While Grandma sparked my love of cooking, Grandpa Willie Duffy lead me to my another great passion- the ocean.
I saw Brighton Beach for the first time on a gray early spring Saturday. Grandpa picked me up and we walked the few blocks to the subway through the waking neighborhood.
The B train runs above ground from Prospect Park to the ocean on Brooklyn’s south shore, passing big brick apartment buildings and stores at first. That scenery soon gave way to the lush green of the mostly quiet, colorful back yards of Midwood. Occasionally, you’d catch a second of someone’s life as they hung laundry or smoked a quiet cigar on their porch.
On a good day you might catch a whiff of ocean air as the doors opened at Kings Highway and your pulse might quicken a little. Along the last stretch of track as the train passes through Sheepshead Bay, weeping willows and elm trees reach across the tracks welcoming you towards the ocean.
We got off the train at the corners of Brighton Sixth Street and Brighton Beach Avenue, descending the stairs under the massive iron elevated structure. The smells of kosher hot dogs and briny sauerkraut greeted us into this new world. The gruff vendors looked as if they were from another time and many spoke in Russian accents as thick as the brisket they sliced.
Grandpa bought us a couple of dogs and got me a glass bottle of Coke and we walked up the short block towards the boardwalk enjoying each bite.
The gritty boardwalk stretched for miles with some broken areas fenced off. I saw the colorful rides of Coney Island, still dormant this early in the season, twinkling in the near distance. The gray ocean was nearly flat and only a few fishing boats could be seen.
We walked across the sand towards the gentle surf. Strolling along the shore of the chilly Atlantic as it lapped gently onto Brighton Beach, Grandpa stopped and pointed out to the watery horizon.
“So this is your ocean. I’ve sailed across it and it is quite big. It is yours to play in, eat from and travel across. Treat her well and with respect, because if you get on her bad side, God help ya’.”
A lazy ray of sun poked through and danced on the surface bringing out greens and blues that were not there seconds before.
He spoke of the ocean like a living thing. I understood the connection and the responsibility that came with it. I’ve never looked at the ocean the same way since.
Though we lived city lives on the hard concrete sidewalks and black tar streets of Brooklyn, we had clean, accessible beaches that opened into the vast blue ocean just a subway token away. We could get to the beach or the bay in half an hour on one train from our Flatbush neighborhood.
Going down to the sea was always a special treat- good, clean, cheap fun with exotic new foods to be tasted. There were oysters on the half shell chilled on crushed ice in the window of Randazzo’s on Sheepshead Bay, the aroma of fried clams floating in the summer air from a shack on the Coney Island boardwalk and rows upon of Nathan’s tube steaks.
The salt air just made everything better. What was it about the ocean that just made everything seem so much better?
I always wondered what was going on under the water. From the beach I could see so much life, but I knew that there was so much more lurking in the depths of The Atlantic.
Around the ages of 8 or 9, we would have these big group neighborhood trips to the beach on summer weekends. Three or four families with tons of kids from our Flatbush, Brooklyn neighborhood would trudge a days-worth of food and supplies to the Newkirk Avenue D train to Manhattan Beach. We walked from the subway in a colorful, ragged line, hauling our gear across the skinny wooden Sheepshead Bay footbridge to this secluded gem of a beach. A section to the left had grills for people to use if you got there early enough to claim one.
The Brooklyn of the early 1970’s was a great place. Colorful Latin music would blare from big old school boom boxes (some with 8-track players!). The smell of sausage and peppers, marinated chicken and juicy burgers cooking on a grill still brings me back to that special golden era.
Met games competed with the Yankees for radio supremacy in another corner. A loud group of domino players had there spot. Men with cigars played card games in the shady spot furthest to the left.
The mothers would drink whiskey sours or daquiris from pitchers as they sat around in their beach chairs, listening to music and smoking cigarettes.
Some fathers would head out to the jetty with their fishing rods, smelly bait and their Rhiengold and Schaefer beers in brown paper bags.
I watched snapper bluefish chase baitfish into the shallows for slaughter. Blue crabs danced sideways close to the shore and could give you a stinging bite if you did not display respect for their pocket-sized fury. I began to look deeper into the water and discovered something new each time.
I remember watching the men cast from the jetty at south end of Manhattan Beach. Their long surf rods gave them the power to put their bunker chucks or squid out beyond the breakers where the big fish fed.
It could be quiet for long periods. All of a sudden one of the men fishing up on the jetty would reel in one of these big fish. A voracious bluefish, a meaty fluke or a mighty striper could be caught there. All the kids would run over to see the spectacle. I couldn’t imagine that fish like these lived in our waters. I knew I wanted to know more.
The Beatles “Yellow Submarine” was a hit when I was a bicycling Brooklyn boy. I would sing it as I biked along Ocean Avenue, all the way out to Sheepshead Bay just to watch the boats come home with fish. I started to take notes.
My brother Kevin and I would save all our money all winter to get aunt Re-Re to take us down to the Coney Island to ride the bumper cars. Rides on the Cyclone were almost like flying.
There were great old Brooklyn times when my aunt Marie used to take us down to the Sheepshead Bay in her big red Buick to buy “L-O-B-S-T-E-R” (as she would spell-out to my Mom). I had an 8th grade reading level in the second grade, so they weren’t fooling me.
We would go to Nick’s where there was a crazy room full of bathtubs, tiered up the walls. My brother Kevin and I used to marvel at the countless lobsters. There were thousands of all sizes. There was a freakishly large one all by himself in a tank by the cash register. I kind of felt sorry for him. No room to roam in there.
The crisp salty air and the sound of the ocean made Nathan’s hot dogs, fried clams and frog legs (!) taste that much better.
Sometimes we would take family trips to eastern Long Island in the summer. As a young boy running along the beaches of Hampton Bays, a new world was opening to me, far different that the hard streets off Flatbush Avenue.
There are old photos of my young grandparents, country immigrants from Ireland, smiling and dancing with friends at the seashore. I’ve seen pictures of my young mother on the beach in a place they still call The Hamptons that no longer exists.
Except down by the sea.