We lived in one of those old two-story brownstones a
block from the Beach, only they weren't stone, they were brick; and they weren't
brown, they were red. Each house had a front porch or a stoop leading up to the
front door because each had a basement just below ground level. Many of the
families had finished the basements so they could be rented for the summer to
families from New York City who wanted to vacation on Rockaway Beach but
couldn't or didn't want to rent one of the thousands of bungalows built for that
Each summer a whole community would appear within days after school closed which was generally around June 28th. The migration was instantaneous and complete. One day the streets were almost bare with an occasional old man making his way to a nearby shul to attend services with other old men. The next day cars appeared and families moved into apartments and got ready for July 4th weekend, the official start of the season with fireworks, bands, exciting noises and cars, and of course, the odyssey of the boardwalk.
They were called “Summer People” by the local residents and we children all knew each others' names. We didn't dwell on what public schools we attended or what our fathers did for a living. Those were topics reserved for year round residents. We talked about the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Undertow. The Undertow was a mysterious tidal force that was part of the surf (we didn't call it surf) that pulled hapless bathers out to sea no matter how good a swimmer they might be. Today it's called a Rip Current but back then when Rockaway's ocean represented the very edge of the earth, the Undertow was the terrible hand of God that no one could resist.
We played stickball in the streets while we waited for our parents or grandparents to decide it was time to go to the beach. We also played stoop ball from those convenient front steps. There was a candy store a block away that stocked treasures like kites, gliders and rubber balls—Spaldings cost a quarter and were the best but some of the older boys liked the cheaper ones, fifteen cents, because they didn't bounce as high and were easier to catch when playing stickball.
The girls played with the girls and the boys played with the boys until, sometimes in the afternoon, we'd join to play hide 'n seek, a game that required a larger population. Then you'd hear the screaming laughter that came with this excitement as one of the boys raced to the Base to free all those previously tagged, generally girls because they were slower. It was great fun, but there was a dark side.
Living in an upstairs apartment on 60th street was an old woman simply known as Mrs. Messer. She had white hair and a cross face and didn't like children. She reminded us all of the nasty teachers we had recently been liberated from and had almost completely forgotten. There wasn't any Mr. Messer, at least not that anyone knew of. Mrs. Messer would sit scowling like a great pale mournful owl at her window and sometimes string clothes out on a line to dry. She somehow knew our names and would call down to us by name screeching that if we didn't quiet down she would tell our parents.
She spoiled our games like a rainstorm on a beach day, sudden, unexpected and momentarily terrible in aspect. Her screeching voice usually kept us on the other side of the street, but during furious games of tag and hide 'n seek, there was no way to stay out of her range.
One day as we had gathered in a loose little group wondering what to do next with our crackling energy, Mrs. Messer began to hang things on her clothes line, her thin little arms reaching out slowly, deliberately, like insect legs. Suddenly one of the straps of her white cotton top came undone and out popped an old, white breast. She was unaware that it was hanging there, swaying as she attached pillow cases to the clothes line. But a dozen sets of children's eyes looked up in wonder. No one moved for long seconds as Mrs. Messer attached clothespins to a blue towel. Then someone uttered in a stage whisper, “Mrs. Messer's tit fell out the window!” More little heads turned in amazement as the cry began to spread, and following some of the longest seconds in any of our lives, the old woman realized what had happened and disappeared into the darkness of her upstairs room.
“Mrs. Messer's tit fell out the window” became a defining moment of some kind and the legend spread up and down the block. My mother chuckled as I described the story in slow motion, then she admonished me not to retell this unfortunate, for Mrs. Messer, incident.
We never saw the old woman at her perch again for the rest of the summer. Some say she put on a disguise and moved to another apartment; others insist that she is still up there, waiting for unsuspecting boys and girls to display an old withered mammary. No one will ever know.
Copyright 2008 Richard Herbst
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