Rockaway Diva

I can’t remember her name!

She was an amazing character – the old lady who managed the night shift at the café I worked at, on Rockaway Beach, New York.

It was the summer of 1981.  I was young and absolutely full of ‘joie de vivre’ and travel lust – fuelled by songs like ‘Everybody’s Talking’, the theme tune to Midnight Cowboy (“I’m going where the weather suits my clothes”), and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’ (“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike”).

I had jumped at the chance of spending a summer working in the USA, courtesy of a student program I’d discovered at university.  Most people went out to stay on summer camps, supervising children, but there was an option to do other types of work so I got myself allocated to a café/restaurant on the outskirts of New York City, which apparently employed several British students each summer.

Nothing ever hits you with the same intensity as the initial ‘culture shock’ of arriving in a sweltering hot foreign city for the first time, when you’re still in your teens and have hardly ever been away from home alone.

Feeling the amazing heat when you get off your first ever jumbo, sitting in a coach alone, looking out of the window at dark New York alleyways, mysterious characters striding through the night and shouting at each other, finding yourself in a tiny room in a massive youth hostel, unable to sleep because of the heat, the excitement and the unfamiliar drone of an air conditioning unit outside.

My summer in New York, and my two very adventurous Greyhound road trips around the States, had an amazing effect on me, and now seem almost unreal.  America was another world.  I had strange, intense dreams about returning for many years afterwards.

As for the café in Rockaway, I arrived with three other British girls and we were shown to a ramshackle wooden hut which was to serve as accommodation.  The café was on a prominent corner near the subway station and only a block away from the beach.  There was an old permanent funfair (‘Playland’) across the road, noisy and busy, and several other cafes and bars.  It was the sort of area that people from the city came out to for a day, to sit on the beach, eat junk food and drink the night away.

We met with the proprietor and were immediately told the bad news.  Things weren’t busy enough, he couldn’t actually employ us all at the moment.  Maybe in a couple of weeks time, if business picked up.

We were outraged and terrified, of course.  How come we’d travelled all the way to America to be told our jobs didn’t exist?  Did he summon over a few students just in case he needed them, not caring what would happen to them if he didn’t?  (Obviously yes!)  The other girls (who were friends travelling together) left immediately, intending to go to the organisers’ office to complain and get reallocated somewhere else.  (I assume this is what happened because I never saw or heard from them again.)

I was offered an unexpected option – the night shift.  He could use one person to work 12 midnight to 8am.  I had no choice but to say yes, with trepidation, but what an interesting experience it turned out to be, and how positive, because of the attitude of the woman I was to work with.

She had been there for many years and was a local character.  Everyone knew her and respected her.  She was strict but kind, hardworking but laid back.  She was white, buxom but not very large, and with a broad local accent of course.  I remember her wearing trousers and big loose tops, and her hair was grey and pulled back into a bun.

There was one old guy who did the cooking, and when I started, one other waitress, though pretty soon this other girl left and so I found myself as part of a busy team of only three.

The café had indoor seating but much of the business was takeaway, and the outer shutters were never closed, so essentially it was open to the air all the time, with most food and drink being served over the counter.  It offered all the US favourites – steak sandwich, franks (hot dogs), burgers, fries, donuts, ice cream.  In the first part of my shift we would get all the people who had been down for the beach and the funfair, including some quite rowdy gangs of kids, but towards morning it would be commuters stopping for breakfast and coffee before catching the subway into the city.  The atmosphere then was nicer and the regular customers were often very friendly to me.  (One old gent jokingly proposed to me later in the summer!)

Halfway through my shift (lunch at 4am!) I would have a break and choose something to eat, maybe a burger or a breakfast (“eggs over easy”).  Sometimes I would run down to the beach and watch the sun rise over the sea.

And my charming lady boss – she mothered me a bit and adopted me as her protégé.  I think she was impressed, as I was polite and efficient and worked hard.  She teased me about my love of American donuts, and supported me when, on the odd occasion, people left without paying.  She always understood it wasn’t my fault – took my side and consoled me.

She would tell me the stories of some of the customers.  One attractive young lad would come in often, clearly the worse for wear from alcohol, but she would always treat him so kindly, getting him to drink coffee, shaking her head at how he had been changed by booze and drugs.  Clearly she looked through the dishevelled junkie to the young boy she remembered underneath.

The thing that amazed me about her most was that, although she had lived on Rockaway all her life, she had never been to Manhattan!  You could stand at the end of the bay and see the skyscrapers of the city across the water, and I spent every day off I had looking round all the tourist sights and getting to know and love the place.  It was about an hour away by train.  It seemed inconceivable to me that she’d never been there, but it was true.  She lived her own life in the small Rockaway community, and had no desire to venture even that far away, to see one of the greatest cities in the world.

One night towards the end I got a surprise.  One of the customers who knew her encouraged her to sing, and she sat there in the early morning, a huge, warm, amazing contralto voice pouring out of her.  An undiscovered talent, perhaps a jazz diva who never was.

She transformed that summer for me, from the bad, scary start of discovering I had travelled thousands of miles on the promise of a non-existent job, to the exhilarating experience of living and working through hot New York nights.  Listening to the music from the funfair, marvelling at the constant drone of cicadas, so exotic to a young girl brought up in middle England, meeting so many different people – and most of all experiencing a warm spirit of teamwork and motherly protection which turned what could have been a scary and dangerous experience into a safe and memorable one.

It was to be 27 years before I returned to Rockaway Beach, to discover that not only that café but the whole street, including the previously famous funfair, had been pulled down over 20 years ago, to make way for smart holiday apartments.

I couldn’t help thinking of my old night-shift boss, and wondering whether she was still alive, and if so, whether she would remember me.  But there was no way of finding out.

I’m so grateful to her for her kindness and will never forget her.

I only wish I could remember her name.

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