The regulars must have all taken the three-thirty ferry home last Friday, because on the five-thirty boat, although the upper deck was fuller than I’ve ever seen it, I didn’t recognize anyone. There were a lot of kids with backpacks and duffelbags, bound for Breezy Point, I presume. They had already missed the Tour de Breeze, a bike ride from bar to bar, kicking off the weekend.
In Rockaway—or at least in Breezy Point and Broad Channel—Labor Day weekend is called Mardi Gras. I used to be scornful of this, as if they were all ignorant in Queens, as if they didn’t know that Mardi Gras is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. But this year I got it: you hit more bars and restaurants and parties with friends over the course of four days, in an end-of-summer frenzy, that what else could you call it? Mardi Gras is basically a synonym for binge.
It was the last Friday night at Connolly’s, which closes for the season after Labor Day. I guess it’s good that it closes, because if it didn’t it wouldn’t be so special. I drank three pints of Guinness, played an execrable game of darts (Skid Row said I should have thrown the javelin for the Olympics), and sang the theme song of Mr. Jingaling, keeper of the keys to Santa’s toy shop (“Mr. Jingaling, How you tingaling, Keeper of the Keys”), which the master plumber said was obscene. We arrove home drunk.
On Saturday, my neighbor ACE threw himself a birthday party. In the morning, I had to clean my outdoor shower because I’d agreed to let his guests use it. I kept him company until his guests showed up, hours late. Then I went out to dinner with friends from the marina. Home again, with ACE’s party still raging next door, I tried to watch “Moby-Dick” on TV but kept falling asleep.
Sunday started with brunch at the Wharf and ended with a Nascar race and ribs at the Catwoman’s. Monday I intended to take a brisk walk along the boardwalk, ran into a friend on his bike, ran into another friend waiting for his beach crowd to turn up, lost momentum, and wound up having a fish taco with guacamole at this funky shack that has opened on Beach 96th Street. There are two guys working there, and they treat you as if you were their only customer, and consequently the service is extremely slow but refreshingly attentive. I kept telling myself, as I waited to place my order, that I should just go home and eat grapes, but I really was curious (and hungry), and it wasn't a waste of time, because, after all, it was on my list of things to do: Check out Mexican place.
Then I ran into some more friends, on their way to the beach or to Connolly’s, and I was tempted to join them. The serious partiers take Connolly’s along with them to the beach, in the form of big takeout jugs of piña coladas from the Slushy machine (Shhhh). But this time I stayed the course: I walked the walk, I swam the swim, and then I dropped in on a friend who has a hot tub and I soaked the soak.
Twice over the weekend I went out in the boat by myself, and both voyages were minor triumphs. On Sunday, I took a veritable sea hike, circumnavigating the bay counter-clockwise. Right at the outset, two huge birds flew by, and at first I thought they were egrets, but there was no mistaking the big orange bill on that neck stretched in flight: these were swans. Near the airport, there were speedboats pulling delighted children on inflatables. I didn’t like having to simultaneously stay out of their way and negotiate their wakes. On the Brooklyn side, in the North Channel, small boats had pulled up to the shore of the new garbage park: the topped-off landfill in Brooklyn, near Fresh Creek. The longest part of the trip was past Canarsie, where there is a big pier, and up along Barren Island. There was a big tub of a boat ahead of me that I thought was anchored, and wondered why I wasn’t getting any closer to it. It was a party boat (the Sheryl Princess?), moving very slowly, crowded with dancers, and with its bass turned up high and thrumming out over the water.
Gradually I am learning to look beyond the buoys (Red Nun No. 26, 24, 22 … 8) to the more distant landmarks, like the Verrazano Bridge and the blue dome of my local cloacal, or water-treatment plant. After three hours of putt-putting along between pols, I turned in to Broad Channel for a closer look at the aquatic alleys of houses on stilts with back-yard docks. “Dead Slow / No Wake” reads a sign. It’s not exactly Venice, but it is a tiny insular water world (and they do celebrate Mardi Gras). Kids were everywhere, on jet skis and in kayaks and even swimming in the bay. I thought I recognized the ones who’d been getting towed.
By now I had been out for almost an entire tide, or half a cycle. I’d left the marina at low tide and figured that now the tide might be high enough for me to go through the Cow Path and not have to go back the way I’d come, with the sun in my eyes, making it hard to see the buoys, much less make out whether they were red or green. The worst that could happen was that I’d run aground and have to sit in the weeds until the tide lifted me. Now two jet skis came shooting out of the marsh grass, showing me the way in. And once I was in, two geezers on jet skis came along, slow and stately, showing me where the turn was. Also, I figured out how to read the water: Where the water is rippling, it’s deeper, deep enough to move. Where it’s still, it’s just standing there, waiting to wrap vegetation around your propeller.
So I came out into the open water of the bay. There were black people on the tiny beach, fishing, camping. Others were up to their chests in the water. Nobody was at the marina when I got back. My whole left side was sore from gripping the throttle and feeling it vibrate up to my neck and down my back to the hard wooden seat. I was going to hang around the marina and enjoy the sunset, but I was attacked by mosquitoes and fled.
Monday my boat trip was easier—a stroll instead of a hike. I headed up the bay on the incoming tide, to the Bay House, in Meadowmere Park—I hadn’t been there all season. This time I saw planes instead of swans. The first that soared over was a TAM plane, from Brazil. A plane lands at J.F.K. every two minutes. Halfway to the Bay House, a little two-seater Skidoo passed, coming from the other direction, and the man at the controls gave me a big, lordly wave: It was the Boss! From the marina! I recognized his girlfriend, in the seat next to him, by her ponytail. I was thrilled to be going somewhere that the Boss had just come from, except that I didn't stop at the Bay House. By the time I got there, I had to turn around and come back, to get home by sunset.
On the way back, it seemed to me that the boat was going all by itself, rocking and leaping ahead, like a horse on its way back to the stable. I could even take my hand off the throttle. When I turned in to the marina, the Boss was on the dock and waved at me again. Actually, I don’t like to be conspicuous when I come in, in case I slam into the dock and hear myself yelling something anachronistic, something nobody has heard in years, like “Whoa, Nellie!” At the mouth of the marina, I pulled out the gas line. I slowed down as I approached my slip, but not so much that I stalled (remember, I have that broken idle-control gizmo), shifted into neutral as I turned into the slip, then quick shifted into reverse as I came alongside the dock and grabbed the line lying there: I was home. When I looked up, I was surprised to see that the boat in the neighboring slip had come into the marina right behind me (so maybe the Boss was waving to them?). It was piloted by a woman in a bathing suit, and both she and the older man with her, whom I took to be her father (an older woman, whom I took to be her mother, sat silently in the bow), complimented me on the skill of my landing.