This may not have a point, and I’m not sure why I feel like writing it right now.
As many of you know, I used to work for a newspaper in Queens. I actually worked for two of them. The first one was shit-eatingly bad at the time, but is humorous in retrospect. I was there for 9 months or so (a solid year on my résumé, thank you very much) before quitting, Office Space-style: I just stopped going. And actually, the story I was about to tell you happened when I worked for the first newspaper when I assumed, because of its geographic location, that it was for the second, and I just realized the trick my memory played on me. How about that?
I was the Sports Editor, Southeast Queens editor and eventual Assistant Managing Editor/Managing Editor/only editor to survive two nearly-entire staff purges and quitting epidemics that took place there in about the same time it takes to make and hold a baby. I’m not going to say my innocence was ripped from me, or any shit like that: I was working in Queens, not just la-di-da Astoria where I live now, and where I saw dozens of people, daily, who had lives that were really shit, not “Rich white kid following his dreams” shit. (The fact that I consider Astoria “la-di-da” ought to tell you the effect the rest of Queens had on me.)
Anyhow, to our story, which, again, came from absolutely nowhere. I was assigned to do a story on the Beach Channel High School rowing team, the only one of its kind in the city, which made some sense because it was the only high school to be located right on the fucking water. It was on the Rockaway Peninsula, the farthest eastern stretch of the city from Manhattan in absolutely every way possible. Rockaway makes the rest of Queens look like suburbia. I shit you not. It’s about 10 straight miles of housing projects and, well, housing projects before suddenly turning into a mansion-lined beach community. This part is where American Airlines flight 587 crashed, incidentally. Go farther west and you’ll hit a State Park and eventually Breezy Point, a gated community basically for Irish only that’s chock full of police and firemen. All the houses are bungalows, and there aren’t any streets; you have to park your car at a lot, with permit supplied by one of the owners, and walk your ass in. The bonus is you can drink while you walk around there, provided you’re using a koozy. I’ve actually been there twice, because I know an [Irish name] whose father has a house there, and in the summer it’s quite fascinating. That’s the word I would use to describe it. I have good memories of the place despite the fact the first time I went there I had a near-complete personal meltdown, and the second time it basically rained the whole time and we spent the whole time watching DVDs. Actually, that time was fantastic.
Anyway, not 10 miles away from this, you’re basically in hell. I’m not saying anything bad about the people that live there: it’s a problem without a good solution, and as the communities are so far removed from decision-makers in Manhattan to make it a joke, the city more or less pretends Rockaway doesn’t exist. The people living there have enough trouble getting by, leastwise fixing these problems. One class of people, albeit a very small one, which does acknowledge its existence, are full-time Queens-specific sports reporters, of whom I was one of two at the time, and the only one who actually left the office on a regular basis. (My editor at the time was a rather large former Daily News reporter who had lofty dreams for the Sports section, and whose time at the Daily News gave him sort of an entitlement not to go on the most tedious types of stories; unfortunately, these comprised about 90 percent of the stories that made up our section.) So when we got a press release from the school, or read in Newsday — we read a lot of Queens-edition Newsdays — that Beach Channel High School had the only rowing team in the city, I was dispatched to get my butt down there and “cover” it. Only now am I asking questions like “Who do you compete against?” and “What happens when you get drenched by a fuel dump from a JFK-bound plane?” Ah, young reporters. I probably actually asked the first one, but I have no idea what the answer was.
(Okay, this is not true either, and I’m just starting to remember: this team would compete against squads as far away as Pennsylvania, and teams from Connecticut, I think — I think there’s a paucity of public-school rowing squads pretty much everywhere.)
The first time I went to the school, it was a dreary, drizzly day. I drove through the communities of Ozone Park, Howard Beach and Broad Channel — preposterously differentiated communities, stacked one on top of another, that I would later have the privilege of covering as a single entity for three years. You want to see psychic scars in action? Ask me about Ozone Park. Please. I beg you. You don’t know what you’re missing. Remember that near-breakdown I referred to earlier? Well, that was pretty much entirely caused by working in these three neighborhoods. Pounding the pavements there day-to-day made me pretty much go insane, but thankfully on the day in question, I drove straight through them, marveling at things like the small distance between traffic lights in Broad Channel and the cutesy $2 toll on the bridge that took you to the Rockaways, the name of which I can’t recall now. I’m sure a snotnose kid like me wouldn’t have found it so cute if he had to pay it every day. (The Cross Bay Bridge. Thanks, Googs).
The high school was right over the bridge, and it is, in fact, really the first thing you see when you look to the west. I parked my car and got out, hustling over to the front doors, which were pretty much iron-clad. The school had a metal detector and there was no walking around the halls without permission, no matter who you were. It was the first high school with a metal detector I’d ever been inside. This was in February, so I was escorted by a police officer or teacher to the gym, where I found the team practicing on rowing machines and talked to the coach for awhile, before interviewing some of the students who seemed pretty astounded that I’d come all the way out just to talk to them. And really, that’s all I remember about the day, except that I promised to come back and watch them practice when the weather got nicer. Which I actually did. I loved that the school was far from my office; it gave me a legitimate excuse to waste time away from an absolutely poisonous office environment. You’re practicing in Brooklyn? Even better! At the coastal edge of a largely-defunct airstrip where we’ll have to wait an hour for a vintage plane to take off first? That’s perfect? Let’s do it! So, in April, we did just that.
There are two bridges that go to the Rockaways, which are also connected to the mainland on the eastern edge. If these are the three entry points, Beach Channel High School is located on immediate Rockaway side in the middle one, while Floyd Bennett Field is located immediately on the Brooklyn side of the western one. It is vast and largely overgrown by vegetation off its beaten path; once a large military airfield, now it’s owned by the government, and they basically let people do things there that require such an egregious amount of space by New York City standards that they’re willing to practice them, well, there. You can’t see the water from the actual fieldhouse, but we snaked along back roads, me in my trusty Ford Taurus, until we reached the point where the kids unloaded the skiffs and hauled them down to the beach. The coach seemed as proud at their ability to do this as anything else. They did some warm-up exercises and soon shoved off into the water while we watched, shivering: it was certainly warmer than it had been in February, but it was still cold. I don’t remember the conversation or anything, I just remember scribbling down some rote quotes from high schoolers, taking pictures with the staff’s one digital camera, and keeping remarks about how disgusting the water was to myself. Oh, did I mention that we were parked out directly underneath the Belt Parkway, the city’s always-jammed embarrassment of a highway that runs from JFK to Coney Island to the Verrazzano Bridge? Under the bridge — which is just after the Mobil station if you’re coming from Queens, and just before it if you’re on your way — was no small among of crap in the water, a whole lot of God knows what. The kids were shoving off about 20 feet from this. There’s grit, and then there’s grit: this was just plain gross, but the kids were happy to deal with it, and block it out. Hell, going to school where they did, they’ve seen much worse. You know what they probably haven’t seen? Much better. And that’s the fucking sad part.
Add up these little sad parts and the job starts to get to you. Eventually, it overwhelmed me, in a different form under a different banner. You hear the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” and you don’t know it until you see stuff like this, day in and day out. I was looking for beauty, for the rose growing out of a pile of shit; they were just trying to keep the shit out of sight. Focus on the task at hand — rowing, stretching, life — and just get it done. When you can’t, it’s time to move on.