A family tradition that began soon after we started our own family was to vacation with our in-laws on Long Beach Island. Traditionally we have gone after Labor Day when the crowds were smaller, but our kids starting pre-K in early September meant we had to brave the more crowded island during the height of the summer season.
Human beings have a need to feel the power of nature around them. Living in a big city has many advantages that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and I don’t regret making New York City my home for a minute. Where else in the world can you see Renoir’s By the Seashore, the New York Yankees, and No Redeeming Social Value all in the same day?
But a large city requires the conquest of nature on a large scale. Skyscrapers are their own majestic entity, they cannot compete for space with California Redwoods or the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean—my friends in the Rockaways do manage to surf in the Atlantic Ocean, miles away from these skyscrapers.
We lose something when we commit to living in a city, our awe is taken up by what mankind has achieved, and we lost the much-needed perspective of the power of the Earth itself. I believe that human beings need regular contact with nature in order to keep our minds right and in the general order of things. Being close to nature is the way human beings are supposed to be. We did not evolve from glass towers or produced in a sterile, state-of-the-art lab. We were born from the savages that evolved from organisms born of mud, shaped by our ancestors need to know and respect the murderously indifferent natural world around them. If we do not keep in contact with this primal truth in some consistent way, we lose our bearings and don’t function well. Though I have worked in Manhattan consistently for nearly two decades, I have always tried to walk through a park at least once a day in order to enjoy some greenery.
Long Beach Island is a tourist destination that does not put on airs of being otherwise. There are people who live there all year, but most of the people you seen between late May and mid-September aren’t from here. The island understands that it is a great destination that attracts people for its natural beauty and the accessibility of its beaches. There is a respectability that locals and tourists alike embrace their roles. There is a goodness and truth in that honesty. While you are here you can enjoy the arts at the Surflight Theatre and then enjoy singing waiters and waitresses at the Show Place Ice Cream Parlor.
But the miles of beach are what bring people here, and a trip here is not a success unless you spend some time on the beach.
While I try to stay out of the sun, I have learned to appreciate sitting on Long Beach Island and doing as little as possible. A few walks into the ocean though will give you an appreciation of the greatness and vastness of the ocean in front of you. An expanse of blue (that appears green when you’re up close) that stretches to the horizon.
Going deeper into the ocean, the current was more powerful and the water cooler. The power of this ocean, even at this calm period, was immense. You can’t help but be pushed and tossed around by the waves. A sting ray darted into my sight, close to a young boy on a body board but turned and was just as quickly out of sight. A tidal pool left behind dozens of tiny fish, numerous shells, and even a small live crab for children to marvel at.
Even when the heat is at its most punishing, the breeze from the ocean offers a cooling respite. Time moves quickly when you are away from the churning world of commerce and asphalt, and I must soon return to that savage expanse. I am grateful for the time I have here where the ocean calls the shots and people are united in their efforts to get away for a little while.
Coney Island is an endless summer draw for New York. It has a large beach, world-famous amusement park rides, and a seedy underbelly that gives it character. Coney Island has kept its lowbrow edge despite waves of gentrification and upscaling happening throughout New York but with particular intensity in Brooklyn. Williamsburg used to be a dangerous place to be. Now it’s only dangerous if you live in a rent-controlled apartment.
One of the attractions that has been added over the last two decades of revitalization is MCU Park, which opened as KeySpan Park in 2001. The field hosts the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.
My wife, who is much more adept at sourcing and planning family outings, discovered a good value in the Flock, a children’s club that includes tickets to several games for the entire family.
We got to Coney Island and found an expensive pay lot close to the stadium. With low clouds rolling in, fogging the tops of the nearby apartment buildings, we decided to get something to eat before submitting to the amoral monopoly of stadium snacks. In the short distance between MCU Park and the original Nathan’s, we started feeling raindrops. Nathan’s was mobbed, but close by was Pete’s Clam Stop, which had large plastic bench-style picnic tables in a small dining area. We ducked in, found a seat, and ordered food.
Pete’s Clam Stop was a good discovery. Its hot dogs were just as good as Nathan’s with the same traditional snappy flavor and they also had large fries that were a bit big and unwieldly but were in the crinkle-cut tradition (they even served them with a small French fry fork.) Pete’s also has fresh clams and oysters on ice, and hand-painted signs encouraging customers to eat clams to help to have a child and to eat oysters if one wanted to have twins. I had not heard this bit of old wives’ tale wisdom, and since we already have twins plus one, we did not feel the need to sample the oysters or clams.
The rain picked up heavily as we ate our food, watched World Cup Soccer on TV, and enjoyed the camaraderie of other Coney Island visitors making a lunch stop to duck out of the rain. The picnic tables became filled with people sharing the space. A woman with her kids at the table with us remarked on two of our daughters’ red hair.
Before long the rain was gone and the sun was out by the time we headed back to the ball park.
We got to meet two of the players and got them to sign our daughters’ t-shirts. They all became too shy to get their photo taken with the players. The highlight of the Flock benefits was getting to go on the field near second base for the national anthem. Unfortunately, the field at MCU Park is artificial turf, so it feels as if you are walking on a cheap shag carpet with some extra padding underneath.
With three small kids, I spent more time herding them and trying to quell their tantrums than I did actually watching baseball. If I were a baseball aficionado or cared about seeing a future baseball superstar in action I might be disappointed, but I don’t really follow baseball and I’m a Yankees fan anyway (the Brooklyn Cyclones are a Mets farm team), and time is better spent with family. It is more enjoyable to share ice cream with a four-year-old than to watch someone throw a fastball. The Cyclones won the game 1-0, beating the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team.
While our seats were in the last row of the stands, they were still field-level seats and comparable seats at a major-league ballpark would have been unaffordable for a family of five. Snacks were still overpriced, but the ticket deal that my wife found included some snack vouchers, so that allowed me to actually not spend money on overpriced stadium snacks.
Our seats were shaded so we escaped the worst of the sun. Still, it was an exhausting day. We drove home, buzzed from weariness, but also excited about having more Coney Island adventures.
New York City is such an intense and captivating force that New Yorkers must all leave their beloved Gotham from time to time for areas more peaceful and serene, places where the air is cooler and the pace of things slower. City life is an immense trade-off. We have the greatest art and culture in the world but must endure great hardships, annoyances, and inconveniences. It’s this crucible that makes our standards so high and our quest for excellence so unforgiving.
These past few days have found me on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a beautiful beach community that is best visited after Labor Day, when the summer season is considered officially over. Plenty of other people have had this idea also. So the island is not a ghost town but can look that way at times if you turn down one of the quieter streets. The restaurants are starting to board up for the fall and winter or have at least cut down their summer hours.
Long Beach Island is one long excuse to sit and marvel at the beach and ocean. It is a thin, string-bean like island that is geared towards renting to or selling to people coming here for the summer. It floods easily and the oncoming series of hurricanes that are lined up to punch the United States now are on the top of everyone’s mind.
While this end-of-summer escape is welcome, the travails of life remain. This time of year especially, the days around September 11, are times when we are reminded about the fleeting nature of our very existence and the fact that life commands us to enjoy every moment.
This awareness does not all have to come in tragic form. I formed a habit of quickly taking photos of the sand castles I help my children build, because before long one of my daughters will crush them quickly without hesitation. She is not yet four years old yet she is a destroyer of worlds. She has not yet grasped the value of leaving something behind that is beautiful in part because of its vulnerability. It is more fun for her to feel that collapse of the cool, wet sand under her feet.
Long Beach Island is a place where you will miss out if you don’t take the time to walk along the beach at night and enjoy the light of the moon reflecting on the ocean. It is where the best thing to do is to sit on the sand under an umbrella and attempt to clear your mind of everything. The beauty of the landscape belies the chaotic, violent, and tragic nature of our lives, which is why we seek to surround ourselves with beauty as much as possible. The world will hand us enough ugly all our lives.
In a few days my family will return to New York City, which has now been rebuilding for more than 16 years since the September 11 attacks. A whole new generation of New Yorkers are alive who did not know life before that day. Our responsibility, among many, is to give this generation an appreciation of all that we have given them as family and all that we have built as a people, because it could very easily not be here tomorrow.
Coney Island is a celebrated place in the lore of both New York City and America. It’s the place that gave us hot dogs, freak shows, baby incubators, amusement parks and beachfront slums. I’m pleased to report that Coney Island’s character has not been completely killed off.
No doubt the current wave of gentrification that is sanitizing and overpricing every corner of Gotham has touched this part of Brooklyn as well. After all, it’s ocean-view property with easy access to the subway system.
Coney Island is alive and well and my wife and I took our two toddlers to the Island recently. We did not plan farther than over breakfast that morning and we didn’t have a lot of time.
We are lucky enough to have a pickup truck and a membership to the World Wildlife Fund, which is a fancy way to say the New York City zoos, and that includes the New York Aquarium on Coney Island. So we were able to drive there and get free parking at the aquarium. We realize most New Yorkers do not have these advantages, but the D, F, N and Q trains all run there as well as several bus lines (both regular and express).
The New York Aquarium is under construction in many places and is a relatively small aquarium to begin with, so if we had paid $12 to get in we would have been pissed off. But with the smaller crowds and the time limits that traveling with small children impose, the aquarium was perfect. There were lots of interesting fish and even sharks to see. Our girls got to touch a real live horseshoe crab and they marveled at the various colorful marine life.
After the aquarium we made our way to the famous Coney Island boardwalk which was humming with late beachgoers. There was the odd smattering of elderly locals camped on benches, hipsters with their heavy beards, people with large dogs dressed extravagantly, and families like us pushing kids in strollers. The amusement parks that line the beach were still operating, and if we had wanted we could have ridden The Cyclone or even the reimagined and less elegant Steeplechase ride. For many years, the old steeplechase ride remained an overgrown, rotting relic that intrigued visitors.
While the Nathan’s annex that is on the boardwalk was packed, the actual original Nathan’s on Surf Avenue was nowhere near as crowded as it typically gets in the summer months. It took a while to get our food and it was horribly expensive, but it was very satisfying to make sure our daughters had their first taste of a Nathan’s hot dog at the original Nathan’s on Coney Island. Maybe one of them will grow up to be crowned the victor of the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest (or excel in other pursuits).
We took in the views of the ocean and the crowds on the boardwalk after lunch. We were very happy to see that Ruby’s and the Freak Bar are still open for business. Just as Nathan’s and The Cyclone define Coney Island, so do these institutions. In fact, you will find more of the true character of Coney Island from a barstool of Rudy’s or the bleachers of the Coney Island Sideshow than you will from the coaster rides or hot dogs being proffered.
So toast longevity at these establishments and take advantage of this post-Labor Day off season and go to Coney Island.
Long Beach Island, New Jersey is a tourist haven and I have no doubt that when the summer season is in full swing it is crowded and obnoxious. But going there during the off season, even a week or so after Labor Day, the place retains its beauty on the beaches but the towns take on a somewhat empty appearance, which makes it even more interesting. You can see starts at night there and the island is narrow enough that you are never far from the ocean.
The hum and crash of the ocean is constant. Even when you can’t see the water beyond the buildings or the sand dunes, the ocean keeps up its end of the bargain and sings you to sleep.
The beach bum and boating life are usually the providence of Florida or California. We don’t normally think of the metropolises of the Northeast to be home to the sun culture of people who live on boats or spend all of their time on beaches. But you can find some interesting seaside life right here within the five boroughs.
You can find a beach bum type atmosphere at Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk of Coney Island, where you would swear you were at a seaside Florida town where everyone had overdosed on some combination of sunshine, sand, Jimmy Buffet and/or crystal meth. It is a haven of grizzled sea dogs and leathery skin but it is10 times better than most bars in Brooklyn today. Ruby’s has survived for 80 years, no small feat in our rapidly changing metropolis.
A few years ago, I had the honor of being present when the ashes of New York poet, lyricist and musical performer known as ZAK were spread at sea. The friends of the deceased chartered a special boat that took off from the Marine Basin Marina, a small marina in Brooklyn not far from Coney Island. The marina was near some industrial areas and not connected at all to any of the more celebrated boardwalks of Coney Island or neighboring areas. It was a small and relatively desolate area but even in October it was populated by a small number of people who were living on their boats and didn’t want to leave yet. It’s even possible that some of them lived on their boats permanently.
Living on a boat or having access to one is a form of freedom that no one else has. If you have a boat with access to the ocean, you can travel to anywhere in the world. If I get in my pickup truck I can drive pretty far in it if I had enough gas money but I couldn’t get to Spain, the Philippines or the Cape of Good Hope. Those people docked at the marina in Brooklyn could step on their boats and, with enough fuel and good weather, travel to any continent in the world they wanted. You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a sun-drenched boat culture to be alive and well within the boundaries of New York City, but it is.
Near where I live now in Flushing, Queens, one can find the Bayside Marina for a taste of marina life. The marina sits in Little Neck Bay, the bay that gave us Little Neck clams and serves the shores of both Queens and Nassau County. It is accessible by the Cross Island Parkway by car or by foot or bicycle via a path from nearby parkland. At the end of a long pier is a small nucleus of buildings and decks where a small restaurant will sell you fried food and also sell you flares for your boat. You can hear a loud radio in an adjoining place where boaters radio in as they approach their berths. Joggers, dog walkers and people out for a stroll wander onto the pier and mingle with the salty boating types and die-hard fisherman.
One can also find people fishing on all the shores of the five boroughs. You have to be a special kind of brave to eat fish that have come from the polluted waters of the city. But wherever there are docks and piers you can find people fishing or else find the slimy evidence of their presence. Plenty of piers throughout the city even have counters or sinks set up specifically for people to clear their fish.
The city’s many coastal communities are still trying to recover from super storm Sandy that struck New York in October 2012. Before the summer is out, or even in the fall, go visit these places and enjoy, even for a minute, the beach bum or boating life.