Sunday, August 3, 2008

Grandpa Svejda and Sheepshead Bay

Grandpa Svejda and summer on Sheepshead Bay
by Charlie Leck

Once each week, I offer my readers the opportunity to go down memory lane with me. Obviously, those you who don’t care to make the trip can just click away from here in the blink of an eye – but, please, come on back for more opinion, ranting and raving on another day.

I’d like to remember more clearly. I’m trying to go back nearly 60 years ago. As I now speed on toward the stars, I desperately want to bring back to mind some of the times that meant so much to me as I child – times that I wish I had appreciated more fully then, so I could remember them more clearly now; and, perhaps, relive them in the great theatre of the mind.
The very south tip of Brooklyn is the site of Coney Island, which was an extraordinary amusement park and beach when I was an adventurous boy in the 1950s. Brighton Beach, a spot made famous by the Neil Simon play, and Manhattan Beach, are very nearby. Just above them is an inlet, called Sheepshead Bay, which opens to the East to Raritan Bay and the very western tip of Long Island.

Though I visited Sheepshead Bay only a few times, there was something I loved very much about the place and I have warm, cherished memories of my time there. I’m going to make a trip back yet this summer, or early this autumn, to try to stir up some of these boyhood memories.

I’d guess that I was around eleven years old when I spent a bit of time there with my grandparents, Frank and Emma Svejda, one summer. In addition to their place in the Bronx, they had a small apartment on Jerome Avenue, two or three blocks off Emmons Avenue. On the Southside of Emmons were the 10 piers or so from which the commercial or party fishing boats left each day. Along the Northside, facing out to the bay, were a host of wonderful restaurants of virtually every type you could think, mingled here and there with other small retail shops selling everything from groceries, beer and hardware. Lundy’s wonderful seafood restaurant was on the avenue. Folks say it could serve more than 2,500 dinners on a single day, and often did on special occasions like Father’s Day or Easter Sunday. It was housed in a massive, multi-story building. There was another good restaurant a couple blocks from Lundy’s called Pappas. It was run by a Greek family and it was rated highly also. Way down to the east end of the avenue was a placed called The Lewis House. It was always crowded, as well, and the ships’ captains and professional fishermen liked to eat there.

My grandparents’ favorite dining spot, however, was a place call McGinnis. What wonderful memories I have of it and how much I wish it still existed so I could return to find out if food could really be that completely wonderful. Everyone claimed that Lundy’s was superior, but I will never forget the popovers, chowder, clams and lobster that I shared with my grandma and grandpa at the McGinnis restaurant. Somehow, I remember, the place could be opened to the avenue in good weather and, with tables spread out on to the sidewalk, one could look, as one dined, across to the bay and watch all the boats coming and going.

There was another restaurant on the bay that they also enjoyed, but it was very small and the tables were in a yard behind or alongside the building. One had to wait a terribly long time to get served because every meal was prepared from scratch. “That,” my grandpa would say, “is what makes it great here.” He’d pass the time waiting for his meal by munching on ever-full baskets of wonderful, crusty bread and by sipping on his cold Shaeffer’s beer, brewed right there in Brooklyn, from which he’d allow me an occasional sip.

Now, I was a country boy from the rural, back hills of New Jersey. My cousins in the Bronx called the area where I lived “the sticks.” And we who lived there were considered “hicks.” I loved taking those infrequent trips into the big city to spend time with my grandparents in Brooklyn or the Bronx.

My grandpa Svejda was a tall, lean man with long, gangling arms and massive hands. I remember feeling terribly secure when my little hand was engulfed in his. We would walk along the avenue, hand-in-hand, and my little feet had to scurry to keep up with his long, strong strides. He had retired from his work by that time and was living off his pension. He had worked for the city for many years as a bridge painter and retired and took that retirement fund in a lump-sum rather than incremental payments. He and Grandma planned to put a good sized dent in those funds quite quickly. I loved to hear him talk about his work – like how they would start at one end of the bridge and begin painting and, by the time they reached the other end, then just turn around and begin painting it again. I would look at the Brooklyn Bridge or the George Washington Bridge – at their cables and towers, railings and long spans of steel – and feel so proud that my grandpa roamed up and down the bridge working to keep them so beautiful and majestic.

Grandpa was a big Dodger fan. The Brooklyn Dodgers were everything to him. They played in Ebbets Field at Bedford and Flatbush Avenues, about 20 blocks north of my grandparent’s summer place on Sheepshead Bay. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, everyone referred to the Dodgers as the Bums.” A couple of trolley rides would get us to Ebbets Field pretty quickly. Grandpa bought the really cheap seats for us, but that was okay because everything was much closer to the playing field in those days and we could see the stitches on the players' uniforms even from where we sat.

I remember one night game when my father joined us. While my grandmother took me to Coney Island, very nearby, my grandpa and Dad spent the day on an “adults only” fishing trip. They came home and cleaned up quickly for the ball game. There were just three of us and I sat between these two great baseball fans to watch the Giants, my dad’s team, and the “Bums” playing under the lights. Never was there a sound so sweet as the cracking of a bat at a night game in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. It was sheer heaven – a place of perfect and complete happiness. I loved listening to my father and grandfather bantering about each other’s teams.

The big adventure of the summer visit – the absolute and terrifying highlight – was the trip with Grandpa out on the big fishing boats that docked with their noses in, pointing to Emmons Avenue. The eight or nine “party” fishing boats could hold about 20 or so people who wanted to go out on the sea to fish. The crew would solicit business up on the Avenue, inviting people to join them in a quest to bring in some fluke, blue fish and flounder. Grandpa would get me pretty excited about the prospect of catching enough that we’d have a surplus that we could sell along the Avenue to residents who gathered as the boats came in, to purchase fresh fish.

The first time out with my grandpa I got ill pretty quickly. The little ship was rolling – rising and falling – over the swells in the ocean and my stomach went up and down with each wave over which we passed. The eruption seem Vesuvian to me. I was distraught and my grandpa was embarrassed.“Fisherman don’t get sick,” he told me. He sounded like Tom Hanks in the film, A League of Their Own, screaming at his lady-players: “There’s no crying in baseball!”

“This is just a matter of your mind,” he would tell me. “You roll with these waves and become a part of them. You mustn’t fight them. You are not to get sick on the ocean!”

It wasn’t a request and he wasn’t kidding. It was a command. He was no pansy. He was a stern, tough man. He wasn’t about to have a grandson of his getting ill in front of these professional fisherman who all knew him well and were his friends.

I realized how serious he was and how important it was to him. I rose to the occasion and somehow recovered to enjoy the day on the sea. And, in subsequent trips I never got ill again – though I have a queasy stomach now as I remember those moments and write these words.

Then I had another trauma when one of the crew hollered to me that I had a bite. My first fish ever! My heart pounded like crazy and I tried to follow my grandpa’s instructions as carefully as I could. I reeled the catch in. Grandpa leaned over the rail to grab the line and bring “the catch” high enough to net it. He laughed loudly and so did the men of the crew, who had gathered to see what their buddy’s grandson had caught.Grandpa dropped the big sting ray on the deck of the ship and I jumped backward to get away from the monster. Everyone around me was laughing. My face burned with both fear and embarrassment.

My grandpa wanted me to learn to take the hook out of its mouth. I wouldn’t have anything to do with. I backed off, so he did it for me and then pushed the creepy thing with his foot to the side of the deck and back down into its home in the Atlantic Ocean.

I caught nothing else on that first trip out to sea. Grandpa caught a couple of blue fish, but not enough that we had anything to sell on the dock. I was surprised to see all the people who had come to Emmons Avenue and the amount of fish that was being put on display as our little ship moved alongside the pier. My face and arms were bright red and my grandma laughed at me as she watched us disembark. I carried the blue fish to her and told her we’d caught dinner.

“We could have had lobster at Lundy’s for a lot less money,” she laughed. I spotted Grandpa shaking his head at her. He didn’t want me discouraged. He wanted a fishing partner.

Nevertheless, Grandpa gave the two small fish to one of his friends who was hawking his day’s catch along Emmons Avenue.We’d clean up, he suggested, and go on down to McGiniss’ and have some real fish for dinner. Visions of clams and oysters began dancing in my head as we headed for the apartment. I’d need some ointment for my sun burn and a good washing of my hands. I’d slop some goop on my hair and comb it stiffly into place. A clean shirt tucked into my jeans and I was anxious to go, pacing by the doorway and waiting for Grandma to finish prettying up her hair and adjust her jewelry just so.

Writing it all out doesn’t bring it back to mind the way it really was. I loved Sheephead Bay. How can I reproduce the aromas of the sea and fish stands where the catches were put on display? Standing on the sidewalk along the bay side of the Avenue and looking at all the boats, listening to the fish mongers, looking across the inlet to see the neighborhoods of Manhattan Beach and Brighton, realizing that the massive, endless ocean was off to the left and the huge, dense city just over there on the right, I thought that this was a mighty fine place to stand and think.

It was certainly another world from the little Jersey town where I lived, where my father’s general store was one of the few businesses in town, where you knew everyone who walked the streets and the only joints in town had nothing like the chowder and fish that I could get at the McGinnis restaurant.

It was five or six years ago that I first scribbled notes about these memories in a journal – and I included these words…“The boy in Chester, New Jersey, lying in his bed at night with a bright, hot sunburn stinging his face and arms, wondered if he’d ever be lucky enough and rich enough to live on Sheepshead Bay – within walking distance of McGinnis’ extraordinary café.”

I’m pretty sure I was sitting in Paris a few years ago when I scribbled the paragraph above in my journal, at the Café de Flore. Sheepshead Bay was so far away then, and is now – not so much in distance as in time – and so is all that delightful, childhood discovery. My tall, strong grandfather died at about the age I will be in another year or so, and has gone to dwell among the stars. He was a heavy smoker and the cough, cough, cough boomed from his chest as we walked along Emmons Avenue toward the boat we would take out on to the sea.

1 comment:

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