I was determined to make it to the first ever literary festival in Rockaway, though it must be said that organized events in Rockaway are often a little on the lame side. Once, I planned a whole weekend around a visit to Rockaway by a replica of a Viking ship, and somehow it was a letdown. Nobody wore helmets with horns on them or anything.
The main draw at the literary festival was actually a film: a documentary called “The Bungalows of Rockaway,” by Jennifer Callahan and Elizabeth Logan Harris. It was screening along with films by locals on such subjects as boxing and firemen’s widows and wounded veterans. There were children’s poetry workshops, panels on historical fiction and on food writing, people singing or reading poetry on an outdoor stage, with forsythia in bloom behind them and Canada geese flying overhead. There was also, wonder of wonders, a bookstore. Borders had set up shop in a building at Fort Tilden known as T-6.
I bought an odd assortment of books, but the available assortment was odd to begin with. I found “The Rockaways,” a book of historic postcards from the collection of Emil R. Lucev, Sr., just out from Arcadia. Mr. Lucev writes a column for the local paper (the Wave) called Historical Views of the Rockaways. I was tempted by but resisted “Out of Fire and Valor: The War Memorials of New York City from the Revolution to 9-11,” by Cal Snyder (Bunker Hill). One I did not resist was “Forgotten New York: The Ultimate Urban Explorer’s Guide to All Five Boroughs,” by Kevin Walsh (Collins). I felt I should buy “Bone Thief” (Pinnacle), one of two thrillers by an actual local writer, Thomas O’Callaghan, who lives in Belle Harbor, one of the better neighborhoods of Rockaway. (He advised me not to read it in the dark.) I resisted “Day-O!!!,” the autobiography of Irving Burgie, the composer of the Harry Belafonte hit (self-published through XLibris), but not for long: I put it on hold and bought it at the end of the day. I’ll see if I can bury here in the middle of this long, boring paragraph another book I bought: “Achieving the Good Life After Fifty,” by Renée Lee Rosenberg, published by the 5 O’Clock Club; I would rather buy something from the Happy Hour Club, but the only people I knew at the first-ever literary festival were friends of Ms. Rosenberg’s, so I was shamed into buying her book. She sold it to me for thirteen dollars out of the back seat of her car. I bought two cookbooks: “Cucina Piemontese,” by Maria Grazia Asselle and Brian Yarvin, and “Farms and Foods of the Garden State: A New Jersey Cookbook,” by Brian Yarvin (both from Hippocrene Books), both destined as gifts for friends (after I try the pasta primavera recipe). I spent a long time looking at “Horses of the Sea, Volume I,” by George Foster Leal (Paul Mould), which is about Ireland in the time of Cuchulain, to see if it would be appropriate for a sixteen-year-old girl who will be going to Ireland in June. The passage I read seemed pretty steamy, for Ireland, but it’s set in pre-Christian times. Besides, it didn’t actually include any dirty words, and a girl needs something to read while she’s ignoring her parents on a trip to Ireland. Also, the author was there, and I could get it signed for her, so I bought it. Sitting at the table with Mr. Leal (who has already finished Volume 2) was Jeff Zanoda, the author of “Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland” (Academy Chicago), a title that had struck me funny but not quite funny enough to buy it, until I met the author and didn’t want him to feel neglected. Right next to “Saga” on the table was “The King of Vinland’s Saga,” by Stuart W. Mirsky (XLibris; 637 pages), who is also a Wave columnist and seems to have been the guiding spirit behind the first-ever literary festival. I thought about buying “The Teahouse Fire,” by Ellis Avery (Riverhead), a novel of Japan whose author was there, signing books, but the birthday of the friend who I thought might be interested in it is too far off and she has probably known about the book for ages already and may even have reviewed it. The last book I didn’t buy was “The 1969 Seattle Pilots,” by Kenneth Hogan (McFarland), being the story of a one-season baseball team; it looked somewhat piquant and had a local author, and I do like baseball, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
“How much time do I have here?” the writer Robert Viscusi asked as he took the stage to read from his book “Astoria.” Those are dreaded words at a reading. “Five minutes,” he was told. To his credit, he took only six of them. Viscusi had another book available, “Buried Caesars” (SUNY), about Italian-American literature. I enjoyed listening to a young black man who had written a monograph on Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), the inventor of the third rail and the electric roller coaster, who, incidentally, has the same birthday as Shakespeare, April 23rd. In August, Woods is going to be inducted into the Astroland Hall of Fame, at Coney Island, an honor never accorded Shakespeare.
I was late to the screening of the bungalow documentary. By the time I pried myself away from the bookstore and the outdoor stage, the lights were down and the film had started. I found a seat in the dark in time to see old home movies of Groucho Marx on the beach (Groucho had invested in Rockaway bungalows), without the fake mustache or cigar. Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian of New York City, talked about the density of living conditions in New York and the consequent “lure of the beach.” The Rockaways, the documentary explains, originally belonged to the Town of Hempstead, but when New York City was incorporated, in 1898, the city planners wanted control of the port, which meant embracing Jamaica Bay and the barrier-beach peninsula that forms it. So Rockaway was added on to Queens, somewhat against its will. A secessionist streak still runs through it.
According to the documentary, there were once eight thousand bungalows in Rockaway. Many of them burned down, or were condemned and demolished in the name of urban renewal, and high-rises were built, giving much of the area, as Kenneth Jackson said, an Eastern European look. The first summer I spent there, the apartment buildings just beyond the boardwalk made me feel as if I were swimming in the Black Sea. Robert Moses also had a hand in the remaking of Rockaway—he “cleared the peninsula” of almost all its amusements—but the filmmakers have yet to tell that part of the story. The number of bungalows still intact in Rockaway is three hundred.
The word “bungalow,” by the way, dates to 1676 and comes to us via the Hindi for a “low thatched house,” literally a house “in the style of Bengal.” In my family it was used to describe the apartment, over a relative’s garage, that my grandmother lived in. “That’s not no bungalow,” my mother would say scornfully. The first bungalow I rented in Rockaway WAS a garage, a single-car garage behind a big three-story house, a block from the beach lined by those apartment buildings. I called it my beach garage. I was surprised this spring to drive past it and see that the garage, the house, and all had been torn down. One feature of a real Rockaway bungalow is a porch. When I got to my bungalow, one of the remaining three hundred, after the literary festival, I dumped all my books on a table on the porch. I am hoping there is something in that book about achieving the good life that will make it possible for me to sit out there and read full time. Perhaps I'll start with "Day-O!!!"
At one point during the bungalow movie, I reached over and, without taking my eyes off the screen, tried to lower the seat of the chair next to me, so that I could dump my sack of books on it. It took me a moment to realize that I was groping the midsection of the man sitting next to me. Whoops! I apologized profusely, and when the lights went up I had to apologize again, this time looking him in the eye. He was very nice about it.