Here’s a little-known fact: you can go to a genuine surf beach in NYC. Said beach is Long Beach, a little strip of land down on the southwest tip of Long Island, en route to the celebrity gated communities of the Hamptons but still close enough to New York proper to be accessible by subway, so long as you don’t mind a lengthy trip on the A train and a bus ride at the end of it. Since the weather’s been almost unendurably hot for the last week, and a $10 charge apparently applies to use the beach from July onwards, this seems like a good time to attempt the trip.
The A train emerges from the ground somewhere in deepest Queens and trundles through several stops’ worth of bedraggled, nondescript suburbs before we get our first glimpse of the water. It’s a broad lagoon, part of the complex interlocking series of bays and peninsulas that eat into the south coast of Long Island. The train ploughs straight through the middle of the estuary, courtesy of a viaduct-type arrangement that will probably be the first thing to go if America keeps spewing CO2 and the Atlantic skips up even a coupla inches. The countryside is pretty is a gruff, nautical kinda way, all deep seaweed greens and oily blues; the landscape seems to tolerate summer begrudgingly, waiting for what must be a pretty bleak winter.
Far Rockaway, the beachside township where we’re to pick up the bus to Long Beach, is a forlorn place if there ever was one. Parts of it are virtually shantytown, and the whole place is dirty, the kinda caked-on grime that you only get with generations of poverty and neglect. The bus stop is outside a library that contains no books, and the third-world atmosphere is heightened by the discovery that the bus only runs once every hour.
When it finally comes, it takes us for ten minutes down the highway, then across a short but significant bridge – the one that separates Long Beach Island from Rockaway and the mainland. The island runs roughly east-west in a mile-wide strip; on one side is the shallow water of the lagoon system, and on the other is the Atlantic. The beach is a brisk five-minute walk from the main street where the bus deposits us.
The first thing you notice is the colour of the North Atlantic – a churning emerald that reinforces the notion that it’d be fucking brutal here during the winter. I resolve to visit in December. But today it’s hot, and the waves are a godsend. The surf’s a bit shit – the whole beach is kinda how you imagine how a surf beach in Melbourne might be, if Port Phillip Bay was a bit more open to the ocean. But really, who cares? It’s a beach. I go running in like a little kid, catch a few waves and get ignominiously dumped once before retreating to the towel and my book. We sit in the sun and surreptitiously survey our fellow beach-goers.
The accessory of the season appears to be the Wonder Wheeler, an endomorphic trolley-type device for transporting your towels and umbrellas and other stuff to the beach that looks like a cross between an Esky and an overgrown Fisher-Price toy. We’re very much in the minority with our old-fashioned notions of carrying shit in, y’know, bags. Because of the fact that we had to wait an hour for the bus, the people on the beach are either a) packing up or b) well on their way to getting shitfaced, courtesy of the beer they have stashed in their Wonder Wheelers. And the breeze is starting to get up. With a last rueful glance at the ocean – now more opaque than ever – I stash my towel and we head for a walk through the township in search of the bus station.
It’s a mile and an eternity away from Far Rockaway. Perhaps because they’ve paid so much for the privilege, Long Beach’s inhabitants seem compelled to remind themselves at every opportunity that they’re by the sea, so every house comes equipped with assorted chintzy naval paraphernalia: anchors, lighthouses, faux-porthole windows, several marlin-shaped letterboxes. Other compulsory decorations include trees colour co-ordinated to match the colour of the paintwork (honestly) and, almost without exception, flagpoles. The American flag count soon spirals off into three figures as we walk the main street in search of the bus back; the black person count remains stuck on zero for ages, finally stalling forlornly at four.
Among other things, we also spy a prominent kinda monument/war memorial arrangement in the middle of one of the intersections along the wide, sweeping boulevard that leads back to the train station. It’s covered in flowers and festooned with a sign that says something about “supporting our troops”. The wording is jarring; it seems to brook no possibility that there might be a time when there are no troops out there fighting to support. I recall reading something about the Bush administration’s greatest political success being its success in recasting America as a nation permanently at war: a war that you can never be seen to be losing but can never actually win. A permawar.
Afghanistan and Iraq – actually, the whole world – seem to exist in another reality at Long Beach, though. Even the terminally grim Far Rockaway is a world away. By the time we re-enter that world, it’s getting dark and the short walk from the bus stop to the station is honestly the only time in NYC (so far) that I’ve put my head down, looked straight ahead and walked pretty fucking briskly. On the subway back, a bunch of people carrying tubular white buckets and fishing gear get on at Broad Channel, which must be where they’re biting today. One little kid calls his grandma and boasts about his catch, which he’s sent her photos of via his dad’s Blackberry: “You have to look at every photo!” And then, in a beautifully modern touch: “Dad, can we put it on Facebook?”
A day at the beach in New York City. Suddenly Hewes St seems reassuringly familiar, and normal, and like home.