The Boiler and the Beach

Written By: Henry  Broder

I grew up in Brooklyn. We lived in Coney Island, and I like to say I could swim before I could walk. My mother loved the beach and took me to it almost every day. I grew to love the beach and the water also. I had always heard the name, Montauk Point. On the weather reports, when people spoke of going deep sea fishing, in my high school geography class. But, I had never been there. Why schlep to Montauk Point when you had a perfectly good beach right on the other side of the elevated train station at West 8th Street? I grew up, went to a City college and met a girl I fell instantly in love with. After two years in the Navy, aboard a submarine (as I said, I loved the water) we were married. We got an apartment in a two family house on Avenue I, right near Brooklyn College. It was a very good deal. It had two bedrooms, eat-in kitchen, separate dining room, living room plus a screened in sun-porch. All this for $130 a month! (it was 1969). Most of our married friends were paying $160 or more for one bedroom apartments. But, the landlady was a problem. She lived upstairs and every month on the first of the month, it sounded like she was bowling in her apartment. She would drop things and make all kinds of noise. Then, when I left for work, she would be out in front of the house sweeping and hosing the sidewalk. She would accost me with, “It’s the first of the month. Do you have your rent check? If you don’t pay your rent on time, I can have you thrown out, you know. My son is a lawyer and he says so.” We had never missed a rent payment and always made it on or before the first. But, every month on the first it was the same routine My wife, on the other hand, was terribly upset by the old lady. It was not just the rent. When we got a window air conditioner, we got a letter from her son the lawyer saying we had to pay her $25 a month more. I had to get a letter from my lawyer answering him that this was nonsense because we paid our own electricity. I also had to prove that an air conditioner is NOT an electrical sign advertising an illegal business (I kid you not), which was expressly forbidden in the lease, the son finally dropped the matter. Then there was the boiler incident. The boiler, and thus, our heat and hot water, was constantly breaking down. I would notify the landlady, but I would have to listen to a million reasons why our “overuse of the hot water and raising the thermostat too much, broke the boiler.” After a while, (I guess after she started getting uncomfortable) she would call the repairman. He had to come on an almost weekly basis. Since you had to go through a door in our apartment to get to the boiler, we got to know the serviceman, Lou, quite well. The landlady kept that door locked, but there was a key hanging on a hook just outside our apartment door. She was only too happy to escort Lou into our apartment so that she could snoop around a bit every time he came. I learned that Mrs. G. had a service contract on the boiler and it didn’t cost her anymore to have Lou come and fix it every seven to ten days. Plus, I think she liked it when he came. It broke up the monotony of her day and she got to peek in and see what “horrible things” her young tenants were doing to her property. Mrs. G. was a widow. Her husband had been an accountant and he left her well positioned to live comfortably when he was gone. She travelled quite a bit and when she went away, if there was a problem with the furnace I called Lou on my own and let him into the basement with the key from the hall. After doing this a couple of times I got a nasty note from her son the lawyer saying I was not to call for service or use the key to the basement anymore because his mother had “valuable papers stored down there” and I was not authorized to call for service under her contract. One particularly cold week, Mrs. G was away on a cruise. We woke up to a freezing apartment and found that the hot water was coming out cold. I called Lou and waited around shivering for him to come. When he rang the front bell, I went out to let him in and when I reached for the key, I realized that Mrs. G had removed it. There was no way to get in touch with her. We were freezing so, Lou got a crow bar from his truck and we forced the basement door open. When the wacky old lady got back from her trip, the preverbal shit hit the fan. She threatened to call the police. She did call her son the lawyer, who immediately drove down from Scarsdale to inspect the damage I had inflicted on her property and figure out how many thousands of dollars he was going to charge us for the broken $1.59 padlock. Needless to say, “we had words.” My wife was expecting our first baby and we decided then and there that we had to get out of this place. We told the lawyer/son to “shove-it”, told Mrs. G. we were leaving and started looking into other apartments. Many of our friends had, by then, moved to larger apartments, or bought houses in the suburbs. But we didn’t want to leave our beloved Brooklyn. We looked into row houses in the “brownstone” neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The houses we could afford needed so much work we would never be able to buy one and make it livable. One thing I knew was I did not want to move to the Long Island suburbs. I knew too many cousins and coworkers who lived out there and I had heard too many stories of about people fighting over dogs pooping on lawns and teenagers driving drunk in cars that were much too expensive for me to ever own and the horrors of commuting into Manhattan. We limited our search to Brooklyn and parts of Queens. One weekend my wife, now six months pregnant, and I decided to take a break from house hunting and take a leisurely drive out to this fantastic place we had heard of, Montauk Point. We drove out as far as Amagansett where we had made a reservation at a small motel to spend the night. We had breakfast in a cool, old fashioned luncheonette called Estia. We went into a real factory outlet store for Coach Leather and bought a beautiful red leather bag for my wife at a fraction of the department store price. And, I got a big bag of leather strips they were giving away for me to do some arts & crafts project with (some day). We continued along Rt. 27 for a short while and stopped at a roadside stand that had fresh local produce and bunches of beautiful zinnias which they grew in a field right behind the place. We got coffee and a muffin to share in the car and continued toward Montauk. We passed a big roadside eatery with a huge sign simply saying “LUNCH”. We were driving on a straight-away passing very beachy looking houses made of weathered grey boards. Many had nautical pennants or colorful mooring markers hanging on the front doors. As we got closer to Montauk a strange but very comfortable feeling started coming over me. It was seeing the beach and the sea beyond that brought up feelings of my childhood years in Coney Island and all the time I spent at the beach growing up. We got to the lighthouse and got out of the car. I held my wife’s hand as we walked carefully out on some rocks below the lighthouse. As I gazed out at the ocean I said “You know I think we ought to think about living closer to all this.” My wife looked at me and smiled, “I didn’t grow up at the beach like you, but I was getting the same feeling.” When we got back to Brooklyn, I called a cousin who lived in Port Washington. He recommended a real estate agent and we started looking at houses there. We’ve lived “on the Island” for over thirty years now, raising two great kids, and having a fantastic life. And it was taking that one fateful trip to Montauk that convinced us to do it.