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The Last Neighborhood I Loved: Rockaway, Queens

By

1) Late summer 2005 and everything’s under water. The news warns us that New York City could be the next New Orleans—flooded subways, ten thousand shattered windows. Lower Manhattan as the new American Venice, streets turned into canals, the seafloor studded with broken glass. The storms spin up from the Gulf in alphabetical order: Katrina, Lee, Maria, Nate. None make it very far north, not until mid-September, when Hurricane Ophelia ravages the Carolina coast, floods the Outer Banks with a foot of rain and wreaks 70 million dollars of damage.

On September 16th, Ophelia arrives off the coast of New York. From far above she’s your typical hurricane, a crown of cotton thorns. But down below, she thrashes the surface of the sea, capsizes ships in her self-destructive fury.

Like so many of us new to the city, she wants everyone to remember her name.

But even she can’t handle the pressure, can’t make it here in New York, and just days later Ophelia drowns herself in the North Sea. Her suicide’s wake sends undulations of raw energy back toward Gotham. Smoothed out by hundreds of travel miles, this energy arrives in the form of perfectly shaped swells at Long Beach, Lido, Montauk and the Rockaways.

Places that I watch obsessively, via satellite.

Curled over my computer at 6:00 AM in my Brooklyn apartment, I’m tracking the storm, reading the reports—chest-high to head-high swells with sixteen second intervals, excellent conditions, go surf now!—when an incoming text sparks my cell phone.

Waves look perfect, the message reads. We’re ditching work. U coming?

It’s from my friend Dawn, who despite working 70-hour weeks in the fashion industry, is a Texas-bred tomboy—she surfs any chance she gets, in any conditions, with a bad-ass exuberance that I admire. Having already called in sick, I step into surf trunks, load up my board and swing by Dawn’s apartment. She and Teagan are waiting on the curb in shorts, flip flops, and hooded sweatshirts, their surfboards propped against a brick wall lashed with silver and blue torrents of graffiti.

We drive east, through Bushwick’s drab cement grid, then arc over Maspeth Creek and English Kills—tributaries of Newton Creek, a Superfund Site spiked with ten million gallons of spilled oil—these ruined waterways like New York’s trackmarked veins after a century-long overdose. Brooklyn spits us out into Queens, past cinderblock carwashes and fast food joints and a cluster of graveyards: Linden Hill, Mt. Olivet, Lutherans, and St. John’s—the only shards of greenspace for miles. Singing along with Teagan’s collection of Smiths songs, we angle down into Woodhaven and Ozone Park, under crumbling subway trestles, past Indian restaurants and windowless strip clubs and cell phone stores, and on through Howard Beach’s rows of ‘70s era Italian banquet halls and seafood restaurants, all of it a blur in the borough’s slow southward tilt to the coast.

We get the first tangy smack of saltwater on the long bridge over Jamaica Bay; it’s here that the pace of our conversation picks up, echoing our pulses as we approach the sea.

Teagan’s sharp-witted, a fast-talker. Quick. So much so that she’s been dating one of our mutual friends, Adam, without me knowing it.

“We’ve dated on and off for like six months,” she says. “The problem with Adam, like most boys, is that he wants a girlfriend to take care of him, fix his problems and deal with all his bullshit, but he also wants to sleep around with everyone else in the world. I’m telling you: men are all lost.”

“I can vouch for that,” I say. I’m suffering multiple variations on this lost theme at the present. For one: I’m in a failing long-distance relationship with a soft-spoken skater-girl named Karissa. I want her to still love and stay faithful to me, even though she lives 2000 miles away, in Colorado.

Then Dawn discusses her own chronic boy woes, and I follow up with my ex-girlfriend woes, until the conversation turns to work, another consistent letdown.

Like me, Dawn and Teagan are sick of working such long hours, cooped up in cubes. They envy our male friends, most of whom are professional skateboarders, artists, bohemians, underemployed construction workers, over-employed drinkers.

“Can you imagine any of our guy friends working in an office?” Teagan wonders out loud.

“Justin works in an office,” Dawn reminds her.

“Oh right,” Teagan says. “How did that happen?”

I can’t blame her for forgetting, for wondering. It’s seriously incongruous with my career trajectory up to this point—backpacking guide in the San Juan Mountains; summer camp counselor on Mt Hood, Oregon; skatepark manager; creative writing instructor at a Colorado university. The fact that I work a corporate job on the sixteenth floor of a Midtown high rise both surprises and depresses me on pretty much a daily basis. A sad facsimile of my true self up there, wearing slacks, hunched in a cubicle, compulsively checking the internet surf report.

Finally: the toll bridge to Rockaway Beach, the long thin jawbone of Long Island.

I pay $3.50 in exchange for a horizon that’s lost to me back in the city.

We park and ferry our boards up cement stairs, across the wooden boardwalk, down to the beach. As we walk barefoot across morning-cold sand, the sky unfurls above us, reclaiming from the city all its stolen blue bandwidth.

This is what all the hype’s about: perfect, sun-shimmering sets of head-high rollers coming in smooth, sixteen-second intervals, the ocean an endless stretch of blue-gray corduroy, the waves scrolling in silver and then peeling evenly into whiteness.

The best swells I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

But while Dawn and Teagan busy themselves with surf wax and wetsuits, I stand shivering on the sand, heart racing, not sure if I’m ready for hurricane-grade surf, though by this point Ophelia has been downgraded to tropical storm status.

It’s here, staring into the stirred-up maw of the Atlantic, tuned into its relentless, percussive crush, that the association finally clicks: these waves are the aftermath of a storm named after English literature’s most famous drowning victim. The fifteenth system in the worst hurricane season on record, the result of warming seas, a warming planet.

I’ve come a long way in getting over my fear of the ocean, but I’m still new to surfing, and on a day like this the gnawing apprehension persists. I moved to New York City with a naïve sense of enthusiasm and hope, but now that I’m actually trying to get my life together in this place with so many social undercurrents and financial riptides—now I’m spooked.

“Come on, Justin,” Dawn says after I express my Shakespearean anxieties. “These are the best waves of the year.” She pulls up her wetsuit zipper, stretches into a deep forward bend. Armed with her surfboard, she charges down to the jetty, where the swell thunders in at its tallest, most powerful point. I hang back on the beach, where part of me wants to drop anchor, play it safe, surrender to paralysis. But there’s a deeper pull at work, a stronger longing to get up and get moving—to hazard the risk and follow Dawn down into the churning sea.

 ***

2) “Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a trip to Rockaway beach?”

–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

***

3) In late May, 2003, I traveled from Colorado to New York to meet with Richard Nash from Soft Skull Press; it was during this trip that I spotted my first New York City surfer. Walking down Christopher Street on my way to pitch my first book, the surfer ascended from an A train station, up between green Art Deco lamp posts, a short board sheathed in a striped cotton bag tucked under his arm. There was something astonishing about it, like spotting an ice climber in Los Angeles.

Standing there staring, I felt a subtle shift in the Gulf Stream of my obsessions.

I’d been skateboarding for decades, but had only gotten a small, teasing taste of surfing during my teenage years in east county San Diego. Like the majority of actual New York residents, I had no idea surfing was even possible here. Could you really ride the subway to the beach? If so, could you surf in the morning and hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same afternoon? The surfer and the idea of this underground, hyper-mobility—between the city and the ocean, between the natural world and New York’s endless cultural universe—were both signal fires, drawing me eastward.

My meeting with the publisher went well and led to a modest book deal. Afterward I celebrated with my close friends Paul and Natalie in Brooklyn. They lived in a massive apartment in a former button factory, a quintessential artist’s loft with a rope swing in the hallway and exposed-brick walls covered with Paul’s enormous, photorealistic paintings of violet horses and polychromatic lightbursts.

The kind of place that makes a tourist think living in New York is nothing but fun times, nonstop art-making, rainbows and rope swings.

And as it turned out, they were looking for a roommate.

A few months later, just after my thirtieth birthday—despite serious misgivings from my friends and family, and especially my girlfriend Karissa, who still had a year of school left—I pulled up the moorings of my life, packed everything I owned into my little Toyota pickup, made the two-thousand mile trip from Colorado to New York City.

New York, the place that Herman Melville scholar and biographer Andrew Delbanco calls “that peerless school for the study of literary careerism.”

I was banking on the Soft Skull book’s success and planned to follow it up with a novel, but other than that, I had zero job prospects. In an existence defined by motion, this was both the boldest and the most senseless move of my life.

***

4) Rockaway is arguably the most urbanized beach in the country. Originally a playground for Manhattan’s elite, it was host to a private train line, lavish amusement parks and opulent mansions. But the cruel economic tides of the late 1960s and ‘70s swept the poor into the city’s increasingly brackish outer boroughs. Several dozen blocky, utilitarian housing projects sprung up on Rockaway’s shores, like a bulky, crumbling seawall spanning sixty city blocks. To this day parts of Rockaway are considered New York’s worst slums. Among those willing to surf north of Beach 90th, there are rumors of burglarized cars, muggings, surfers who tape knives to the bottom of their boards.

Yet, similar to so many areas of Brooklyn and Queens, Rockaway is a neighborhood in flux. Like the classic Ramones song and the Rockaway reference in Moby-Dick, the Rockaway I discovered was a destination worthy of hitchhiking or the squandering of a day’s wages. Fronted by a big plaster and tile sculpture of a cartoonish gray whale, the coastline was skirted by miles and miles of a wide, wood-planked boardwalk. The beach itself was fairly narrow even at low tide, but covered in warm, inviting sand, of a similar grain to that found in Florida or California, though more likely littered with chunks of concrete and brick, used syringes, spent .22 shell casings.

Despite the grime, floating in the Atlantic was the closest I came to an experience of open space since leaving Colorado—Rockaway Beach was the only place in the city where I felt like I could actually breath.

And just two years before my arrival on the east coast, the city of New York designated a section near 90th street as an official surfing beach. On any given summer day, this narrow break teems with surfers of all stripes: Puerto Rican guys on shortboards, crusty and toothless old-school rippers in crash helmets, Wall Street players on $3000 custom Takayama longboards, other tattooed skateboarders like me seeking shelter from the heat, NYU coeds on rented soft-tops, talented local kids with afros, thugs on body boards, Japanese scenesters with expensive haircuts, and local thirty-somethings who look like edgier, scarred-up versions of Patagonia surf catalogue models. Like everywhere else in the city, there are too many people battling for limited resources, but even so the Rockaway vibe is generally mellow and accommodating to beginners. Everyone’s just happy to be out of the city, floating in cool saltwater that’s balm after a week of sultry, concrete heat. The only reminders that we live in New York City are the housing projects and the clanking of the elevated A train in the distance.

***

5) My first Ophelia wave is a perfectly shaped, head-high wall of water—))))))))))))))—the concave lip breaking from left to right, from Queens toward Brooklyn.

I paddle into it at a slight angle. Arching my back and popping up to my feet, I cut frontside down the stained-glass face, my back knee cocked in slightly.

Dropping right into the pocket—the power source—the wave folds into itself just behind me, while the silver-blue, sun-flecked lip keeps welling up in front of me, feathering white at the upper edge, the wind hollowing it out, holding it up like a crystal cavern wall—and I skim across it faster than I’ve ever surfed, my left fingers combing the surface, a long frothy wake tailing my board—until it curls and tumbles all over itself, rolls itself up like a long, bleached bale of hay, then collapses.

It only lasts a few seconds, but still it’s a kind of peak flow experience, something I’ve experienced many times on a skateboard, where all sense of time drops away, inducing a sense of transcendent euphoria combined with intense focus. In this case, the experience is heightened by the ocean, by the fact that I’m in physical conversation with a reverberation of energy from a distant storm system. In the heady and compelling surf memoir West of Jesus, Steven Koettler gives first hand experience of surfing’s ability to produce “a perfect neurochemical cocktail—fear, intense focus, hopefulness.” He theorizes that this type of flow experience stimulates a specific area in the right cortex, sometimes called “the God spot”—a region that neuroscientists also discovered to be highly active for Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns during deep mediation and prayer.

After cheering on Dawn as she rips a right-breaking peak, I catch a few more perfect lefts, riding the last one all the way back to shore, where Teagan’s already out of the water, waiting for us. Emerging from the brisk sea into warm, hazy sunlight, I feel like I’m being reborn into the world as a different person—I just surfed my first storm swell without flailing or even falling once.

 ***

6) There’s an inverse relationship between my increasing skill with surfing and my ability to deal with life back on land. The Soft Skull book isn’t selling well and my novel project’s going nowhere. My long-distance relationship with Karissa falls apart. I have a Master’s degree, but I’m stuck in a low-level, dead-end publishing job, toiling away in a windowless section of cramped cubicles that my coworkers and I refer to as The Pit.

I increasingly gravitate to the beach, spending long afternoons out at Rockaway, or weekends camping in my friend’s backyard out at Montauk, rising at dawn to check the waves. In the city I’m plagued by worry and regrets, credit card bills, loneliness, but these all fall away out in the water at Rockaway, where, at dusk, schools of tiny fish flash beneath the surface, then make what seem to me miraculous leaps above the water, tens of hundreds of them, arcing over the rippled gray glaze of the Atlantic before splashing back in like silver rain. Out there in the ocean, on my surfboard, I’m totally in the moment, out of my head and in my body—meditation and water are wedded forever.

***

7) During a dark period in Hawaii’s history, Christian missionaries actually banned surfing in the mid 19th Century. Fortunately for Hawaii and the world, though, there was a great resurgence of surfing in the early 1900s, led largely by Duke P. Kahanamoku, the undisputed Father of Surfing. The Duke was the essence of a waterman—he grew up beachside in Waikiki; he was an excellent swimmer, fisherman, sailor and lifeguard. According to Tom Blake, “His exceptionally fine massive leg development does not come from riding in autos, but plowing through the sand barefooted, in his youth. His well-muscled shoulders and arms came from the surfboard work… Duke religiously avoids arousing anyone’s ill will toward him; he is kind, tolerant with all and is well thought of by his fellows…” In 1912, he traveled to the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Accustomed to swimming in the open ocean, he had to learn to kick off the walls of a pool just weeks before the competition. Even so, he handily won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle.

In the summer of 1912, on the way back from winning the Olympic gold, Duke Kahanamoku gave a swimming demonstration near Rockaway Beach. There is some disagreement over whether or not he actually rode a surfboard during the demo. According to surf/skate historian C.R. Stecyk, when someone asked him what he thought of the waves on Long Island, the Duke said What waves? I like to think he did surf, making Rockaway one of the very first mainland American spots to be ridden, nearly 100 years ago, decades before the development of California breaks like Malibu or Rincon. What we know for certain is that he imbued the place with the Aloha spirit, a spirit that’s still very much alive at Rockaway today. In 1990 a street near Rockaway Boulevard was re-christened in his honor: Duke Kahanamoku Way. And in a 2007 edition of the Surfer’s Journal, writer Andrew Kid documents his visit to Rockaway in the middle of winter, where he discovers surprisingly nice waves and deserted lineups, and describes the feeling he gets there as very Duke.

 ***

8) One sweltering afternoon in July, my roommates and I escape down to Beach 90th. While circling the parking lot looking for a space, we spot a cute, tan woman walking barefoot across the blacktop, a tank of a longboard tucked under her arm. It’s my new friend Sadie, a friend of a friend who I’d met at a book release party.

I roll down my window and say hello.

“Oh my God, I have to tell you the craziest thing,” she says, rushing right up to the car. “I got out here just after dawn. I was the only one out in the water—and I saw a shark! A shark, right here at Rockaway!” She turns around and points to the spot where she’d seen it, just beyond the jetty, the exact place we’re about to surf. That the shark could’ve eaten her leg off apparently hasn’t crossed her mind. And the story freaks Natalie out so much that she won’t go near the water that day. She thinks Sadie is completely nuts and from then on refers to her as “your friend Sharky.”

Sadie is far from nuts, though. She’s an instructor at a private high school called the Harbor School, where she teaches inner city youth about ocean biology and ecology, the curriculum centered on the relationship between humans and water. She’s a shark fanatic; for her, Animal Planet’s Shark Week is more exciting than the Superbowl. During a future trip to Portland, my friend Dan will tattoo a Great White Shark, surrounded by roses, on the inside of her bicep. Sharks don’t faze her at all; the only aquatic life at Rockaway that causes Sadie serious consternation are the jellyfish. Another day on the beach she explains the problem: jellyfish are like cockroaches of the sea. As the ocean becomes less and less biodiverse—as humans kill off large predators like sharks and swordfish, and as global warming heats up the entire planet—jellyfish populations continue to explode. During the four or five years I’ve known Sadie, at any given point she’s always reading one book or another about the ocean; this particular summer she’s reading one about the devolution of the sea:

“If we don’t change our habits,” she tells me, “the ocean will become more and more acidified and swamp-like, filled with nothing but algae and jellyfish and trash. Did you know there’s a massive island of discarded plastic swirling around the Pacific? And giant jellyfish swarms all over the world. They had to shut down the beach at Waikiki for a while because of them. Waikiki! That’s where surfing was practically invented.”

As Sadie explains, certain jellyfish are like barometers of the sea—they go where it’s warm. During dog-day summer afternoons at Rockaway, the water warms up to bath-tub temps, drawing in swarms of jellyfish. The Rockaway specimens aren’t the stinging kind, fortunately, but they are annoying and sort of disgusting. Oval shaped and hollowed out on the top, they look like translucent ashtrays or discarded diaphragms. When it gets really bad, you can feel several brushing against your arms with every paddle-stroke, like surfing in a warm bowl of tapioca. Combined with all the plastic bags and assorted detritus in the water—including “Coney Island White Fish,” AKA used condoms—it’s enough to make you reconsider ever surfing again at Rockaway.

But Sadie is undeterred. She has summers off from teaching—a fact that causes me no small amount of jealousy—and takes the A train to Rockaway almost every morning. She’s like a punk rock, street-smart Gidget, except in her case she catches the surf bug and then never returns to conventional life, not really. And she’s seriously heartened by her shark sighting; she talks about it all summer. Whereas it scares the hell out of Natalie, for Sadie a dorsal fin just off the beach in New York City is a little sign of hope in an otherwise damaged environment.

 ***

9) In May of 2006, I fly back to Colorado for a friend’s wedding. After arriving in Denver, I rent a car and drive to my stepsister’s new house, which she assures me is in a “rough” part of town called Five Points, a place that had been considered notorious when I was growing up in Colorado during the 80’s, but that had since started to gentrify. As I pull up to her street, I laugh inwardly at what she considers “rough.” It looks like a normal urban neighborhood to me—hell, it even has trees. And unlike my own street in Brooklyn there are no graffiti tags, rats, broken beer bottles, used condoms, or female junkies shooting smack in broad daylight.

But after I park and begin unloading my things, a black SUV roars up behind me.

The back door flies open, apparently kicked from the inside, revealing a kid with a gun pointed right at me.

He has a blue bandana tied around his face, wild-west style, bandit style.

“Get the fuck out of the car,” he tells me. Which is confusing because I’m not actually in the car. At first I think it’s a joke, some teenagers out pranking people with paintball guns.

But the kid jumps out, puts the gun to my temple and makes it clear this is no joke.

“Give me all your money,” he says, that old cinematic chestnut, and now here I am standing in the street, a revolver in my face, actually reaching into my pocket and pulling out all my money, which fortunately I have neatly folded into a faux-silver money clip, because living in Brooklyn it has occurred to me that a money clip could be an advantage during a mugging, in that you could just slip out all your money without having to hand over your ID and credit cards, thus avoiding hours of phone calls to all the banks and the DMV—yet now I’m testing out this strategy while on vacation in Denver of all places.

“Now get the fuck down on the ground,” he says, stuffing all my money into his own pocket—but again none of my credit cards or my ID—which by the way is still a Colorado ID, indicative of my ambivalence about being a New Yorker and my nostalgic attachment to this place where I’m about to be fucking carjacked.

Doing what I’m told, I lie down on the pavement near the rear tire. For someone who can get anxious over the littlest thing—who was for a period in my teens and twenties plagued by debilitating panic attacks—there is no fear, just this sense of audience-like numbness. It’s like watching everything through one of those wide-angled, handheld cameras in a skateboard film when it gets cold-cocked by an errant skateboard and subsequently tumbles sideways onto the street and despite a cracked lens still captures streetlamp shadows, voices, my own two ghostly white hands, the inflation valve on the rental car tire, the astronomical quantity of pebbles embedded in a foot-wide patch of asphalt.

After the kid and his much larger, menacing older brother drive off with my rental car, my cash and all of my belongings—including my laptop computer with all the original files for the novel I’d been working on for the past four years—I sit shivering in my sister’s cold living room while she phones the police. Shivers turn to shakes, so hard that if feels like something shatters inside of me—the fragile sense of inner balance that, like the tiny, delicate vestibular bones of the inner ear, has been keeping me mostly upright for the past year.

 ***

10) The minute I get back home to Brooklyn, I pack up my truck and drive out to Rockaway. I arrive at sunset, long after the lifeguards have gone, and just as most other surfers are packing up their gear and heading back to the city. While unloading my board, I notice my heart punching in my chest when a couple thugs blasting 50 Cent in a lowered Nissan circle around the parking lot.

On their second pass, I check behind the back seat to make sure my tire iron is handy.

After the Nissan finally peels out of the lot, I stretch into my wetsuit and paddle out into the lineup, where I catch a few waves in vanishing light. As it grows too dark to gauge the swell, I turn my board east and paddle way out past the breakers, heading toward the blinking oil tankers on the horizon. The previous summer there’d been a big Times article about a couple local Rockaway project kids that swam out at dusk, right here at Beach 90th, getting sucked into a strong undertow and dragged perilously out to sea. A surfer rescued one, but the other unfortunate disappeared into the drink. In fact, during its long history as a municipal beach, Rockaway’s dangerous currents and riptides have drowned hundreds of New Yorkers.

Floating out in the open ocean now, I turn over on my back to look up at the city-dampened starlight, wondering where I’d end up if I just keep paddling east, if I can reach the oil tankers off in the distance, maybe hitch a ride to Asia or Alaska or Japan. Or maybe I’ll drift into the Gulf Stream, let it sweep me northeast across the Atlantic to England, where I might hop another current south along Africa and around Cape Horn, then up toward the Middle East. I wonder if there are soldiers over there feeling the same longing, perhaps staring out at the oil-poisoned Gulf, wishing for the same ocean-bound deliverance home.

Out here in the night-roiling sea, I’ve never felt so connected with this dark, masculine, reckless force that pilots so much of the world’s treachery.

Despite the increasing feelings of sinking heaviness, I turn over and start paddling back toward the distant city lights. The hours and hours of surfing Rockaway, combined with a lack of appetite, have done interesting things to my body. Emotionally I’m in troubled waters, but I’ve never been in better physical shape. The veins in my forearms are ropey and sea green; my neck has thickened; the lateral muscles below my armpits fan out like a pair of meaty wings. My roommate Natalie says she’s never seen someone so emaciated with such a V-shaped torso. It’s the unconscious, bodily wisdom in these muscles that eventually get me back to the deserted Rockaway shore, where it’s so late that even the cops have gone home to bed.

Back in Brooklyn I have the first of many insomniac nights, my few hours of sleep disturbed by a recurring dream about captaining a beautiful, triple-masted schooner, but watching helplessly as some gangster kids vandalize the ship, leaving nothing but a compacted square box, like an abandoned junkyard car. Waking up hours later in a hot sweat, I skip work and go surfing again, by myself on a Monday afternoon, my body sore as I drive home in time for my favorite yoga class, where saltwater seeps out my nasal passages onto the mat during Downward Dog. The summer progresses like this—a blur of insomnia, restorative yoga, late nights at Rockaway, crushing feelings of regret and rage. My productivity at work diminishes, as I can barely muster the concentration to read a few pages, much less the giant stack of manuscripts piling up in my cubicle. My boss calls me in several times to comment on my falling behind and my increasingly shaggy appearance, the way I’ve grown my hair down between my shoulder blades, my bangs hanging past my lips in a shaggier approximation of the Tony Hawk haircut I’d had in eighth grade.

It’s a way of saying fuck this place.

It’s a way of holding on to something I’m afraid of losing.

It’s a way of hiding.

Part of me hopes he’ll go ahead and fire me so I can go live out of my truck in the parking lots at Rockaway, where I can wake up before dawn to ride my surfboard instead of the subway.

 ***

11) Things got so bad for me in 2006 that by October, when the waves are best, I couldn’t even surf. All I had the energy for was sitting on my couch, watching tv, numbing out on Celexa and Atavan.

In the end, I made the hard decision to leave New York.

True, I’d been robbed in Colorado, not Brooklyn, but for three years the city had slapped me around and worn me down enough that Denver only delivered the final knockout punch.

I was nearly down for the count, and for my own survival, I retreated back to the northwest corner of the country.

 ***

12) Herman Melville Biographer Andrew Delbanco claims that Melville experienced the city as every true New Yorker does, with a combustible combination of love and hate. Before I left, all the things I despised about New York burned like a hard, hot bullet in my gut.

But now, tracking the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy—the entire boardwalk ripped apart, houses flooded or destroyed by fire, thousands left stranded or homeless—Rockaway lives deeper than ever inside all the pulsing chambers in my chest.

Rockaway, you were always there for me.

Rockaway, everyone knows you’re fucking tough as nails on the outside, pure aloha on the inside.

Rockaway, you’ll make it through.

***

The damage in Rockaway has been largely underreported; there are thousands of elderly and other vulnerable people living without easy access to water, heat or medical supplies. Local businesses like Rockaway Taco, Shore Fruit and Caracas have been giving away free food every day since the storm, and plan to do so throughout the winter.

For more information or to make a donation, visit the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance’s website or check out the Rockaway Rescue Alliance’s Facebook page.

***

Photographs of Rockaway after Sandy by Susie House Farmer.

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Justin Hocking is the Executive Director of Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. Portions of “The Last Neighborhood I Loved: Rockaway, Queens” were excerpted from his forthcoming memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf Press, September 2013). More from this author →