As children our regular visits to the beach were to the mid-beach area of 71st Street. Car loads of families from the other side of the bay would arrive every Saturday, from May to August, unload their six kids, four coolers, eight lounge chairs, four regular folding chairs, a domino table, (of course playing dominoes was part of the sacred ritual), two umbrellas, and what seemed an unending number of sacks with clothes and food. We must have seemed like a gypsy troop setting up camp. At the end of each of these one day excursions, we had to pack up all our belongings and drive back across the bay to our suburbs in the west.
Later as teenagers we ventured further north to the “cool” beaches of BalHarbor, Haulover and Sunny Isles and to the southern-most beaches of Key Biscayne. However, none of these regular destinations stir up the fondest memories. Not their pristine crème color sand, turquoise blue water (clear enough to see your toes when chest deep), or balmy breezes that swept over our bronzing bodies succeeded in placing them at the top of the list.
That honor goes to South Beach. However, when I was growing up we knew South Beach as Playa de los Viejos, loosely translated meaning, the Old Folk Beach. Our visits there were memorable. We knew something was up when packing the car we took twice as much food and all of our clothes were in suitcases.
“Mom, where are we going?” I asked.
“A la playa,” Mom answered.
“I can see we’re going to the beach, but why the suitcases?” My sister Lidia jumped in with her sarcastic teenage tone.
“Una sorpresa,” Mom replied.
A surprise? I knew my brother and sister were thinking what I was thinking, maybe we’re going to Disney World? It turned out they weren’t thinking that at all and that wasn’t what my parents had in mind either. It became clear to me too when we didn’t take the turn-off towards the turnpike which we would have taken to go north to Orlando. Instead my dad kept driving due east straight to the beaches, but at reaching Collins Ave (A1A) he turned south instead of turning north as we usually did.
After an additional 20 minute drive through blocks and blocks of beige and brown stucco buildings, with only an occasional pastel colored one in between, we finally arrived at our destination, The Beacon Hotel. Well, at first glance I wasn’t at all impressed. It’s hard to get a 10 year old in the 70’s excited when driving up to a forty year-old hotel and greeted by 25 senior citizens sitting on the hotel’s terrazzo veranda.
“¿Que te parece?” my dad asked.
“You want to know what we think?” My sister asked him as she flapped her arms around and pulled her hair in disbelief.
I didn’t know then what a rhetorical question was, but I knew enough to know that my dad wasn’t really asking for our opinion or approval. My big sister was either the gutsiest 17 year-old I had ever met, or just plain-out crazy. I eventually learned it was neither. Lidia was genuinely overcome with disappointment, which lasted all of 10 minutes. Her tune changed when my mother told her she could invite her boyfriend to spend the day with us. It took her about ten seconds to find the pay phone booth in the lobby.
While my sister chatted on the phone, the rest of the clan had to unload the car and trek the stuff up to the third floor, given the elevator had a sign strung through the metal accordion door that read Temporarily Out of Order. Funny thing is, three years later on our final stay there, the initials I had fingered through the dust on the sign during that first visit could still be made out. Truth be told I didn’t do much of the trekking. After the first load, I hung out with my sister at the telephone booth; I enjoyed pestering her. My brother Mickey, the middle kid, and my parents got everything to the room.
Then it only got better. As my sister chatted on the phone, I saw my aunts and uncles at the front desk checking in and out in the terrazzo veranda facing the ocean were my cousins, all four of them. I knew then, this would be a vacation I wouldn’t soon forget. Sure enough, for the following three years the otherwise routine summers were bookended by the best Memorial and Labor Day weekends I can remember. Those six weekends were full of early morning strolls on the beach with my Uncle Rodolfo and Aunt Providence, the only three early birds in the entire family, and late night camp fires out on the beach with my cousins, siblings and about 15 of their friends, singing and playing guitar until well past 2:00AM. Being the youngest among all my cousins and siblings, I was teased and taunted but never excluded. That meant the world to me and was well worth the mischievous abuse.
There were times that all the young people split up and did their own thing with their friends. Even I had made friends at the hotel my own age, and even one not so much my age. I remember the first time Mrs. Schwartz challenged me to a game of backgammon. She was good. I usually spent the early evenings with my dad and two uncles playing dominoes out on the terrazzo veranda, where the cool breeze that came off the ocean made it difficult to believe it was a sweltering 98 degrees just a block west where the breeze just didn’t reach. On one of these nights, my dad and uncles were watching something on TV, I don’t recall what it was, but their faces were glued to the tube and there was no prying them away. I went out to the veranda and kicked the plastic dominoes table we had brought.
“You should not do that!” an old woman sitting out on the edge of the veranda scolded.
“It’s my dad’s.” I said.
“So that gives you the right to go kicking it around?”
“What is your name?” she asked, then waved me over and patted the chair next to her, “Sit.”
I was too shy to answer and not brave enough to disobey. I went over and sat next to her. Within minutes we had set up the backgammon board on the dominoes table and she proceeded to teach me how to play a game I had never seen before. She told me her name and told me that when she was a little girl she lived in Poland. Then later, she moved to America, to NYC, got married had five children and 11 grandchildren. When I asked her where they were, she looked out towards the ocean for a moment then back at me.
“Ok, enough teaching you how to play. I challenge you now. You win or you lose. We will see now.”
I lost. The backgammon game that is; but I won something that I can’t quite name even to this day. Mrs. Schwartz was a permanent fixture at the Beacon Hotel and I looked forward to playing backgammon with her every evening those two weekends per year. I even convinced my parents to drive by on July 4th (we were already on this side of the bay, what was a 20 minute extra drive through bumper to bumper holiday traffic?) so we could just say hello; and that we did. Her glassy eyes spoke of her joy to see us. The second year I was actually able to win some of the backgammon games. It got harder to say goodbye that second Labor Day. On the third year, she wasn’t out on the veranda when we arrived. I rushed to the front desk to ask for her, but the new clerk had no idea who I was talking about. No one seemed to know whom I was asking about. On our second night my sister, already married by then, came to see me.
“She’s gone, Carl.”
“Where to?” I asked incredulously.
She didn’t have to spell it out for me. Her uncharacteristic silence and patience with me eventually helped me understand what she meant. I never learned Mrs. Schwartz’s first name, but for some reason I thought maybe her name was Hana or Ester. After that third Labor Day we never did go back as a whole family. The older cousins were all getting married and moving away, the uncles were ill, the area was beginning its final decline into poverty and crime before re-emerging 20 years later as the Art Deco historical gem that it has always been, albeit no one seemed to know it. I’ve forgotten how to play backgammon, but I haven’t forgotten Mrs. Schwartz.