Learning About Life, Brooklyn Style

By Richard Erwin

My bedroom was about 12'x15' and at various times shared by three older brothers. It was at the rear of our two-bedroom house and overlooked the "exotic" area of the Tamaqua Bar, Restaurant, and Fishing Station in a place called Gerritsen Beach.

The Tamaqua is a unique landmark that the government has yet to recognize, but most of the amateur fishermen in all five boroughs of New York City know it well. How it got its unusual name is a mystery to many people, given that native Americans have not trod its ground in many hundred years. It was owned and operated by an older man from Italy whose English wasn't that great, so the Delaware tribe's native tongue would have been a major long shot for him, at best. No other Indian names are to be found in the area, so there's no clue there, either.

Gerritsen Beach was and is a unique community in its own right. It is rumored to be the only area in all of New York City to retain its original Dutch name, dating back to the mid-1500s. It still has its own volunteer fire department and ambulance corps. It's been called a "sleepy little fishing village" by the NY Times, and in some ways it is just that, though it happens to sit in Brooklyn, a fast-paced and notorious "borough" of about 4 million people.

Besides the smelly and beer-stained bar, the old juke box, and the ancient puck-sanded shuffleboard, the Tamaqua compound included a parking lot, coffee counter, docks, boats, and a gas dock, as well as a dry dock and launch.

From my lofty bedroom perch, I had the opportunity to see the wonders of mankind and nature played out by people, most of whom were two legged (with one or two exceptions), and by the marine and other wildlife. The humans consisted of the owners, boat captains, crews, customers, dockworkers, and general hangers-on. The marine life was mostly fish of infinite variety, and the other wildlife was predominately made up of four-legged animals that included stray cats, surly mutts, and even surlier water rats. The rats were capable of eating the cats and dogs, given the slightest opportunity. An occasional stray wild rabbit might innocently wander onto the property looking for forage, but given the rats, within a short time not even the rabbit's supposedly lucky foot could be found. I was often exposed not only to the wonders of the scene, but to the respective wrath, faults, and failings of all, be they human, marine, or stray animal.

Our house provided me with a unique advantage. It was among the houses between Channel and Bijou Avenues, going down almost to the midpoint of Dictum Court, where the Tamaqua itself was situated. Being behind the houses on Dictum, the Tamaqua blocked the rear view from some houses, aside from a few dirty windows looking into the Tamaqua that reportedly were the worst sight a waking person could view--if sober.

It was our house that had the best view of the entire complex in that it overlooked as much as it did and was closest to the "action" of the bar entrance, the dock access, the coffee counter, and the busiest part of the parking lot. Sort of a panoramic view for a voyeur of human nature and excitement . . . or a kid unwittingly learning a little about life, Brooklyn style.

Humanity was the first to arrive on the scene, especially in summer. Being awakened as early as 5:00 am to the sounds of the arriving fishermen, already popping the tops of Rheingold Chug-A-Mugs, and hearing them chatter about this "broad" or that "ding," their  "kawz" or the "dip" they worked with from "Bensinhoist" was educational, in a subliminal way. And I, at 6 or 7, was of the right age and disposition to learn. Also, I had no school all summer and couldn't wait to race out the door and down to the docks each morning, so I guess I had the interest as well.

With the sun coming up and life beginning to stir in this time of radio, Cheerios, and the Lone Ranger, each day was the start of a wild ten, twelve, or even fifteen-hour revelry unmatched anywhere else in America--without a mask, Silver, or Tonto, of course.

Swimming, "killeying," crabbing, snapper fishing, "hangin' out," popping off BB guns or six-shooter cap pistols and otherwise enacting and absorbing all the pleasures and flavors of a sunny, hot summer day was what this life was all about.

It was all light years away from pencils, books, nuns, processions, or fire and atomic bomb drills in the small but strict parochial school for the Catholic kids of "da Beach." There was also a public school just outside the neighborhood that was for the Protestant kids from the Beach as well as the Jewish or "other" kids from outside the Beach. 

Catholic and Protestant were the predominant, if not only, religions in Gerritsen Beach. There was a place called the "Chicken Coop" that was rumored to have once housed an Episcopal Church, but it was long gone by the time I arrived on the scene.

The community was made up of Irish, Italians, Germans, and Norwegians, with a few French war brides mixed in. Color was consistent with the majority occupations of the folks in the Beach, who were often cops, firemen, and sanitation workers: it was white. At that time, that was all there could be in the heart of an urban "rural" and mostly civil service  community in Brooklyn. If you weren't white and Catholic or Protestant, you pretty much didn't live there, and that was that. But, too, for a kid, there were no horses, Indians, stagecoaches, or robbers, either. Well, if you didn't count the occasional wayward guy living or hiding out in the area, that is. After all, it was Brooklyn, for cryin' out loud. 

Bravado was the first thing I heard as I listened and watched the predawn and unconscious lineup of the soon-to-be-embarking fishermen at the roughed-in coffee counter. They were getting their cups of coffee and Danish there and shots and beers from their lunch bags or tackle boxes. They talked, joked, and laughed, coughed, spat, and belched, all with no regard for the sleeping but hard-working fathers up and down the street of nearby houses. Those fellow working men got up each day at six, worked until six or eight at night, and looked to Saturday or Sunday to gain those few extra hours of dreams missed or forgotten during the week. It was the primary reason all the children slept in the back bedrooms in those particular houses. Whether two, four, or even more kids, they were the barriers used to avoid the aggravation of yelling out the window to people who just yelled back, cursed, and dared you to "Yo, come down ear' and I'll kick ya . . ." whatever. Conflict at 5:00 am was to be avoided whenever possible. And most times we "back bedroom" kids made it possible. In fact, maybe that's why all the families on our side of the street had kids. 

The fishermen's verbal bravado usually involved what they'd caught the last time out, or were going to catch this time out, or how the day's trip would be filled with the adventure, raw challenges, and thrills of victory--with no defeats. All conversations were prefaced with "Not fa nuttin', budda. . . ." Perhaps more times than not the "gabbin" was to make a fisherman more of a "man" to himself internally or to his buddies, externally.

The mundane lower-end white- or blue-collar jobs didn't provide much adventure . . . and there were no elephants, deer, or buffalo in Brooklyn, either. It was "Working Man" going out on a party boat, facing nature in the wild, casting heavy lines out from strong fishing poles into the vast Atlantic in an effort to catch "the big one," even if it was only a bluefish a few miles off Coney Island. It was the call of the wild, Brooklyn style. "Buckin' eh" is what anyone of them would say to that, in reply. 

The opportunities to observe that world were boundless. Listening to the heavy dialects and accents and the bragging of these men from Brooklyn and the other boroughs and watching their movements, a kid could soon detect the real from the imagined when it came to bravado or macho. It was a way to learn what was strong or weak by a look, a voice, a walk, or a mannerism, all part of the necessary tools of survival and just part of all that could be learned. Telling someone to "Get da ladda!" for example, may not make initial sense while you're off looking for the ladder until you break it down and discover it means, "get da hell outta here." Pure guttural vs. regular street talk, ya know wad I mean? 

There were many lessons everywhere in the streets and hangouts of Brooklyn, to be sure. But the first part of my education just happened to be out my own "window on the world" overlooking the unique Tamaqua. It's where my life, at the beginning of my personal "age of reason" began.

Reaching back into the language of the time, I can tell you . . .

"Not fu' nuttin', I loined lotsa dings So, if ya wanna, ya kin sit onna Tamaqua dock, tipa few wid me an' listen; all while we glom soma dat sun, cause it's friggen' free in Brooklyn . . . ya know wad I mean?"

 

Copyright © 2001 Richard Erwin

 

Last changed: July 27, 2003