It’s My Turn
If you mention Rockaway Beach in Queens to old-timers in Sag Harbor, nine out of ten will smile, “Rockaway? Sure, we swam there when I was a kid.” Sometimes referred to as the Irish Riviera, 50 or 60 years ago the 11-mile long peninsula at the other end of Long Island was a cool refuge from the sweltering streets of Brooklyn, Manhattan, even the far off Bronx. Lines of wooden bungalows, facing each other across sandy courtyards, were packed with extended families, mothers gossiping on tiny porches, grandpas checking Yankee and Dodger box scores in the News or Mirror.
The Irish allusion truly reflected New York City at the time. There already had been several waves of Irish immigrants to the United States, most settling in big cities, especially Chicago, Boston and New York. Indeed, as far back as the Revolutionary War, a British general told the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army was from Ireland.” From 1820 to 1860, nearly two million Irish arrived here, with a large spike after the famine of the 1840s. In 1910, there were more people of Irish heritage in New York than in Dublin. As late as 1960, 42 percent of the NY Police Department was Irish American. Generations later, descendants of the early immigrants held onto their Gaelic heritage, as if they had just left the Emerald Isle.
On balmy summer nights the older folks strolled to the Rockaway boardwalk, luxuriating in breezes off the ocean, remarking over and over, “Isn’t this grand?” As in any beach town in summer, seasonal bars flourished, patronized more by flirting boys and girls than by drinkers. Despite thousands of college kids, young working people, and off-duty cops and firemen swarming the community, there was surprisingly little drunkenness. In fact, anyone who became sloppy or abusive was distained. Most saloon keepers back then were Irish immigrants, or first generation sons called “narrow backs” because they no longer had to take hard jobs at New York construction projects. The proprietors kept their brogues as a badge of authenticity. They’d call out, “Safe home, me boyos,” as customers tilted out the door late at night.
Rockaway’s heyday came after World War II and lasted well into the 50s and 60s, until City planners bulldozed miles of oceanfront. In winter the unheated bungalows and rooming houses were deserted and forlorn, but come spring another coat of paint went on and the courts were lively with shouting kids and slamming screen doors. Tiny kitchens were lit with bare light bulbs, hanging side by side with sticky, coiling strips of fly paper.
Old timers might debate the unofficial boundaries of the Irish Riviera, but one opinion has it running west from 90th Street, past Playland Amusement Park on 98th Street, jam packed 103rd Street with its heavy concentration of night-spots, to McGuire’s tavern on 108th Street. In between, every corner on Rockaway Beach Boulevard was alive with beer joints whose names recalled the “auld country.” Gildea’s on Beach 103rd Street (“Beach” was a NYC designation for all the streets in Rockaway) was reputed to serve anyone who could get his nose above bar level and many a pimply-faced youngster gagged down his first beer there, wondering how people could drink such vile stuff. Worn wooden floors in the Leitrim House and the Irish Circle and the Blarney Castle bounced in time to Irish step dancers.
McGuire’s Bar always was crowded with tall young men who played or formerly played basketball at St. John’s, Manhattan, CCNY or LIU. On sunny days they hung around the asphalt court next to the boardwalk hoping to get a game with Dick or Al of future NY Knickerbockers fame. Mrs. McGuire sat next to the cash register, seeing everything. If you met a pretty girl and asked where she lived, as often as not she’d give the name of her parish church, as in “St. John the Baptist on 72nd Street.”
Occasionally three elderly little men would troop into a bar and entertain on makeshift musical instruments. They wore baggy black suits, derbies and yellowing white shirts buttoned up to the neck. The ”instruments” were a musical saw stroked like a cello with a long stick that had a strip of sandpaper glued to it, and a trumpet created from a cheap tin funnel. A third fellow clacked the “bones” together in his nimble hands, or strummed a washboard with thimbles on his fingertips. One of the little men might stand and do a sort of clog step to the “music.” In 20 minutes they’d pass a hat, collect a few coins, and be off to the next emporium.
The pubs were so crowded on weekends that you could barely move. Table waiters at the popular Mermaid Inn got so frustrated trying to find an opening at the bar to fill their orders that they’d skip next door to less crowded Duke Cooney’s, buy drinks there, and rush back to their customers in the Mermaid.
Sometimes we’d walk down to Playland, not to ride the rickety old, wooden roller coaster but to pitch baseballs at wooden pins lined up on shelves. We’d win dozens of paper leis and an occasional stuffed animal that we’d present to the next pretty girl we met. Rockaway was a New York City beach and many college boys worked for the Department of Parks, so they’d be back on the sand early the next morning as lifeguards or “parkies,” raking seaweed along the shoreline.
At the end of the season, the air chilled a bit and the bungalow courts held big Labor Day weekend parties. You could go from one bungalow to another, and if you were with a girl from the court, you were watched by gimlet-eyed aunts and uncles rocking on the porch. The bungalows and bars are gone now, but when we meet people of a certain age who grew up in “the City,” we’re likely to lapse into nostalgia, remembering those carefree, youthful days on the Irish Riviera.