How do I love Orchard Beach? Let me count the ways!
A middle-aged man, dressed for summer, exits his parked car and approached a group of people, four of whom sit on folding chairs around a portable bridge table, playing dominos. On any given day, during the warmer, offseason months, groups of fun-seekers occupy the better part of the eastern section of the Orchard Beach parking lot. The air radiates with the beat of Latin music from their sound equipment, accompanied by the sounds of crackling dominos. The shuffling of the dominos signifies the start of a new game. A similar scene plays out in the adjacent picnic area with groups of friends full of good cheer and camaraderie, displaying huge baskets of food, everyone seemingly in their appointed spots. Smoke pours into the sky above from grills sizzling with steaks, chops, fish, stews and other foods.
We park our car in the front part of the lot, and walk toward the beach. The entranceway is flanked by benches. Beyond the benches on one side are basketball courts; on the other side, the handball courts. The air is full of the sounds of tennis balls hitting the wall and the clunk of basketballs swirling around in hoops. As we approach the beach, the small islands (large rocks in the water, really) become larger.
Reaching the promenade area, we start our walk toward the west end. There are some domino players there too. But they are but one of the variety of beachgoers who show up at Orchard Beach this time of year. You have your runners, walkers, bench-sitters, sunbathers, basketball players, children, babies, fishermen, bicycle and scooter riders, dog walkers with their dogs, kite flyers, even a frustrated golfer walking across the sandy beach as though it’s a huge sand trap. And then there are the people I call the miners — the explorers with their metal detectors, searching for solid gold rings or something else of value.
At high tide, the water rises about 4 feet along the western barrier wall. Looking down from my vantage point, I can almost see the large rock on the bed below.
Today, it’s low tide, and when I look directly down, there is no water, only sand and rocks.
There’s a miner down there with his tiny shovel and detector equipment looking for the treasures beneath. I tried to take a picture of him, but my phone slipped out of my hand and went kerplunk on to the wet sand below.
“Oh well, goodbye phone,” I think and I start considering all the problems that will arise without my phone. So many problems.
Still, the phone didn’t land on a rock. Maybe, just maybe it wasn’t destroyed.
I’m gonna go down and get it, I think. Not an easy task. If I want to do that, I’ll have to climb over the railing, walk a short distance to the jetty, and head down the precarious sea wall boulders to get to the sand. Not for me. I’m not going to risk my life for a phone.
I return to the dropping point, look down at my phone and then I see him about 50 or 60 feet away.
“Hello down there,” I call out, and motion with my arm and hand that he should walk toward me.
He approaches the barrier wall quite close to the spot where my phone is resting.
“I’ll give you 10 bucks if you can bring my phone to me,” I say.
He picks up the phone, walks to the jetty and starts his difficult ascent. I walk to the jetty to meet him. He reaches out to give me the phone. I give him a triple thank you and hand him the 10- dollar bill. He refuses to take the money.
I use all the words I can muster to get him to take the money but he still refuses and continues his climb down.
I ask him how old he is. He tells me he’s 68, then returns to his task of looking for treasures.
As we walk, patrol cars and repair vehicles pass us, moving very slowly, and we notice several tractors with large raking machines attached, making their way through the sand. One of the tractor operators has parked his vehicle in the sand, stepped down and out of this vehicle and walks on to the promenade.
I ask him about his job and he seems pleased that I’m interested in his work. He tells me there were many windstorms during the winter months, which caused huge buildups of sand in the area in front of the barrier that separates the sandy beach from the promenade. It’s his job to operate the bulldozer that will return the sand to where it belongs. Then, the tractors will clean and groom the sand.
It’s a quiet day — a dog barks, a scooter passes by; there’s a plane overhead and the sound of distant, quiet music. As we walk, the music gets louder and louder until it’s upon us, blaring, beating in our ears. The beat and blast of the music is so intense that you either love it and become a part of it, or you hate it because it hurts your eardrums. We continue our walk until the music is gone.
I have been going to Orchard Beach, on and off, since I was a kid, maybe 13 years old. Most of the time Ray and Ralph, my two closest friends at the time, would accompany me to the beach by bus, during the summer. The three of us would lay our blankets down on the sand; we would swim and sunbathe; occasionally, we would do shoulder stands and handstands, whatever it took to show off our weightlifters’ bodies, in order to meet girls.
Summer at Orchard Beach is a must for Bronxite beach lovers. It is the only beach in the Bronx so it can get quite crowded. Sometimes, instead of taking the bus to the beach, we would take a bus to City Island, where we would rent a rowboat and row the half-mile from City Island into the waters off Orchard Beach. About ¼ mile out from the beach is a small island where we would dock our boat. One time, I swam from the island to the beach, bought a hot dog for Ray and Ralph from one of the food stands and swam back to the island, sidestroke, hot dog in my right hand out of the water, to keep it dry.
When I was about 16, my father and I drove to the parking lot in February where he gave me driving lessons. It was a great place for that. The lot was huge, and there were very few other cars there. The car had three pedals — gas, brake and clutch. In order to drive smoothly you had to depress the gas pedal and simultaneously slowly raise the clutch pedal from the down position. If you did it properly all would be smooth; if you didn’t, the car would jump all over the place.
The day came when both my dad and I thought that I was ready to drive on the road. That day, somewhere between the Bronx and White Plains, on route 22, I sideswiped an oil truck while trying to pass it. The oil truck didn’t stop because the driver apparently didn’t know I hit him. My dad was somewhat angry at me and insisted that I reimburse him for the cost of the repair with the wages I earned as a soda jerk. I didn’t appreciate his attitude at the time, but when I got older, I realized the lesson I was being taught.
Orchard Beach, situated at the western end of Long Island Sound, opened in 1930 but building continued through 1937. Beige sand was brought to the beach area from Queens and the New Jersey Shore. The parking lot, with picnic area on its eastern side, accommodates about 6700 cars. The crescent-shaped promenade, made from strips of hexagonal blocks is about 1 mile long. The area includes about 26 volleyball, handball and basketball courts as well as a few playground areas and some nature trails. Benches and lifeguard stands line the promenade, and on either end of it, you can look out at the different sights on and above the Sound — seagulls flying, shore birds swimming, fishermen, hoping to catch a porgy or snapper, sail and power boats darting through the waters. At certain spots, both the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges can be seen as well as the southeastern tip of City Island. The mass of water can look like a sheet of glass or a bed of moving cracked ice, depending on the force of the wind. Sometimes, you can hear shots from an adjacent police firing range.
Two stone jetties, or seawalls, cradle both the eastern and western ends of the beach. Since every beach wave pulls some sand out to sea and shortens the beach area these jetties were enhanced in 2010 when the Army Corps of Engineers trucked in about 4000 tons of new stone to place on the seawalls.
In the 50s I took my four-year-old son Mike to Orchard Beach. We would walk down to the water’s edge and I would introduce him to the birds whose names I made up. Then, when we returned to the beach some weeks later I would say to Mike, Oh look, there’s Billy or Bobby.” Mike would try to to talk to them as they flew away.
In the 1930s and 40s, most of the beachgoers were white. Today, most are Black or Latino. The music has changed too — Sinatra, Crosby and Perry Como have been replaced by the exciting melodies and beat of Latin music.
During the spring and fall, when the beach is somewhat deserted Llewellyn and I come here to get some exercise. As we walk, we see familiar sights and hear familiar sounds — the wind, the planes, the playground where we took our youngest granddaughter and pushed her on the swings.
As we continue our walk back, after having reached the west end of the beach, we decided to sit for a while at a familiar spot where the sunshine seems just right and where a guy sits on a bench directly in front of a closed concession stand. It’s always the same guy, on the same bench, in front of the same closed concession stand near the bathroom facilities. Whenever people approach the toilets, he tells them that they’re closed and informs them of where they can find an open one. A friendly beachgoer starts up a conversation. He asks if we like Puerto Rican food then sings the praises of a Puerto Rican restaurant somewhere in the Tremont section of the Bronx. He tells us that the pork chops and the mofongo are unequaled in the area.
The next day we go to the restaurant where I order rice and beans, pork chops and Mofongo. The Mofongo was very good but the pork chops were somewhat less than advertised. Still, I do hope I come across this beachgoer again.
These past few weeks, the weather has been good for walking. It‘s always an invigorating experience to be there and blend into the sights and sounds of Orchard Beach. Now, as spring is fading slowly into summer, and the throngs of summertime people are getting ready to invade the beach, I yearn for the sights and sounds there during the offseason that I love.
Len Berk is the Forward’s lox columnist. He has worked for 26 years behind the lox counter at Zabar’s where you can still find him on Thursdays.