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Eternal City

Life, Death, and Sex on Orchard Beach in the 1950s

Richard Goldstein looks back at formative summer days and nights on the Bronx Riviera.

(Municipal Archives / NYC Department of Parks and Recreation)|

(Municipal Archives / NYC Department of Parks and Recreation)

I’ve basked on many beaches, near and far. But I was shaped by a crescent of sand on the Bronx side of the Long Island Sound. The beach where I summered as a teenager was mostly landfill. It had been built by the government, like the housing project where my family lived and the city college I would soon attend. This largesse allowed us to pretend that we were middle class.

Air conditioning wasn’t allowed in the projects when I grew up, and I was a fat kid, so heat waves had a dramatic effect on my body. I could sit home in a lagoon of sweat, cool off in a theater that showed a movie I didn’t want to see, or go to the beach. That’s where you would have found me in the 1950s, lazing away the afternoon with whatever literary classic I thought an aspiring writer (with a picture of Hemingway above his bed) should read.

There wasn’t much for a fat boy to do on the beach. I was too self-conscious to show off my body, and the water was less than beckoning. It was a sallow, brownish green, with clumps of seaweed and bits of jellyfish that grazed me when I swam. These impurities struck me as the likely reason why the place had such a bucolic name: Orchard Beach.

When it opened in 1937, at the height of the Depression, this place was a welcome alternative to the open hydrants that were the only relief from the heat. There were two bathhouses, nine baseball diamonds, 32 tennis courts, and an inlet for boats. The intention was to make people like us feel like guests at a resort we could never afford. To promote that fantasy, Orchard Beach was dubbed “the Bronx Riviera.” To my generation, it was better known as Horse Shit Beach.

Some of the original amenities have been restored, but back in the `50s, when classy meant modern, everything there looked handed down. The cafeterias were uninviting, and the bathhouses were rarely used. You came with a swimsuit under your jeans, and when you were ready to leave you wrapped a towel around your thighs and wriggled into dry underwear. There were long lines around the restrooms, so peeing was impromptu. You waded to your waist and let loose—after all, wasn’t the water already sort of yellow?

Orchard Beach was smaller and more austere than Coney Island, with no death-defying rides; just a concrete boardwalk and a vast parking lot. But on a hot day, 100,000 people could squeeze onto the sand. There was hardly any space between their blankets, and every breeze brought the thick scent of suntan oil. Men napped with their legs spread auspiciously. Women’s hands cupped their breasts—how could you get an even tan with straps holding up your suit? Wrappers and chicken bones littered the ground—why hike to a garbage can?

There was a soundtrack on the beach, a blare of radios. I had a plastic, teal-colored portable, and I spent hours with an ear pressed to its tinny speaker. Rock ’n’ roll was my refuge from the rest of life, an entry to a world where I was a normal kid despite myself. But my favorite summer song had little to do with the music of the streets. It was an a cappella anthem by the Jamies, a harmonic quartet that had met in church, and it sounded like Americana to a Jewish boy like me. That tune would end up in a Ken-L Ration dog food commercial. I didn’t care. I sang along.

It’s summertime, summertime, sum- sum- summertime

Then a verse that didn’t quite scan:

It’s time to head straight for the hills

It's time to live and have some thrills

Come along and have a ball

A regular free-for-all.

And finally, one of the great awkward lines in teen music:

Well, are you coming or are you ain’t?

People with such genteel voices would never relieve themselves in the water. But they didn’t live in the projects. We saw them in sitcoms, smiling with perfect teeth, and they appeared in person once a year, when hordes of Jehovah’s Witnesses converged on Orchard Beach to be baptized. They advanced into the water fully clothed, oblivious to the bare flesh around them. But after the ceremony, a few of them would wander to the rock jetty at the far end of the beach, where the tender urges of the Bronx were on display.

Sex wasn’t the only reason why I was drawn to Orchard Beach. There was also the spectacle of watching someone die in the most public manner. Every summer, lifeguards would drag an unfortunate swimmer from the water and lay the limp body on the sand. After their attempts at resuscitation failed, they would summon a priest. I didn’t get why the victim was assumed to be Catholic, but the cleric was an irresistible sight. People ran from all over the beach as word of the drowning spread. By the time the priest reached the body, thousands were craning for a look. Me, too, because, as a writer, I had to see such things. I had to.

There was another kind of show on Orchard Beach. It began when the wind gusted and the sky turned dark. Umbrellas untethered, newspapers flew like loose kites, and then the rain came. A mob of nearly naked people fled, some heading for the parking lot while the rest overwhelmed the small plaza where buses were parked. Dripping bodies jammed through the open doors, until each bus was packed end to end. The air inside reeked of Coppertone. Armpits brushed against the top of my head. My face nuzzled bare torsos. I could still smell the bodies when I got off at my stop. 

I had a close encounter of the sandy kind when I was 17. I wasn’t a stranger to sex—few adolescents in the projects were—but I’d never been with a guy. He was older than me, maybe 21, and he picked me up in a Pontiac with a madonna on the dashboard. When he pushed a button that made his seat recline, I was impressed. That was my first gay date, and I tried to put it out of my mind. But I ran into him again one humid night, and this time he wanted to drive to the beach.

When we got to the parking lot, he opened the trunk and took out a blanket and a folding shovel. I followed him to the boardwalk and onto the sand. The beach was closed after dark, and the police kept a close watch with floodlights mounted on their cars. When I pointed that out, he shrugged, and, as I watched, he dug a hole deep enough to hide our bodies. We stripped, and, with the blanket below us, we tangled. I saw specks of mica glistening in the moonlight. I heard the distant sound of conga drums. For a few minutes, I lost myself.

I can’t say this experience changed me. It was so anomalous, and I never saw the guy again. But it made something real that I had always thought excluded me. After that night, I never went to Orchard Beach with the sense of being apart. I was there to be observed and consumed, just like everyone else. And it was sum- sum- summertime.

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