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thought i was a donut, ya tried to glaze me

5.19.2008

Labor Day, 1998





When I heard a shark washed up in Rockaway the last Saturday of Labor Day, I figured it was just another rumor. I hear it every summer, bunched together with all those myths and truths. Tales of hurricanes that make the Atlantic so strong it knocks the brick off buildings, that makes the ocean meet the bay. So until I saw the video on Fox 5 News, I refused to believe it. And even after that my biggest concern was not that another shark would come back and eat me, but that the beaches would stay open. Thankfully, they did, because you don't wanna mess with the locals on their last weekend of summer.


We used to be the Diehards. The seven or so families who came to the same spot on Beach 123rd, arranged beach chairs in a circle, and sat from Memorial to Labor Day. There was other stuff involved, but mainly it was sitting. Growing up it was an every day thing; as we got older it became less steady, less frequent, but still--we always had Labor Day. And a few dark clouds that Monday in September, 1998, weren't going to keep us in our houses.

But this is the part of the story we always get tripped up on, whenever we meet up and retell it like it just happened. The year. We always have trouble with the year.


"What year was that storm, '99?"



"It was 98."



"You sure it wasn't '99? I coulda sworn it was '99."



"No, you're wrong. 98. The first Subway Series.."



"First year of interleague play was in '97.."


"It doesn't count if it's played up at Yankee Stadium."



"You're an ass. And it was '99."



It was '98. I was 12 years old. I remember that summer well mainly because of this story, but also because it was the last "real" summer of my childhood. Of course, I didn't know this then; you never know how good you have it til you don't anymore. None of us kids had jobs yet and there was still so much free time to waste. It was a summer devoted to playing ghetto baseball in the empty lot next to the Temple, playing Tetris on N64 in the Boden's basement, and playing Manhunt, still, even though we were probably too old to be hiding in showerhouses and chasing after each other to tag. In the case of the ghetto baseball and the Tetris I was mostly just a spectator, since I was "too young" and "a girl" to have any ability to swing at a tennis ball and allow blocks to fall into place. But I still enjoyed hanging, and when the days got shorter, I was sad to see the summer end.

We all planned an end of summer beach party, surprisingly the first official Labor Day party we'd ever had. We weren't just doing sandwiches and coolers this year. There were discussions weeks before about the set up and arrangements for tables, who would bring the grills, the blender, the extension cord.


The weathermen on Sunday night said rain, with a possible chance of thunderstorms late in the afternoon. That Monday morning it was overcast, but by noon we shut off our TVs and were all on the sand. Fuck Sam Champion--it was the last real day of summer. We planned on being there until the sun went down, regardless of what the weatherman said.

By 1pm my mom was already on her second frozen Pina Colada. One of the things about my mom is that she isn't a big drinker. The other thing is that she's a lightweight. Halfway through her second round in the Solo cup she was red faced and talking too much; around that same time I decided to go swimming. The water was beautiful, and not too far off there was a sandbar, tempting me to swim out to it. I wasn't then--and am not now--a strong swimmer, but there's something about a sandbar that always tricks me into thinking that I am. It stands there like some ledge in the middle of the ocean, allowing you to enjoy what is usually uncharted territory. Some of my other friends had already swam out to the sanbar and come back in, and their talk only made me want to go out more.



"It's huge! See how far I was out? And the water was barely up to my chest!"



I convinced two of my friends, Marybeth and Carolyn, to go in the water with me. We walked towards the shore, bracing ourselves past the breaking waves, and made it out to our waists. At this point they turned back around.


"We're bored," they said. "Anyways, it's too far out."

They both had valid points, but I had made it that far already and didn't want to quit. I kept walking out, treading water, and I doggie paddled out once my feet couldn't touch the sand. I felt something in the pit of my stomach as i continued paddling. It was instinct, telling me to get the fuck outta there, but I tricked myself into thinking it was just nerves. The whole time I had been swimming I didn't think to look back on shore, maybe knowing that if I knew how far out I got I'd freak out. As I floated near what I thought was the sandbar, I finally looked back.

The people looked like ants. I didn't have my glasses on so they looked even smaller and blurrier. I kept forging on, though, determined to get to what I did not know was already gone.

Something important to keep in mind about sand bars is that they break. Lifeguards are taught to watch out for them, knowing when they break they usually cause a rip tide. At 12 I did not know this. So in my trying to poorly swim out to the sand bar, which had already broke, I had inadvertantly put myself right into the middle of a rip tide.

I mentioned I can't swim, right?

What was good about my tricking myself into doing things--into thinking I was a good swimmer, into thinking this whole mess was a good idea--was that I tricked myself into believing I wasn't in any trouble. You're fine, I said. Just keep swimming, you'll make it out there. So I did. I did not panic, which is the first thing they tell you to do if you're ever caught in one of these (once again, something I did not know then). I remember seeing Marybeth and Carolyn on the shore, waving me in. Since I dipped out of the beach crew without anyone really seeing me, and since my mom was all saucy and sloppy on the sand, they were the only two who knew I was in the ocean. I timidly waved back, still believing I was fine. They knew better, however, and got the lifeguard to get me. I know what you're thinking--shouldn't the lifeguard have noticed you were out that far? Shouldn't he have been whistling you in? And to that I say--you must not know Rockaway lifeguards on the last day of summer. I'm lucky he wasn't too drunk to climb off the chair and get me.

Now I'd rather fall face down in a pile of poop in front of a hundred people than get saved by a lifeguard on the beach. It's exciting to watch when it happens to someone else, but when it's you on the receiving end, it's terrible. Excrutiatingly embarrasing. Humbling. Mortifying. All these things, and more, considering I was a water soaked chubby 12 year old getting escorted back to her family by a half-drunk lifeguard. My mom had no idea this all happened, which prevented what would have been a heart attack if she knew I almost drowned. I think she barely noticed what was going on, and got back to her frothy bev. I wrapped a towel around myself and got back to the group, wanting to die, ready to hide for the rest of the day and assured this story would be the talk of everyone. Thankfully, it wasn't.

As the day progressed, the sky got darker. People started leaving in droves, but we stayed. How could you tell the locals from DFDs? They're the morons still on the beach when an obvious storm is approaching. At around 4:30 we started a game of baseball in the hot sand. I was playing right field when the sky got suddenly darker and a the wind picked up. We ignored it. But what we couldn't ignore was the loud crack of thunder, bouncing off the buildings and ringing in our ears.


On cue, we all started running back to the circle. The wind got stronger now, and the sky cracked again. Sand started blowing everywhere and it got in our faces. We ran frantically back to the adults and they instructed us to get our stuff together, making sure we knew what to get first.

"Get the kabobs!" they screamed. "Don't forget the hot dogs!"

"The burgers! The cole slaw! The potato salad! What are you doing? Forget your towel! Get the food, get the food!"

My mom had sobered up by now and threw a pack of hot dogs at me. My dad had parked the car up the street and he ran to it early in, pulling up to the boardwalk, the wind pushing his car on two wheels. I had made it up there with a few other people, friends of friends, and I watched as my dad took a platter of kebobs out of some kid's hands, throw them in the backseat, and peel off without us. He's a man with priorities.


The Bodens lived up the block, so we decided we'd all head up there for shelter. They live in an immense, old house, three floors and a basement, a giant wrap-around porch and a pond with real live goldfish (that last part has nothing to do with the story, I just brought it up because it's cool). As I ran up the block--barefoot, as I didn't have time to find my Costco Speedo sandalss--the wind got crazier and started blowing other stuff around, like garbage cans. Branches were ripped off of trees. I got to the house just in time to see and hear the small window of their third floor get blown out, which scared the shit outta me. The kids all gathered in the basement, where we started to play--what else--Tetris. But this was one instance when the falling bricks couldn't sooth us. Even the older kids were noticeably on edge, knowing ther were just in the middle of something they'd never been in before.


And what was it exactly? A tornado, a cyclone, a hurricane? Later on we'd hear worse stories about that Labor Day--trees getting ripped out of the concrete and falling into living room windows, a story about a guy collapsing and dying on the stairs of his court at the Gilded Pigeon. I remember all the hoopla over the tornados touching down in Bay Ridge; the news claimed it was one of the only tornados to his the city. Not true! I would scream at my tv. No fair! The Rockaways slighted, once again, not even getting a little press over what seemed to be a twister or som'in. We lost a lot of stuff that day; a library book, some condiments, the left foot from my beloved Speedo flip flops (I found the right one a few days later 10 blocks away). Being that it was the last big summer party I'd have, I'd say we lost a lot more. Sand and waves weren't the only thing that smacked me in the face that day. Everyone was growing up, and what we had was quickly changing, getting stirred up and spun around in 100 different directions. What was left of that summer and that Labor Day came to an end in the basement of one of the Diehards, as we ate our shish kebobs (cooked on the stove, not the grill), made all the bricks fall into place, and waited for the storm to pass.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i'd like to hear the story of hopw you got saved by a lifeguard at age 16. cw

I wonder if my writing has even improved?