Swimming Two Miles

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 water.

“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 own.

“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?”

“Uh, what?”

“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 here.”

“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 CCNY.”

 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 subject.

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 rain.

“Because, you’ll see,” was the answer.

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 effect.

“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 Brooklyn treatment.

“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 guard.”

“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 think?”

“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 one.

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 name anyway?”

“Steve”, I say over my shoulder.

“Yeah man, take it easy Steve.  And hey, I’m Emilio.”

“I’m Georgie,” says the other voice.

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 Brooklyn.

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, ya know?”

“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 me.

“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 rainstorms. 

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 dad.

“Here?”

“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 favor?”

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 trash.

What the hell, I thought.  “It’s money. A hundred and seventy-five dollars.  I – I owe it to him”

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 gas.

“You can say that again,” he said.  “Sometimes even about your own son.”

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