The exasperating traffic on the drive to Johnny’s Reef restaurant at the very eastern tip of City Island allowed me the time to drift off down memory lane. Driving down the Hutch and getting off at the City Island/Orchard Beach brought back many wonderful childhood and teenage memories of section 10, baby oil, sun reflectors, and old friends just hanging out.
Orchard never had the waves of Jones or Moses or Montauk. It’s softly rippling cloudy waters, where you could always count on seeing your shadow, occasionally distorted by a small boat’s wake were never the drawing card. The drawing cards were always the people and the beauty of this 1930’s beach, boardwalk, and concessions modeled after Jones Beach.
It was then and is still now a haven for immigrants from all generations. My mother went here as a young adult. She brought me there as a child and I went with my friends as a teen and young adult. We took the slow but steady BX 12 bus until my friend Kenny and I had cars. Section 10 was where we parked ourselves for hours upon hours of sun, sand, laughs, and ventures into that cloudy water. It is still a haven for Bronxites young and old.
The crossing of the City Island Bridge brought back more memories of those famous huge old seafood places. The “Original” Crab Shanty, Sammy’s Fishbox, The Lobster Box, Anna’s Harbor were samples of places you could eat the best (and most) seafood in New York City at the best prices in the city and still need a doggy bag. The Black Whale had a “Hot Fudge Chocolate Ice Cream Cake” which was actually a huge brownie covered in vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce that was enough for 3 but no one ever actually shared one. Moving your spoon or fork in the direction of anyone else’s was an instant declaration of utensil war.
Finally, trailing behind a city bus, I arrived at Johnny’s…. the last place on the left. Johnny’s is an old school cafeteria style open air restaurant opened over 60 years ago with beautiful view of the Long Island Sound and all its boaters. Even “hizhonor” Da Mayor Bloomberg said this about it. “I used to drive my kids to Johnny’s Reef Restaurant, which is all the way out on the point. We would order baskets of fried clams and eat them outside on the picnic tables overlooking the water. I still go when I can. It’s a great escape without leaving the city.”Ok that’s it for the free advertising. You really have to like fried food on paper plates in plastic trays to enjoy Johnny’s. It’s the experience that matters.
I parked. Learning from past experiences that you could never take the Bronx out of us, I did not walk into the restaurant’s ample seating area or cafeteria to find my old players and fellow coaches from the Adlai Stevenson High School football teams circa 1974-1979, but rather looked to the back corner of the parking lot where I knew they would be hanging out as the arrival times stretched from 2:00 PM to… whenever.
I am the tall guy in the back.
Slowly they arrived, hardly any with the trim hardened bodies of their youth. After all they now ranged in age from 57-61. Little did they know then that we coaches were only in their 20’s when we first started. Three of them had had open heart surgery as I did, so we compared notes and scars. Another former all-star was there even though he lost his speech as a result of a stroke. Another came leaning on a cane because of a botched back surgery, and one on strolled in using a walker because of the osteoporosis that ravaged his once athletic body.
Harvey, Bob, and I had slimmer bodies than most of them and we gave them quite a ribbing for it. I lined up 5 guys who used to be the “skinny” wide receivers and told them, “Now you look more like an offensive line.”
It took an hour or so of laugh filled story telling before we collected enough of us to march down to the restaurant’s outdoor seating area and grabbed enough tables for the all of us.
Over time some had to leave and more came. We learned of families, jobs, and 40 years of life. We told stories, goofed on each other, relayed what some thought were still secrets, and just enjoyed the company of old friends. We were reminded of a time when on a Senior Trip to a dude ranch, when one of them, seeing my 6’5” body up climb up on the biggest horse they had exclaimed, “Look at Coach Greene…. Damn he is high in the saddle.” And I responded, “Better to be high in the saddle than high in the room.” After several elongated seconds of huge laughter, he asked, “You knew?” To which I responded, “Let’s just say we had been around the block.”
The stories were too many to share here. We honored the half dozen or so who had passed away at too young an age including a fellow coach. They were saddened of the demise and break up of their Alma Mater as had happened to almost all the high schools in New York City.
Now as grown men, they talked about their struggles of surviving in that time period filled with crime and gang violence all around them. They rattled off the names of the Savage Nomads, The Black Spades, The Savage Skulls, and the Ghetto Brothers. They thanked us, as coaches, for giving them the tools with which to do that.
They told us that their survival and future successes were due mostly to their being on that team and how what we, as coaches, did for them then shaped their adult lives and the lives of their children. A few brought their own teenaged and 20 something sons to introduce them to us. What an honor. There is none bigger for a teacher or coach. Well, maybe the signed “game ball” they gave me that day.
Why write of this? In this highly divisive time we must speak up. We must fight the hatred, the racism, and the conflict ridden nature of this president’s administration. This reunion of 40 plus years of fellowship, respect, and love of white, Black, and Latino men from the Bronx is more than just that.
We symbolize what making America great actually means.