This used to be my playground.

Trip Start Oct 06, 2006
Trip End Dec 06, 2006

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Flag of United States  , New York
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Mon, 6th Nov
Today's the day that I set foot in Far Rockaway for the first time in 39 years. Will it have changed? Will 'Penny Lane' still be playing on the radio? Will Larry still be the life guard at the Holiday House? Is Captain Kangaroo still on TV?
First obstacle would be actually getting to the place. I have no idea about the US transportation system, no idea what trains to catch and no map of Far Rockaway. Only one thing to do: Get out there!
Got the hotel shuttle to Newark Liberty airport and then the monorail to the train station and managed to get myself on the train to NY Penn Station with only a little help from an airport employee.
The train was less than a palace on tracks. The family sitting in the seats in front of me made do with sitting in a place that had a carpet of urine soaked newspaper. One of the daughters was repeatedly reminded not to call out, "It smells of pee" by her mother, much to her delight.
Pulled into Penn after about 20 minutes and was greeted by the largest crowd I've been in for years. I think I must have been away from London too long as it did feel slightly bewildering. Felt the need for a cigarette and wandered out of the nearest exit which led me to 8th Ave. What a wonderful and awe inspiring moment it was as I stood on a Manhattan sidewalk for the first time since I was 9 years old. Devon it ain't! Looking around I could see Madison Square Gardens and just a little way down 33rd was the ever monumental Empire State Building.
Back inside Penn, I was able to work out that the signs pointing towards the Long Island Railroad would probably be the ones to follow. Unlike the London Underground, the New York subway isn't plastered with maps of the rail system which makes guesswork and logical thinking pretty necessary. Enquiries led me to the Ronkonkoma train where I would change at Jamaica. The journey went without a hitch and eventually I was on the Far Rockaway bound train.
Along the way, I passed clapboard houses with tidy little yards and even the odd pool. Maybe Far Rockaway will be the same place I knew as a child and will be full of white, Irish/Catholic and Jewish middle-class families going about their daily lives. This won't be such a culture shock!
Arrived at Far Rockaway and reality hit this mapless soul....."Uh, where am I? Which way do I go?" I headed right and right again and found myself walking amongst increasingly taller, sprawling, dilapidated apartment blocks with rusted, zig-zag fire escapes and the street seemed to be populated by Snoop Dogg look-alikes swaggering along. I tried not to allow myself to be judgemental and swaggered along myself trying not to look lost and just thought "Keep the camcorder hidden". Got to a crossroads and turned right as I looked at where the sun was and thought, "Head south as New Haven Avenue is south of here....somewhere!" I found myself in a posher (white) area and tried not to be judgemental and walked along bolt upright thinking, "Keep the Gucci hidden".
Eventually, I stumbled across street names I recognised and felt that I was reaching the end of my journey home. Tried calling my mum in the UK but my phone wouldn't allow it and ended up in the weird situation where I was getting directions over the phone from Laura in Columbus who had a map of Far Rockaway up on her computer at work.
Passed St Johns hospital which meant I was so close but yet so far and carried on until I ended up at Rockaway Beach. Following further instructions from Laura, I headed north again along Beach 22nd Street and as I walked along, I saw a building and just knew it was the site of my old school. As I approached, I saw a sign which confirmed I was where I thought I was: "St Mary, Star of the Sea Church". The church I knew as a child (and played outside while my parents were inside) is now gone and was replaced with a new one in 1977. I wandered around the side of the church and found myself in the car park of my old school and was overwhelmed with a very strange feeling indeed. I had a vivid memory of Father Fischer batting a ball clear into Beach 22nd from this same piece of land. Is he still alive? Did he find the ball? Guess I'll never know.
Spoke to Laura again on the phone and described the area as I remember it and as it is now. "I'm over the road from the Chinese takeaway that my friend's dad used to own" (Rice with gravy was my favourite)....."To my right is where a hairdresser's called 'The Clip Joint' used to be". Looking up the road, I saw a very depressing sight: clapped out shops offering 'Checks Cashed' and suchlike. Woolworth's is long-gone which will explain why I couldn't find the Slushy machine outside.
I made my way along the road and turned into New Haven Avenue towards my next port of call: my old home.
The walk along New Haven brought about funny feelings as I walked along. I passed a supermarket which used to send out the smell of fresh-baked bread as I passed it. There was no such smell. As I looked ahead, I saw what I knew would be the Holiday House and sure enough there it was in all it's pathetic glory. Very slum-like and depressing. It's no longer the optimistically named 'Holiday House' as it was in the 1960s but is now 'New Haven Towers'. The playground around the back is gone and its emptiness is protected by barbed wire. The fun I had there playing 'stoop ball' with my friends.....
I don't know if the swimming pool beyond the former playground is still there; I just felt that my time there was up. Guess Larry the life guard would be gone anyway.
Headed back to Far Rockaway station and found myself at Inwood station proving that my sense of direction isn't so great.
Back to New Jersey with a deflated feeling about me. I wasn't expecting things to be the same. Things get old and the memories live on however fanciful. The same can be said for the new housing being built in the UK. It's all so fancy and nice now and will be the slums of the future. Nothing changes after all.
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