The first place I ever rented in Rockaway was a converted garage on Rockaway Beach Boulevard between 123rd and 124th Streets. It was on a beach block, meaning I didn’t have to cross any streets to get to the ocean. And it was right on the fault between alternate-side parking, to the east—No Parking Fridays, 8:30 to 10 A.M. (although the other side of the street was No Parking Anytime, so I guess technically it wasn’t alternate-side)—and, to the west, seasonal parking for a beach community: No Parking Saturday, Sunday, & Holidays, May 15-September 30. Many policemen and firemen live in Rockaway—and a mayor, Abraham Beame, had a summer home here—and I suspect they swung some sort of deal with City Hall to get these regulations, which insure that the neighborhood isn’t besieged by a bunch of DFDs, dragging their coolers down the road in the middle of the night and slamming their car doors, leaking oil, littering, changing babies’ diapers, and partying until the wee hours. The non-residents are supposed to put their cars in the lot at Riis Park, which, when it was built, was the biggest parking lot in the world. (These days, it is rarely full.) Residents had better have a garage or a driveway or driveway privileges, or they are screwed, at least in summer.
My bungalow was a detached single-car garage with a pointy roof at the end of a narrow driveway. It was behind a three-story house full of tenants, all with cars. The driveway was augmented by a parking pad out front. I never fully understood where in the drive I was supposed to park, but I did give the first-floor tenant, a family man, a set of car keys, so that he could get out if I blocked him in. (He did not give me a set of keys for his minivan. He had a nice blond wife, two demonic children, and two vicious Pomeranians.) Once I was woken by a pounding on the bungalow door at two in the morning: a tenant in the big house couldn’t find a spot on the street and was entitled to park in the driveway—it was a Saturday night, and he said he’d been driving around for hours. The family man had moved my car and left it in the other tenant’s spot.
I soon learned that if there was a spot available on the street in front of the house I should grab it to save space in the driveway. There were both a fire hydrant and a bus stop in front of the house, but the sign for the bus stop was missing, so people parked there anyway. Once, a woman who was waiting for the bus told me, “This is a bus stop.” I said, “But there’s no sign,” and proceeded to lock my car and leave the scene. “I’ll have to walk out in the middle of the street to get the bus,” she said, getting angry, and then she started screaming at me: “You don’t care, do you, bitch!” That shook me up (Welcome to Rockaway!), but it was true: I didn’t care, as long as I didn’t get a ticket.
I rented the beach garage for two summers, until my landlords sold the property. They had rented the place to me cheap the second summer, while the big house was on the market, because they hoped prospective buyers would see that the garage was habitable, and therefore a source of rental income. In the end, though, before the inspectors came, the landlords arranged enormous boxes cagily over the toilet and the sink, to make the place look as if it were used only for storage. The next summer, the new owners put up a tall fence around the property, redid the deck, fortified both the house and the bungalow with brick facing, and did in fact use the bungalow for storage. I moved on.
What a shock this year to see that the grandly renovated house had been demolished. I’ve seen plenty of ramshackle bungalows go under the bulldozer to make way for condos, but a perfectly good three-family house with a deck and a yard on a beach block? It was between a small suburban-looking apartment building of recent vintage and a bigger, older, shabbier apartment building. What were they going to put in there? A sliver high-rise?
When I drove by with some friends last weekend, to point out the spot, I was in for yet another shock: the property had been graded and paved and fenced in. It was a parking lot!
People are always raving in the Wave about the difficulty of finding parking in the West End, meaning those neighborhoods on and west of the parking fault: Neponsit, Belle Harbor, and Rockaway Park (sometimes identified, for real-estate purposes, as Lower Belle Harbor). They argue that Rockaway residents should be issued stickers distinguishing their cars from those of the DFDs and permitting them to park on the street on weekends. But this parking lot is not for them. I took a closer look at it when I walked past there yesterday, on a foggy morning, on my way to pick up my car from the mechanic's, where I had taken it for its annual emissions inspection (it passed) and its first ever tuneup under my ownership (it cost a small fortune). (I even remembered to ask the mechanic to look at the space over the accelerator, where a spritz of liquid has been unpredictably wetting my right foot.) The property has apparently been annexed by the shabby apartment building to its west, which has been renovated and given balconies and a new blue awning and a new name: The Ocean Villa. The pay phone out in front of it, which I had thought of as my office, is gone, and there is a new sign at the bus stop. The new parking lot has green plastic vegetation woven into a chain-link fence around it and a sliding steel gate that locks. Clearly the developer saw that no one was going to buy a condo here on the Rockaway Fault unless he put in a parking lot.
The parking lot made me nostalgic for my beach garage, where I let my cats out on leashes (they got chased by the Pomeranians) and grilled porgies on a miniature Hibachi and heard the low-flying planes on foggy days and watched a single apple ripen on a tree outside my door, and where I never came home to bad news (largely because there was no phone).