Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"No Day at The Beach" By Joseph Griffith - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"No Day at The Beach" 


Joseph Griffith 

“Come on, Joey, let’s go see Momo and them jump in the pool.”

My uncle was laughing and walking toward the pool in Washington Baths, one of the largest and most popular beach clubs in Coney Island in the early 1960s. A large man, a stevedore with a hearty laugh and a terrible temper, he had an iron grip that was usually wrapped around a bottle of Scotch. He was a hero to me, his adolescent namesake. He would never steer you wrong, had the answer to every question, could fix anything, knew everybody and was the guy you’d most want backing you up in a fight. A couple of times I saw him arguing with guys over one thing or another, and they would stand there turning white as a sheet while he threatened them. He was Italian, and in those days saying somebody was Italian was tantamount to saying they were in the Mafia, because if they weren’t they probably knew somebody who was.

Uncle Joe was no exception. He had grown up in Bensonhurst among the toughest of kids – the future middleweight champion Rocky Graziano was a next-door neighbor regularly farmed out to keep him out of trouble on the Lower East Side. Like many from his neighborhood, my uncle fought Hitler, figured Mussolini for a harmless dope and then settled back into the insular place of his birth, surrounded by his own kind and those who would protect them.

I joined him and we walked toward the boardwalk, where the pool was located. Washington Baths had a gate through which you could walk under the boardwalk onto the beach. The late-afternoon sun would stream through the slats in the boardwalk overhead, creating bars of light around the prisoners of love making out in the shadows. The pool was open to the public but you could obtain a season membership, which my uncle and all his friends had. Sometimes I would go as his guest, and they treated me like an unofficial mascot, a designation that brought with it plenty of free ice cream, soda and tips for bringing them drinks. They would sit all day in the broiling sun, gambling and playing cards, only occasionally rising to go to the bathroom or, on the hottest days, into the pool. If the card games were particularly heated, they wouldn’t move all day.

Momo was a professional gambler who rarely left the poker table, possibly because it was too much effort to shift his 460-pound frame. Sally was a 350-pound restaurateur who always seemed to have a sandwich or something stuffed into his enormous face. Tommy was ... well, everybody knew at least one guy who was in the mob, and Tommy was it. A relative lightweight at 275 pounds, he had a leathery face that looked like it was going to crack when he smiled, and he dispensed cash like it was going out of style. When he tipped me five bucks for bringing him a soda and “bein’ a good kid,” I felt like I’d made it, Ma, top o’ the world. Five bucks was five bucks, but to get it from such an important guy, to have the good will and blessing of this stylish, charismatic and feared character, was too much for words. Dare I say that at that impressionable age, I admired him and wanted to be like him, ordering around a bunch of underlings?

“There they are, look at them, what a bunch o’ clowns,” said Uncle Joe as we walked onto the pool deck. Momo, Tommy, Sally and his 6-year-old son, who already weighed 110 pounds, were standing side-by-side at the edge of the pool, preparing to jump in. The people in the water had cleared the area for them, except for a few hardy souls who wanted to experience a little Hawaiian-sized surf in Brooklyn. The rest were lining the pool to watch the show.

“All right, when I say tree, we go,” said Tommy, who of course was in charge. “Ready? One, two, tree!” The four of them jumped in at once and created a great depression in the water, followed by a huge tidal wave. It swept across the pool and flooded out the other side, swashing the deck and the people nearby. For a second I actually thought the pool was going to be half-empty when it was over, and the water level did indeed appear to go down by a couple of inches, under the onslaught of 1,200 pounds of beef. The crowd had grown as people heard what was going to happen and rushed to see it, and now they exploded into laughter and cheers. The four huge hulks stood sopping and dripping, ignoring the crowd and instead comparing notes on the splash, like touts going over the afternoon’s sheet. Then they got out of the water and began the long walk back to their table near Surf Avenue.

“Madonn’, forget about it,” said Uncle Joe, laughing, to Tommy. “Youse guys oughta go to Atlantic City, youse’ll give the divin’ horse a run for his money.”
“Get outta here before I give ya a smack,” said Tommy, as my uncle laughed even louder.

In the hot afternoons we would play basketball or handball or squash, which would later become trendy when renamed racquetball. We would linger in the pool or go out to the beach, swim under the fishing pier or maybe go on a few rides. Sometimes we would go down the street to visit my aunt at Ravenhall, the pool where she was a member. When it rained there was Steeplechase, the Funny Place, whose large funhouse pavilion provided as much excitement as anything outdoors, except perhaps for the parachute jump. We didn’t know in 1964 that we were living through its last gasp; at the beginning of the season the amusement operators were anticipating one of their best years ever. Even though some big developer named Trump (père) was making noises about buying Steeplechase, it had outlasted Dreamland and Luna Park, and the new Astroland Park nearby signaled an influx of new blood. The midway barkers even thought the World’s Fair in Flushing would bring record spillover to Coney, as had the 1939-40 Fair. The new Fair pointed not to the past, but to a glorious future. Even though the youthful president who had embodied our dreams was gone, our attention was diverted by a fab quartet from Liverpool who seemed to say, “The era of stuffy old men and ideas is over; the time of youth is at hand.” Life seemed wonderful and grand, and I can hardly remember a better, more hopeful time.

By midsummer, though, those same operators were quoted in The New York Times as saying the summer was instead one of the worst ever. The new, spanking clean Fair was seen as pulling business away from the aging, decrepit boardwalk. Steeplechase closed for good that year, taking most of Coney Island down with it. Crime in and around the neighborhood was repeatedly blamed. It is astonishing to read, in several Times stories, local business people making what today would be politically incorrect statements citing, among other factors, “the growing influx of Negro visitors to the area. ... the concessionaires believe that the presence of Negroes has discouraged some white persons from visiting the area.”

* * *

There have been many crusading, courageous journalists throughout history, people like John Peter Zenger, Alexander Hamilton, Nellie Bly, Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Jacob Riis, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein. Victor Riesel is somewhat forgotten today, but in the 1950s, he was as courageous as any of them. A popular, nationally known labor columnist, he reported on racketeering, corruption and gangster infiltration of unions. His syndicated column appeared in The New York Post and The Daily Mirror, and he frequently appeared on TV and radio broadcasts.

At 3 a.m. on April 5, 1956, he had just left the fabled Lindy’s restaurant in midtown Manhattan with a friend and his secretary. He was headed for his car near what was then the Mark Hellinger Theater, now the Times Square Church, on West 51st Street. A man approached and hurled acid into Riesel’s face.
“The acid caught me right between the eyes,” he later wrote. “He stood there calmly for a moment, deliberately appraising his work. Then he ambled away.”

Shortly afterward, Riesel lost his sight, never to regain it. That didn’t stop him from continuing his crusading career. He continued to touch-type his stories and regularly appeared on TV newscasts as a labor reporter.

“I wasn’t important as a man, but I was important as a symbol,” he wrote. “The attack on me was an attack on the entire free press, challenging its right to expose crime and injustice. In hitting me, the underworld was thumbing its nose at the community and the forces of law and order.”

The attack drew nationwide attention and served to lend prestige to the profession of journalism, which now struggles both from financial constraints and the lack of practitioners with such character.

* * *

One day I was having lunch at the pool with my uncle when I happened to look up and see a man walking by. He looked like any one of the other tough guys who frequented the pool. I don’t know why he caught my eye; on reflection, he was rather nondescript, but I guess the look that made him blend in with thugs was what made him stand out among normal people.

My uncle was watching him too and must have seen me looking, for he said in a low voice, “That’s the guy who threw the acid in Victor Riesel’s face.” 

He wasn’t, actually. That man had been found dead on Mulberry Street a few months after the assault, with a bullet in his head. But the FBI had arrested eight other men in connection with the attack, calling them garment district terrorists determined to silence Riesel. This man had been one of them. This anonymous-looking schlep, this nobody, had been involved in one of the vilest crimes on record in New York, and had served far too short a prison term. A shudder passed through me; it was like coming face-to-face with pure evil and, worse, knowing there was nothing you could do to stop it.

I never saw my uncle afraid of anyone, and maybe he wasn’t afraid of this guy either, but at the very least he didn’t intend to make an issue of what the man had done. His attitude was, that’s his business, and we ain’t no stoolies. As a 12-year-old, I had no say in the matter. The man went and sat with Tommy and they began a conversation.

“I’ll be right back,” said my uncle, leaving to talk to someone else. I sat there watching him and watching the man talking to Tommy, laughing and joking. While the evil this man had done was permanent, his punishment had been only a temporary setback in his career of crime, and now he was sitting here enjoying life in the sun. Suddenly my uncle no longer seemed like the guy who would never steer me wrong. I realized then and there that I was merely playing in a world that was deadly serious, that if I continued to associate with these people, someday I would be asked to do real work in exchange for all the tips I had gotten. I would find myself in over my head as surely as if I had been in that pool when they all jumped in.

The world changed. An era was ending. The old-timers moved to Florida or died off. Assassination became a household word. If the mob’s grip wasn’t broken, at least it was loosened, and being Italian took on a different significance. The glorious World’s Fair fizzled, Coney Island collapsed, hair got longer and the old guard lost big when it bet a sure thing in the Super Bowl, the old-line Baltimore Colts, instead of the upstart Broadway Joe and his swinging, new-wave New York Jets. As for the other two Joes, we went our separate ways, one sadder and wiser, the other ... probably not.

(Author’s note: Some of the names in this article have been changed.)

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