Monday, December 28, 2009

40th Street (Cont. #3)

Another in a series of vignettes about growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn (and, I guess, its "extensions" in the Catskill Mountains).

VI. Bunglow colony

I almost drowned at Roshwalb’s.

Roshwalb’s. At least that’s the way I remember the name. Roshwalb’s, one of innumerable cheap bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains, in places like South Fallsburg or Kauneonga Lake or Monticello, where first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants would go to escape the suffocating, blistering environment of 40th Street or any of the million streets like it in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan or the Bronx for a few weeks each summer.

Roshwalb’s, with its paper-thin bungalows and one hall they called the casino, was for the poorer Jews, like my family. Not like Kutchers, or Grossingers, or the Concord or the Nevele, which lots of people have written about, so I won’t talk about those hotels. Rather it was Roshwalb’s that was the type for my family, including my aunts and uncles and cousins.

We didn’t go to the Nevele or Grossingers. We didn’t care much for people who could afford those places.

On 40th Street, every August, my mother and father and older sister and myself, and later my younger brother and even later my baby sister, would pack a million clothes into heavy unmovable suitcases, load the suitcases into my uncle Lou’s car, and drive up along Route 17 until we got to the Catskills. Maybe stopping once at the Red Apple. Then Uncle Lou--the cabdriver who was sometimes a butcher and sometimes a candy store owner and sometimes other, darker, things that we never knew about--would drive us up to Roshwalb’s or other, similar colonies. My family didn’t have a car in those days. Only Lou had a car, a Studebaker, so we went with him.

Roshwalb's had a big house with many rooms, one room per family, and a communal kitchen, and off down the walk a bunch of connected bungalows or cabins. One family per cabin, which had cots, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a bedroom. And Roshwalb’s also had a lake. In summer, if there was a drought, the lake would be lousy, really crappy. But if it had rained during the night, the next morning the lake would be great, overflowing, so you could stand on the massive rock somewhat out from the shore and see the water overflowing the banks.

Many years later, when I revisited what was once Roshwalb’s, but what had become just a plot of land for sale, I walked down to the lake and saw, instead of a lake, a tiny expanse of water, maybe fifty yards long by thirty yards wide, choked with green slime. A very large puddle. I stared and stared, and then walked back to my car, and didn’t think about it. But in the days of the bungalow colony, it was a lake.

One summer, when I was little, I went swimming in Roshwalb’s lake. It had rained the night before, so the lake was great, really deep--so deep I couldn’t stand in the middle, but that was okay because I had earlier taught myself to dog-paddle. Then I paddled out into the center. My father and mother, and maybe my older sister, but I don’t remember if she was actually there, were sitting on a blanket on the sandy beach. My father was the only one in our family who knew how to swim. In Coney Island, he would swim out so far you could only see his head. We would all watch, standing on the shore, staring out toward the distant waves, not allowing ourselves to be scared that he was so far out he might drown. But he always swam back to the shore.

In Roshwalb’s, however, he never seemed to swim. He just sat on a blanket that my mother brought and laid out on the tiny pebbly sandy beach.

I was standing on the rock. Then I jumped in and dog-paddled into the center, which was way above my head. (I was very small, a lot smaller than other kids my age.) Somehow, and I don’t remember how, or why, I felt myself going under. But it was okay, because my father was there, sitting on the beach, looking out for me. If I were in any trouble, he would jump into the lake and rescue me. He was a great swimmer.

The water above my head kept getting higher and higher. Where was Dad? The water kept getting higher, and I kept going down, and where was Dad? And I kept going down, and down.

Until I knew that my Dad wasn’t coming, and I forced myself to lift my head, submerged in water, almost out of breath, and somehow raise my knees to my chest, which by magic made me float to the top, where I got air, and gulped and breathed air, and breathed and breathed, and then I paddled out to the big rock.

Where I stood, looking to the sandy pebbly shore, seeing my father on the blanket, looking at me.
Why didn’t you come get me? I asked. But only to myself. My whole life I have been asking that question, but only to myself.

Maybe he hadn’t seen me drowning.

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