Island Memories

It was before most cars had air-conditioning; so even on the hottest days we drove with the windows rolled down. Always in that black ’63 Impala, or later on, the blue one. And finally the Nova. My grandparents were working class people with union jobs. They bought American. They bought Chevy.

Map of Queens and Brooklyn, NYC

WMCA New York was always on the radio on the ride down, incongruously, a top 40 type station that my grandparents listened to. Maybe it was the traffic or the weather but WMCA was their jam before people had a jam. WMCA’S theme song was a Bing Crosby tune. I remember that song as we drove through the bird sanctuary on the northern end of the island. The tidal smell of decaying organisms and “Straight Down the Middle” on the radio. Every. Damned. Time. I thought the song was about the island since Cross Bay Blvd did indeed go straight down the middle. That’s kid logic. Years later I was bemused to learn it was a song about a golf shot.

A poor kid could have it worse. It beat staying in our 400 square foot apartment, or with some kid-sitter. I would sometimes spend weeks at a time on this island with my grandparents. Fishing off their back patio, never caring that I never caught anything. All for the best, because I was fishing in then super polluted Jamaica Bay. Or walking “up to the Boulevard” to get bagels and crumb cake in the morning. That old bakery, I can still smell the New York style crumb cake and the real bagels. Not your Einstein fakes or your midwestern “coffee cake” without all the moist, buttery goodness.

Broad Channel was the name of the neighborhood built on the fill of Big Egg Marsh, part of an island called Rulers Bar Hassock. It was as stable as the names suggest. The houses were built high; some on stilts but most with basements and crawlspaces designed to flood and let the water pass through. At the monthly high tides the side streets would all flood. Separated from the Atlantic only by a slight sliver of land on the Rockaway Peninsula and the bay itself, it had no protection from hurricanes and destroyed homes sometimes sat for decades before being rebuilt. Twelve years on, the damage from Sandy is still widespread.

In the afternoons we would sit in the shade on the back patio, right next to the water, my grandfather drinking Rheingolds, and me drinking one of the flavored sodas they had delivered in the big 2 quart bottles; Pineapple when they had it or Cream otherwise. All the time listening to the Mets on the radio. Depending on time of day and wind direction a jetliner, heading for Idlewild, later JFK, would pass right overhead, so close you didn’t need binoculars to see the rivets, drowning out the game. We would miss a pitch or two and then continue until the next jet came over.

One day my grandfather heard a muffled explosion and hustled me into the car to drive over to the Northern part of the island. Up there the only thing between us and the airport was a short expanse of Jamaica Bay. When we got there we saw a black pillar of smoke, as dark as I’d ever seen rising to the sky. We could barely make out the white pieces of what use to be a large plane through the oily smoke. My grandfather made a quiet wish that no one was killed. Later we learned it was a cargo plane, and what we witnessed was a funeral pyre for the flight crew. I watched the planes a little differently after that. Years later, a few weeks after 9/11 an airliner passed right over what was once my grandparents house, lost its horizontal stabilizer, and broke up before plunging into a neighborhood right across the bay. It wasn’t a cargo plane.

I remember the cats my grandmother fed, thirty or so that hung around her house. Part of a herd of perhaps thousands, brought in by residents to control the rat population, and having done their job, were now unemployed. They had grown fat and lazy, but the people fed them, understanding that the balance between rat and cat could easily flip back the other way. My grandmother had a name for each of the cats she fed…they ate well.

A stand ash tray with a gaping penguin mouth just the right size to hold a lit cigar, the bar that my grandfather built in the living room to entertain. The fabulous Lennon Sisters and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom played out on the cutting edge color TV in the living room. I can still hear Karen Carpenter singing “Close to You” on the 8 Track player while I built a ship model on top of the bar; newspapers spread to protect it from the enamel paint and model glue.

The last memories I have of their place are looking through the high powered binoculars my Grandfather kept, and seeing the Marine Parkway lift bridge, which my Grandfather did not help build. Then squinting harder into the hazy New York sky, and barely making out the Verrazano Narrows bridge, which he did help build. He retired right after the completion of the World Trade Center, one of his electrical projects, and on a really good day I could make out the towers in the gloaming distance.

I can still smell the sweet rotting aroma of high tide. I can still hear the planes passing overhead and the seagulls and the Mets on the old radio he kept in the garage. I hear Bing Crosby singing Straight Down the Middle every time I drive across a causeway. My grandparents are gone for many years now, they left their imprint in their warmth and the memories of their home. I am beginning to cry, because they saved me and I wish they could see me. So they could tell me they are proud of me and slip me a twenty and tell me not to tell my mother.

© Glenn R Keller 2023, All Rights Reserved

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