It's My Turn
Denis Hamill's story about playing stickball with the kids he grew up with on 11 Street in Brooklyn reminded me of when my family used to spend the summer months at one of our boarding houses on Beach 114 Street in Rockaway Park in the 1950s.
Our family owned two boarding houses, each with fifteen single rooms about 30' x 25' in size, with a small fridge, stove and usually three kids and two parents per "flat." No one locked the doors and never once in the 65-plus years did we have a theft or break in.
There were only two other "exclusive" beach blocks in all of the Rockaways similar to Beach 114 during that time, and those were Beach 113 and Beach 115 Streets.
Each of those blocks had about 22 of these summer boarding houses. There must have been more than 100 kids who came from the Bronx, Inwood, Brooklyn and Queens who came to these three blocks for the summer.
At age six, you could leave the house by yourself and walk two minutes and be in the ocean (neighbors kept an eye out for each others' children).
Within a few feet of our backyard on the 113 Street beach block, Esther lived with her husband Harry and their two boys, Bernie and Seymour. My parents referred this hard-working Jewish family of European decent as a "devoted" family. My parents were Irish Catholic. They referred to families of "our own kind" as 'good families.' "Devoted" was much more special than "good." It is as close as you can get to "saintly" without being canonized. Over the years, I noticed that my parents had given the "devoted" name to only a very few select families—and they all happened to be Jewish.
Harry and Esther's family was in the "devoted" category and we all knew why. Their two boys, Bernie and Seymour, were always helping their mom and dad with the 13-room boarding house they owned by cleaning the rooms and bringing the laundry down for washing every day. We never, ever saw them lounging on the beach. They worked all day long.
In our house, a family of six boys, there was no such thing as an "allowance." Period!!! If one of my five brothers or I needed a baseball glove or comic book, we earned the money! Rockaway was the perfect spot for enterprising kids to do just that. The 300,000-plus people that took the trains and buses to the beach daily left thousands of bottles for kids to pick up, wash, and bring to the A&P for the deposit. The deposit money supplied me with everything I needed every day, plus a dime for my saving account. I bought Spalding balls, an occasional hot dog, bait for fishing, ice cream, movie tickets, you name it.
Gathering soda and beer bottles from garbage cans along the beach was easy enough for a six year old to do. There was only one catch: We had to get all the bottles we wanted off the beach before the NYC Parks Department garbage trucks passed, emptying every garbage can in sight by 9:00 p.m. That meant that we, kids, had to leave the house right after dinner to go rummage through the trash for bottles. There were no recycling bins, so you had to go through all kinds of garbage to get to the bottles.
After a night of digging through trash cans at age 6 or 7, we had to wash the bottles the next morning and take 'em to the A&P to collect the deposit. The 8-ounce bottles had a onecent deposit, 12-ounce bottles for 2 cents, while beer bottles—the Ballantine, Rheingold and Schaeffer quarts —raked in a nickel per bottle. In hindsight, it was an exciting and incredible experience, with the smell of the ocean, the sound of waves crashing, the stink of the garbage with seagulls screaming overhead, and the occasional breathtaking sunset.
Bernie and Seymour collected bottles for deposit money along with us but their aspirations were super high! While my daily goal was about 25 bottles— with my record of up to 100 bottles— Bernie and Seymour consistently collected ten times that many—i.e. 500 to 1,000 bottles per day.
Bernie and Seymour would head for the beach just when everyone would head back to the city and spend about three hours hauling huge quantities of bottles back home, only to head back for more. In the morning, they would wash out each bottle and pack them in boxes. You had to wash the sand out of the bottles or the supermarket wouldn't accept them.
Bernie and Seymour would run a production line, washing hundreds of bottles out in the morning. By the time I had my 25 bottles, or so, in a wheel cart ready to go for my deposit money, Bernie and Seymour would have cases and cases of bottles cleaned and ready to go. They would have already made several trips on foot to the supermarket to cash in all they collected, and had several more to go.
I used to watch in awe. We would try to guess what they were going to use all the money for. We all figured they'd buy a Schwinn Black Phantom bike, a "high-end" record player or perhaps they were saving for their college education. This went on for days and weeks until Labor Day arrived. We prepared to move back to our winter homes. Just as we were checking to make sure that everything was securely shut, we heard the loudest scream ever. It was Esther crying and howling and we all thought Bernie or Seymour fell off the roof.
My mom, dad, brothers and all the neighbors went running to our backyard to the top of the six-foot wooden fence to see what had happened. To our surprise, there was a huge yellow ribbon wrapped around a brand new washing machine AND dryer with a "To Mom, love Bernie and Seymour" card. My mom had a slight tear in her eye, knowing how hard these kids worked and the meaning of it all. I was amazed beyond words. I will never forget that day. For years later, we would always give Bernie, Seymour and their mom a most "devoted" hello. Yes, mom and dad (now in heaven), that was the day that I finally learned what "devoted" really meant.