lucky, you may have exchanged more. The porch was his refuge since losing his leg eight years ago. Most sunny days you could find Mike, sporting his Santa Claus beard and scanning the horizon for passing birds, neighbors and grandchildren.
On Sunday, the 28 of October, Mike Sweeny passed away peacefully in his home after several years of struggling with increasing health complications.
With his passing, the Rockaways have lost something irreplaceable: a genuine neighbor in every sense of the word. Mike represented a way of life that is all too quickly fading in this country. Mike's warmth, humor, and caring manner brought family, friends, and strangers together. He didn't get beyond a seventh-grade education, yet he effortlessly and playfully won political arguments against me and my political master's degree! He never had a bad word to say against anyone and was always there to listen, but never to judge. He touched the lives of so many people, evidenced in the turnout and emotions displayed at his wake.
Mike was one of the most generous people you could come across. He had a particular gift with children. I was fortunate enough to have grown up next door to the Sweenys and got to experience his magic, firsthand. Mike enhanced the already existing enchantment of childhood: he could make music emerge from his cupped hands and blades of grass, and materialize candy and coins out of thin air. He equally delighted and frightened the kids on the block with the loudspeaker in his police car. Mike was full of silly stories and sayings ('You can pick your friends. And you can pick your nose. But you can't pick your friend's nose!') Most importantly, he was full of love. He loved his 14 grandchildren fiercely, and in his usual banter with them, I've seen them all shake their heads, smile with a twinkle of adoration in their eyes, and say, 'You're crazy, Pop.'
Mike Sweeny was, in many ways, an embodiment of New York and its wonderfully colorful history. Born in 1929 as one of 14 children, Mike grew up in Brooklyn, where he was neighbors with Lena Horne, and then, Manhattan, where he attended the same grammar school as the likes of Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan. He was kicked out of that grammar school and a few others before his father, a prominent lawyer, pulled him out of school altogether and set him working in his office.
Mike fibbed about his age at 17 to join his brother in the army and went on to serve in the paratroopers and the Navy (though he never could swim)! He met Judy in his early twenties and they married, raised five children and stuck together, side by side, for more than 50 years. Mike's 35 years with the state police left him with an intimate knowledge of the New York beyond NYC, including tales of highway chases, murders and corruption that could compete with any Hollywood blockbuster. Mike Sweeny was New York.
Mike represented an era in which people shoveled their neighbors' sidewalks, were politically aware, strongly principled and prioritized Sunday dinners with their families. In this small way, you and I can keep Mike alive, sitting in his chair on the porch on Beach 130 Street.