It was the perfect summer
job. Out of doors, good hours, good tips
I was told. Last summer I did inventory
in a clothing warehouse, where I sneezed for three months at minimum wage. Before that, I sold ice skates at a sporting
goods store in Rockefeller Center.
Mostly to South American businessmen who arrived with foot tracings of
all their family members and their neighbor’s families. Nothing like measuring foot tracings and
matching them up to skate sizes all day to make your summer memorable.
Who knew that there was a
private beach club, with cabanas and full snack bar, at Coney Island? All I knew, growing up in New York, was that
Coney Island had rides, amusements, a great roller coaster and the most awesome
ride in the whole world, the parachute drop where you were strapped into a
swing seat, hauled up on wires about twenty stories, and then just dropped to
earth. It took ten seconds or so, maybe
ten stories worth, to see if the parachute would fill with air and bring you
peacefully down to earth. Or,
alternately, you were dead. Add all that
to a Nathan’s hot dog with sauerkraut for fifteen cents and you had a day of
paradise which you could conclude with an ocean dip with really super waves;
you just needed a buddy to watch your gear as everything unguarded disappeared
from the crowded beach, absorbed into the mass of humans on blankets so densely
spaced that you had to step on someone’s turf just to be able to get to the
“You eighteen?” asked the
woman at the employment agency?
“Sure. I’m a junior in college,’ I replied. I figured lying by six months was not such a
great sin and I wanted a job.
“Social security card?”
“Sure, of course. Here,” passing my mealy paper card to the
woman, She made a note of the number and
handed it back to me.
“Ever hear of Sea Gate?”
“No. What’s Sea Gate?”
“It’s a bunch of private
homes at the end of Coney Island. Really
fancy, a big wall all around it. They
got a beach club there, they only want college kids to work there for the
summer, guess they think their shit don’t stink.’ She looked up at me over her half-glasses,, a
thin smile on her bright red lips, her true attitude towards her job and
towards the rich kids who came begging for summer jobs showing through her
veneer: “So, college boy, you can tell me the truth. Your shit stink?”
“Not if there is a job for
me at this place, it doesn.t.”
Big smile. “You are one smart kid, I’ll give you
that. Here, take this form and go for an
interview. They are real particular, but
you look like the button down shirt type they seem to prefer.’
I looked at the form, then
thanked her. As I stood up, I asked how
I got to this Sea Gate. “Well, you a
college kid, first test is, see if you can find the place.” She looked around me to the rows of seats
full of kids looking for a summer job.
“Next,” she called. I was on my
“Sea Gate, eh?” My dad looked up from the Herald
Tribune. “That should be interesting.”
“I dunno. You know this place?”
“Sure.” My father grew up in Brooklyn, lived there
all his life. “You know the beginning of
the amusement park area, the strip with Nathans and Luna Park? Where you get off the subway, the El? That’s Surf Avenue, around 4th up to
maybe 15th Street. If you keep on going,
all the way to the end, you come to Sea Gate.
There’s a security guard, there are some pretty nice homes behind that
wall. What’s the job?”
“It says here on the form
‘cabana boy.’ I think it’s sort of a waiter
at their beach club?”
“Sounds like a great job,
not being cooped up in an office and you don’t need to take the train into
Manhattan. You’ll have to work weekends
I’m sure, but I bet it’s good money.” He
paused and looked up meaningfully. “We
could use it, ya know. You spend a small
fortune up there at school. Maybe if you
have to work really hard for the money you’ll decide to eat the food in the
meal plan and not go out to restaurants every night.”
“Dad, I’d work a hundred
hours a week to not eat Shepard’s Pie in the student center. Just tell me how to get to this place and
I’ll go and make a fortune for us.”
Well, it’s probably a mile
from the train, maybe more You could
walk. Maybe there’s a bus. I don’t know.
Never gone there myself, just heard about it.”
Next morning, I walked to
the Kings Highway subway station and took the train past Manhattan Beach to the
Coney Island stop, end of line. A trip I
had taken often enough. Walking
downstairs, there was a bus stop with a sign that said the end of the route was
Sea Gate. Great. It took about ten minutes to be dropped off
at a circle, end of Surf Avenue, the city street did not penetrate the gate. The guard house looked over an entry gate for
cars and a turnstile for pedestrians.
“Who ya visiting?”
“I’m not sure. I have an interview at the beach club for a
job?” I passed him my paper.
“Three blocks straight,,
turn left towards the water and you’ll run right into it.”
I walked quickly down the sidewalk. Quite a place, all single-family houses with
neat shrubs and little lawns in front, streets so clean I thought I was
dreaming. In the driveways, a Buick
Roadmaster and a Lincoln Continental came into view. “Holy shit” is the thought that came to
mind. Back in my part of Brooklyn, only
the lawyer on the street had a Buick, and I had never seen a Lincoln
Continental except on a billboard ad.
The interview was with a pinch-faced
woman in a gray suit and a small, sweaty man in a T-shirt with a couple of small
holes near the collar.
Mrs. Moscowitz was from the Home-Owners
Association board. She asked me what
college I attended, and asked to see my student ID card that I was lucky to have
kept in my wallet after the term ended.
She asked me about my major.
Seemingly American History was acceptable; She smiled widely; lots of
gold in her mouth.
The man with the T-shirt
turned out to be the operator of the snack bar.
“You ever been arrested?”
“You been in jail?”
“No, of course not.”
He nodded. “That’s good because you kids gotta make
change outta my register when it’s busy and I had a kid once, he thought it was
his own piggy bank.”
“I never would do that, steal
or anything.” I was indignant.
Lou, this was I soon learned
the infamous Lou who ran what was called around the club a “tight ship,” gave
me a curt laugh. “Oh, yeah, ya
will. Maybe not money but you get one
sandwich and one drink on the house and it will get hot as hell serving the
members, specially down to the beach, and you’ll start swiping a cola or
cadging a frozen Milky Way and forgettin’ to put your money into the
register. But I know who you are, so
don’t think you’ll get to make a habit of it.”
I was silent. Lou scanned down the page from the agency and
scowled. “Ya go to Columbia it says
“Yes, I’m gong to be a
junior next year.”
“Don’t like Columbia,” Lou
allowed. Bunch of fancy pants kids who
always have a shitty football team; bunch of pansies. I like kids goin’ ta Brooklyn College, maybe
I made the mistake of trying to defend my
school. “Well,” I said, “those schools
don’t even have a football team.”
Lou’s brow, lined and
sweaty, furrowed deeper . “I know
that! Didja think I didn’t know
that? Still like them schools better. Better workers, not all stuck up. The Lions, that’s you Columbia guys, right? You a
bunch of big pussy cats, just a bunch of pussies is all.” His stare made me decide to drop the whole
The lady from the Association
actually cleared her throat to regain the floor, turned to Lou and asked primly
if Mr. Pescatori was satisfied with my candidacy.
Lou looked down and mumbled that
I was okay by him, but he still didn’t much like kids from Columbia and, thus,
was I hired as a cabana boy at Sea Gate’s cabana club, at the far end of Coney
Island, for the summer of 1961 at 40 cents an hour plus tips, and a lunch
ration of one hamburger or hot dog and one Coke Cola.
At training, the week before
the Club opened in mid-June, I learned about the uniform. White shorts, white cloth belt, white T-shirt
with the coat of arms of Sea Gate on the breast, white sox, white pith helmet
and white tennis shoes. Everything but
the tennis shoes were provided by, and laundered assiduously by, the Association. Sounded reasonable to me, in fact it sounded
pretty snazzy as well as cool while working outside.
It was the uniform, however,
that turned my dream summer job into the tensest ten weeks of my life.
The job was great. Lots of fresh air. Nice people.
Nice looking young girls. Really
good tips. You usually could avoid the
small kids rolling down the beach slope,
trying to take out the cabana boys like bowling pins as we trudged through
the sand to deliver mixed drinks and beers to the people in lounge chairs. All
summer I got dumped only once, on my second day, although Lou made me pay for
the lost food and drinks. I was making
so much money that I refrained from asking if anyone from Brooklyn College had
ever been dumped.
And on rainy days the chief
cabana boy, a returning guy about twenty with whom I hit it off although he was
only a Cornell man, clued me in to stay when it was raining.
“Why?” I asked, because the
other six cabana boys were happy to be released to go home in inclement weather,
and sympathized with me for getting stuck with having to stay behind in the
“Because, you’ll see,” was
Around noon each drizzling
afternoon, the men began to arrive, shed their suit coats and ties, and walked
down to a couple of the larger cabana tents and unfolded the metal tables. Decks of cards and poker chips appeared, as
did bottles of Haig and Haig and Canadian Club.
Lou stayed open, serving mixers and steak sandwiches in a steady
stream. The tips from the games came in
the form of poker chips and the smallest denomination was a whole dollar. On a rainy afternoon you could make fifty
dollars in tips, two boys constantly running back and forth in the rain, water
dripping off the rim of our helmets. And
around dinner time when the games broke up, you could tell the big winners as
they dropped you a couple of five dollar chips and apologized for how soaked
you had gotten.
No, the job was great. The
problem was the gauntlet in the subway station.
Seems some of the local
teens, maybe also some of the kids of the carny workers who flooded the midway
during the warmest months, spent much of their time hanging out under the El,
passing judgment on the arriving tourists and beach-goers and talking up the
young girls. A hard-looking bunch they
were, they all must have worked out as their muscles filled out their
shirts. Their jeans were tight and
pegged, their belt buckles of heavy metal design, and they wore boots even when
the temperature was a hundred degrees. Many
had tattoos. A few drank beers with
impunity; seems they were invisible to the transit employees who, I guess, had
their own problems and didn’t want to get into a hassle. Even the cleaning guy just picked up the
bottles and swept up the Camels butts without a word.
I guess I was the only
cabana boy to commute by train. I knew a
couple lived in Sea Gate, and the older boys all drove. One morning, and in the morning there were usually
a few of these self-styled tough guys hanging out by the time I got there, a
couple of them blocked my last step down from the train stairs.
“What’s with the outfit?”
“Why do you want to know? Anything wrong with it?”
“Well, now that ya mention
it, yeah there’s something wrong with it all right.”
When you grow up in Brooklyn
you learn that a little street sass is sometimes the best defense, so I gave it
a try. “Well, I don’t see nuthin’ wrong
with it, like it’s your business anyway.
I ‘m going to work. Let me past,
will ya?” Nobody moved.
“We see ya get on the bus to
Sea Gate. Ya work in there, do ya?”
“Yeah I work in there. Where do you work? Under the El smoking
cigarettes?” I thought that was pretty
clever. I moved as if to take a step but the two of them still had me blocked. Seems street sass was not going to have any
“Well, shit-fer-brains, just
so happens we do work here and when some faggit big-mouth gives us crap like we
was pieces of shit, then we go to work by taking that muthafukker around the
back and beating the crap outta him and taking his money and his watch, and
kick him the fuckin’ balls just to remind him that if anyone asks, nothing
happened and he don’t know us.”
Time for plan B.
“Look, guys, I’m late. I’m sorry but I am just working and I need
the money. They make me dress up like
this, ya know? It ain’t my idea, ya
know?” I was giving my accent the full
“Yeah?” The biggest guy, olive complexion, long hair
to his shoulders, all full of tattoos, is poking my chest, but really hard
because he wants me to feel it really hard, “so what sorta faggit job ya got in
that fancy faggit place behind that fucking faggit wall, that ya gotta dress
like a faggit vanilla ice cream cone?”
So here is what you learn
growing up in Brooklyn. You learn,
instinctively, how to measure street cred.
You need to know your own, and calibrate against the cred of the other
guy, so you know how to behave.
Sometimes, how to survive. These
guys, they are wearing their street cred in plain view, pecs and tats and
Camels burning right down to the lip line.
That’s pretty good street cred, but it is not the only kind of street
cred. Sometimes the best cred is the
type that is not obvious.
Now, if I announce I am a
cabana boy these guys are going ask what the hell is a cabana, and sooner or
later they are going to figure out that I am a waiter in white shorts and pith
helmet serving cocktails to rich people behind a stone wall, and then they are
going to take me out back and beat the crap out of me and take all my money and
my watch and then they are going to kick my fucking balls so I am reminded, if
anyone asks, that nothing has happened and I don’t know those guys over there.
“Whattaya think, I’m a life
“Whah, ya mean like on the
beach up on a chair lifeguard?”
“Yeah, they got a chair and
I sit up on it sometimes.” They both
step back and I walk down the last riser so I am now on the ground. This is working, I know it is working…
“No shit. How’d ya get that job?”
“Well, whaddaya think?” I am talking good Brooklyn now, no Rs, no
grammar, very few Ts. “Ya godda swim
good. Real good.” They nod, two heads bobbing.
“Behind the fence, buncha
faggit dicks. Half of em can’t swim ten
yards. But they go into the water like
they own it, know what I’m sayin’? So
they godda make sure they got someone to pull ‘em out when a wave goes over
them, or for their kids, ya know?”
I survey their faces I now have some respect. Maybe they will let me live.
“Yeah, cool, so like how far
ya gotta swim to get one a them lifeguard jobs?”
Now this is a problem. You see, I cannot swim. To this day, I am petrified of the
water. I am not going to be able to
graduate unless I can swim so it is on my list, in my senior year, to learn how
to swim. But as of that moment, my
swimming gives new meaning to the phrase “sink like a stone.”
“So,” I say on the attack, “whaddaya
“I don’t got no idea” says
the smaller one, the one I thought was a mute until that moment. “I can’t swim at all.”
“Me neither,” says the big
Oh, this going to be easy. I can say whatever I want.
“Well, ya swim out past the
waves, the breakers, and ya swim one mile and then ya swim back.”
“Two fucking miles,” the big one almost whispers. “How far is that on land?”
“I resist the temptation to
suggest it is two miles.
“Well, I get in the water
behind the wall. I swim down to just before the parachute ride, then I turn
around and go back.”
“Fuck,” they recite together.
I sense my opening.
“And if I don’t get on the
bus and get to work, I ain’t gonna be a lifeguard tomorrow, so…”
I pause. They step back. I smile and walk between them. To my back, someone says, “hey, what’s ya
“Steve”, I say over my
“Yeah man, take it easy
Steve. And hey, I’m Emilio.”
“I’m Georgie,” says the
I am at the bottom step of
the bus, and I turn and spread some my
superior street cred with my new minions.
“Glad to meet youse guys. Stay
cool.” I allow a thin smile, just a
little one and only for a second, like I mean what I said but it isn’t a big
deal to me, and I get on my bus and we lumber off down Surf Avenue. I exhale.
I am alive. I am the king of
So it is all good from then
on. “Hiya, Steve, goin’ swimmin’ today?”
“Every day, Georgie, every day.” And, “hey
Emilio, who’s your buddy? Oh, yeah, good
to meetcha, Jackson my man, be seein’ ya.”
I even get offered a smoke a couple of times; I decline, tell them it
hurts your wind when you’re swimming two miles and the surf kicks up and the
waves keep pushing against you.
So it is the Sunday before
Labor Day. Labor Day is the last day of
work. It is also the day you get your
bonus of $175 for staying the whole summer, which is a lot of money for a
college student. I am coming down the
subway stairs with my usual noblesse oblige smile and I see there are about ten
guys at the bottom. I hesitate for the
moment, but Georgie smiles and waves, so it all seems safe and I come down to
the bottom and say my hellos.
“Ya know, we got an idea,”
says Emilio. “This guy we met, his
people work the arcade games, they from Florida. And he says he’s a real good swimmer. He says he can swim two miles like it was
nuthin.’ So our idea is, we gonna have a
race. Maybe you start just outside the
gate, ya know, and go to the parachute and swim back and we see who’s faster,
“That’s a hell of an idea,”
I tell them. They are all smiles. “Yeah and we bet on you and we make a fuckin’
fortune,” says the kid called Jackson my Man for some reason never disclosed to
“Well, here’s the
thing. I never said I was a racer, just
a life guard. How do we know I can beat
him?” My mind is searching alternate excuses,
I am desperate not to be killed on the spot
Emilio steps forward. Until that moment, when he is about a foot in
front of me, I hever realized how wide he was.
I mean, I knew he was pretty tall, but it turns out he is also as wise
as a Caddy.
“Yeah,” he says, “but ya
swim two miles every day, ya tell us, so
ya gotta be in shape, right?” He
pauses, looking down sternly.
“Oh, yeah,, no question, but
maybe this other guy, he swims a lot too.
I just don’t want you to get your hopes up ya gonna win.”
“Oh, yeah, well see Stevie,
we got a lot of faith in you, ya know?”
When Emilio said that it was not really a question. I see every other head bouncing up and down
affirmatively, it seems we have all bonded over the long summer and I am their
guy, their swimming guy, no doubt about it.
“And, I gotta work today and
tomorrow and then I’m back to school, the beach closes tomorrow and it’s back
to school for all of us.”
This is a mistake, I sense
it as soon as it escapes my now-frantic mouth.
My best guess is that no one of this group is going to do anything like
return to a classroom any time in the foreseeable future. A couple of the guys look down but Emilio, he
drapes an arm over my shoulder and allows he weight to fall unsupported. I think his arm weighs more than my whole
body. I find myself walking around to
the back of the staircase with him.
“So,” coos Emilio as calmly
as you can imagine, “when you off work tomorrow?”
I am too scared to lie. “Well, we close officially at three but we
gotta clean up.”
“So, what that mean? Four? Five?”
“Well not sure, it’s the end
of the season, godda put away the chairs, uh the big lifeguard chair, the rope
ands and the floats and the boats and all.”
“Fine, still enough light at
five. You come out that place and just
turn right and follow the wall to the water, we looked and there’s a path, and
we’ll be there with this Pedro guy, and we can do it then. That way you can get back to yer school next
day. And look, let’s try to do this
right. Rest up today and tomorrow. Like before a boxing match you don’t do a
heavy workout the two days before? Stay
outta the fuckin’ water and save yer strength.”
I nod because I need to get
his arm off my shoulders before he drives me into the asphalt like a tent
spike, just from the weight of it.
“That’s my Stevie,” says
Emilio, and he unwinds his arm and give me a gentle punch of affection in my
shoulder which staggers me a few feet to my left.
I walk past the group and
stand at the bus stop. Emilio gives a
thumbs up to the group and now they are barking me encouragement. “Go get ‘em, you Tiger,” Georgie
suggests. II think to myself, ‘I’m a
Columbia Lion, you moron, the Tigers are Princeton” but I am too worried to say
anything let alone to correct Georgie so the bus comes and I turn and give ‘em
a grin that I know is way too large and I climb aboard and escape.
At break I call my father at
his office and beg him to pick me up at the gate tonight, no I can’t tell him
why but it is very important. It is
Sunday, he is just doing some paperwork so he sounds concerned and he agrees.
“You got a problem, kid?”
“Rather not talk about it.”
“Well, we are going to talk
about it because it sounds like someone is out to get you, or why else do you
need a ride.”
I do need help, an
ally. “Not someone, dad. I mob of maybe a dozen guys would like to
talk to me.”
“I see. What do you think we should do about it?”
“Well, I need you to drive
me to work and pick me up at 3:30 tomorrow.
That’s all. It’s the last day.”
He is driving down Ocean
Avenue through light traffic, we are almost home. “Think we might call the police?”, he asks.
“No, no, definitely not.”
For some reason I do not want to mess up Georgie and Emlio and Jackson
my Man and the rest of the crew, it turns out they are actually pretty good guys
underneath their street cred and, besides, life being what it is they don’t
have anything but their street cred going for them and sure don’t need some
lying button down shirt Ivy League type getting the cops on their backs.
“Just do me a favor and do
what I ask.” I wait a couple of
beats. “That okay?”
“My dad pulls into a parking
space and shuts the engine. “Sure,
kid. Whatever you say.”
After work on Labor Day,
with my envelope from the Association jammed into my pocket, I rushed to batten
down the tents and asked the guys as a favor to finish my clean-up, which they
said was the least they could do since I had covered for them all those rainy
days when they had the good luck of being able to get home during the
My dad was waiting just
outside the gate and I jumped into the car without lingering to look
around. I was pretty sure it was too
early for the crew to be at the wall for a five o’clock rendezvous. We drove silently down Surf Avenue and when
we got near the train station I asked my father to slow down and pull
over. I peered into the shadowy space
around the stairs, deep under the tracks, and didn’t see anyone there.
“I gotta get out,” I told my
“Yeah,” I said, swingout out
of the front seat. “Just be a minute.”
As I closed the door, a
thought occurred to me and I stopped it just short of clicking shut.
“Hey, dad, just do me a
favor and keep the car running, okay?” I
slammed the door before he could react.
I walked to the stairs and
looked around. How to do this? Then I saw Julius, the Transit janitor. Julius was the most placid person I had ever
met. Was he trustworthy? What were my choices?
“Hey, Julius, can ya do me a
Julius stopped pushing the
trash-can on wheels, and pushed the brooms aside from their small bin so he
could see me better.
“Sure, Stevie,” he
said. Those were the first words he ever
said to me, I was not sure he even knew my name.
“You know Emilio,
right? The really big guy with long hair?”
“A’course. He drinks Schlitz all days and drops the
bottles for me so I can pick them up and get the nickel deposits.”
That stopped me for a
moment. You never really know about
people, do you?
“Well, I have something for
him. Here, when you see him please tell
him this is from me, okay?” I reached
into my trousers and gave him me bonus envelope.
“Okay,I can do it if you
want. What’s in it, anyway?” Julius was a pasty faced man bent prematurely
in his fifties from spending his life stooped over picking up other people’s
What the hell, I
thought. “It’s money. A hundred and
seventy-five dollars. I – I owe it to
Julius didn’t blink, he just
stuck the envelope into his overalls.
“Got it,” he said.
I had another thought, took
out my wallet and pulled out a ten and handed it to Julius. “And this is for your helping me,” I said.
Julius shook has head and
started walking away, pushing his barrel.
“No need to do that,
Stevie,” he said. “Always glad to give a
friend a helping hand.”
I walked back to the car.
“How’d it go?, my dad asked.
“Oh, fine. Fine.
Ya know, dad, ya just never know about people, do ya?”
He smiled and stepped on the
“You can say that again,” he
said. “Sometimes even about your own