If Fire Island had an inherent insular bourgeois goodness about it, the Rockaways are quite a different story. For one thing, they’re not an island at all, despite the Peninsula’s elongated shape and the similar occurrence of an east-facing beach-lined ocean side and its opposite shallow mangrove bay on the western shore. For another, one would be hard-pressed to find a ferry sailing between Brooklyn and the Peninsula. Instead there are bridges crossing the bay from the false mainland of Long Island, roads coming down the spine from the north, and even the NYC subway reaches the remote outpost, traveling in open air over a long band of low land that crosses Jamaica Bay opposite an immense field called JFK.
Like a triple-headed Cerberus, the A line splits into three different branches and that’s where the common traveler gets confused and swears at all things mythological.
A few days ago, a map spread out before me, I had looked for the easternmost location I could reach via public transit and found the Rockaways. So I walked from home to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway with that first station name neatly written on a piece of paper folded in four in my pocket. Should I get lost, I wanted to be able to ask for directions without having to make a fool of myself by attempting a foreign pronunciation of such a strange word and being answered a mystified "Bless you!" while a discrete hand looked for a tissue. The blue A line I’d catch there was supposed to take me all the way to my exotic destination in less than an hour.
My two cameras were duly packed and carried along with the tripod, one never knows. I had a large subway map for navigating in the field, my Swiss Army knife for impromptu repairs and other MacGyverisms, a LED headlight for late returns and potential subway power failures, a laminated chart of Abetoo’s hyperfocal distances that I keep forgetting to experiment with, a quarter, two paperclips, a pen, an empty chewing gum pack and a picture of Obama. Oh, no, scratch the latter, the cat had shredded it the previous week.
Now, the A line is a bit of a charade. It’s an express that unfolds from the very northern tip of Manhattan down to its toes, crosses over onto Long Island, pierces Brooklyn like an arrow aiming for the southern edge of Queens, and then trouble happens. Like a triple-headed Cerberus, the A line splits into three different branches and that’s where the common traveler gets confused and swears at all things mythological. You see, when you hop on the Express A at an approved and civilized downtown station, it will be bound for either one of the three heads. Which one of them depends on your luck, timing and what is written on the train.
I hadn’t quite understood that last fact, so I confidently boarded the first A that appeared in the 6 lane-wide station. There I sat, clutching my red photo backpack like a parachute, and I listened reverently to an incomprehensible announcement made by the train driver which surely included insightful hints like our destination and the next station to be visited. Having failed to understand a single word of it, I painted a mask of self-assured stone on my face and proceeded to travel along with the train. Discrete side glances revealed a few similarly stoned passengers and I wondered if they were as feeble as me on the inside.
My next assignment was to survey the usual ads above the windows. I’ve never really seen anything interesting up there but it kills time and allows one’s mind to empty of any remaining traces of intelligence, for a while. The fact that our destination was also displayed on the inside of the car eluded me and by the time we reached Euclid Avenue, a doubt had crept in and I got off to a clean start, quite literally. I got off the train, and waited for the next one.
The next 7 trains were not to my liking. Four of them were A’s going to the wrong head and the rest local C’s as in Crap. A magnanimously proportioned black lady with as magnanimous a good humour came towards me asking if she’d missed her A. It turns out we were going to the same station on the Rockaways. She clarified our options – which meant we just had to wait for the right A – and commented on transit times to her mother’s place with a theatricality that made hours sound like decades. She was carrying a bucket of fried chicken the size of a small suitcase and was very friendly. Our A eventually arrived. She went left and I took a right, choosing a window seat.
The car was two thirds-full and quite a few people had luggage with them, as the A line connects with the AirTrain to JFK.
I looked around me noticing a strange arrangement of the passengers towards one end of the car. In a previous dreadful accident, a tall cup of bright red slush had been dropped and exploded in a Picasso painting that marbled the car floor and forced people to do weird things with their legs in an attempt to avoid the runny and sticky stuff.
As the train emerged from underground on its way to the suburbs and the view became a valuable commodity, a teenager stepped over the crimson river to a window seat and then twisted his legs in bizarre positions for a few minutes, trying to rest both his feet comfortably out of the syrup. Failing to do so, he suddenly seemed to gain an eerie fatalism and finally placed both running shoes in the deepest part of the splash, carefully, methodically. He then lifted a knee half way, assessing the damage, found it to be total, put his foot back down and let go of all materialism as he was glued fast to the floor. If the train hit an obstacle and came to a sudden stop, there would be at least one shoeless passenger piled up at the other end of the wagon.
The subway – which was now an upway – turned south and soon JFK, the largest US airport, appeared without a trace of modesty to our left. We crossed Jamaica Bay at wave height on a narrow train-only causeway and climbed onto a small island. Across the bay, the terminal was overlooked by its gigantic control tower and a myriad of planes lay on the ground while others arrived and departed, an ant nest of concrete and metal, its flying queens all around, busy as bees, never resting. But the lady with the chicken didn’t see it all, she sat in the opposite corner and just waited for time to pass and home to be reached, empty eyes in a blank face.
Others, it would seem, had come here to claim their beachfront parcel of glamour. This was Fire Island with an accent.
Then the track veered left and landed on the Rockaway Peninsula itself. I was surprised, to say the least, by the presence of enormous apartment buildings, neatly aligned in a tall row perpendicular to the sea. This was obviously not the Miami Beach I had expected. Others, it would seem, had come here to claim their beachfront parcel of glamour. This was Fire Island with an accent. A getaway with added cars and without the fuss.
The second station, Beach 60th Street, was my stop. I saluted my bored fried chicken bearer and bore towards the eastern waterfront, all of two blocks away. To my left, project-like buildings, brown, tall and rectangular in their shape and approach to life. To my right, single-family houses, some old and others brand new, rap music pouring from windows and doors, lawns freshly trimmed, most with an Italian look I wasn’t sure matched the crowd.
The usual sand dune turned boardwalk guarded the beach and having climbed over it, I discovered a nearly empty stretch of sand at my feet. Rocky wave breakers disfigured the shore at regular intervals but the ocean was calm and of a decent colour. Far to the right and south, I could see many bright orange lifeguard umbrellas and a tightly packed crowd, but up here, barely anybody around. I passed a section reserved for surfers where a few very dedicated – if not blind – people in wet suits were paddling long boards around awaiting the rare wave that would crash on the beach at knee height. This was not a good surfing day.
The familiar melody of an ice cream truck floated in my direction while a man was pushing a much smaller cart down the beach, ringing a bell, selling something that had probably once been cold and surely still sounded refreshing. Surprisingly, there was little garbage in the many bins and even less on the sand. As I approached the busier part of the promenade, I realized I had never seen the "international orange" colour used for lifeguard recognition purposes, but it made perfect sense. Their umbrellas, equipment and clothes were as many highly visible pointers to safety. Red is definitely too Babewatch and rather passé.
Everything was the way it should be. Kids ran and fell, children splashed, babies cried, female adults tended to the above mentioned, male adults stared at the wrong female adults, seabirds circled and mimicked the human baby cries, lifeguards rolled hips and flexed muscles while watchfully ignoring the scene, and a few braves dipped toes and ego into the salty fluid at their feet that had once been sea water.
I walked down the beach for a long time and later came back up closer to the buildings, looking for hints of what life was like on the Rockaways and who it was for. Bus stops looked like atomic shelters but were painted with merry murals. A dog walking his man let him address me about my camera, and he soon declared that I should visit Staples this week for a 16 GB card for $30. This week only. He was a Canon guy too, but Nikon’s better built. The dog was normal, don’t know about the guy. But nice, as everyone had been on the peninsula, chatty and friendly. Some asking about my pictures, commenting on their turf, saying hi. Definitely not Miami Beach.
I ventured inland and found a small West Indian joint that sold the typical curried goat, jerk chicken and rice and beans. I bought two beef patties and a soda and headed to the subway with a mouthful of deliciously hot island taste. The A train arrived after 10 minutes or so and I sat in an almost empty car. At Broad Channel, on a small island with cute houses on stilts a single station before JFK, a flight attendant came on dragging the typical wheeled suitcase, ready to fly. Where he was coming from and why will remain a mystery. At the airport stop, he stood up, crossed the car, leaned over to pick up a trash bag under a seat and exited dutifully towards a garbage can and his plane. My jaw had trouble recovering.
The world disappeared. While we traveled underground, I scrolled through the pictures on my camera’s LCD. What a strange place I had just come from. So close to the city and yet so radically different. I couldn’t figure yet if I’d liked it or if it had liked me. Either way, I was moved.
I stayed on the train until Jay Street, changed to the F and pushed on to Manhattan where I grabbed a great latte at Whole Foods and met Marie on her way to a terrace appointment.
Next, I would go north.