Growing up in Brooklyn, I was all about labels. I went from purchasing Sears’ Toughskins — with the patch on each knee — to an obsession with getting a pair of Jordache. In the ‘80s, Jordache jeans were heavily advertised on TV and were a must-have by any pre-teen girl. They had that thick maroon label with a horse stitched on, placed right above the back jean pocket. I pled with my mother until she finally bought me a pair and wore them until the last stitch fell off. As I got older, my obsession switched to Guess Jeans, the triangle-logo’ed, acid-washed style, which in retrospect looked like an accident of two tones of denim placed into one dungaree.
It was around this time that I met a group of girls and guys who took the Green Line bus from Rockaway, Queens to the junction in Brooklyn. They entered our school, with their mousse-abused 80’s hair, tanned skinned and big oversized glasses. In the midst of urban New York, this group stood out from the (Park) Slopies wearing faded Canal Jeans T-shirts and the Goth kids wearing combat boots. And, of course, my new friends wore designer jeans. They were beach kids, but they were my doppelgangers.
Eventually, my previous group of city friends began to join our new beach-dwelling classmates. We found ourselves on weekends no longer with the urbanites on Riis Park, but now with personal invites to the quieter, more exclusive Neponset landscape. And there we would sit on our beach towels and rub in baby oil and fry our teenage bodies. I would walk the beach and stare at the houses. Beautiful manicured homes, inches from the golden Rockaway Sand.
I had a terrible sense of direction, and sometimes I’d get swept up in the beauty and expanse of the beach. When I got lost, I would look for what I called the Jordache house. An enormous, oversized yellow mansion that edged out from 140th street overtaking most of the block. I felt like my obsession with designer jeans somehow paid for their heirs to live there, and I would stop and gawk at its enormity. Sometimes I wished I could live there.
Who were those people inside? I had heard only rumors but wondered what they looked like. I imagined they were all beautiful — maybe, running around the beach in cut-off Jordache Jeans.,. Perhaps they would invite me in? Perhaps one day I could live in a house like this, in sunshine yellow, and be the envy of everyone around me? My own house was one block off of Coney Island Avenue. It was old and creaky and filled with antiques. I wanted a different life – one filled with designer clothes. One that was enviable.
Sometimes my friends and I would return to the beach at night, on the weekends, to peach wine coolers, or Budweisers held in crumpled paper bags. We’d squish our feet in the sand and laugh for hours, flirting with boys. It felt like a different world.
When I left New York for college, I found myself becoming more socially conscious. I discovered Gap Jeans were more affordable and morphed better into my newfound Freshman 15. I didn’t want anyone looking at my labels anymore; I wanted them to focus on what was inside.
Yet still, during summer break, I’d find myself alone wandering down the streets in Rockaway, always looking for that big, yellow house.
Eventually, I became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka, stomping around the Amazon and the Middle East and not until weeks before 9/11 did I find myself on New York soil again. I was there to see the towers fall, and I began to find an unbelievable attachment to the city of my youth. I felt compelled to volunteer and found myself at a center counseling people, organizing donations, and bringing endless baked goods to the firemen at the nearby house. One man cried in my arms.
When Sandy hit, I also felt compelled to do something. I found myself using my last bits of gas to drive with friends to bring donations from the local temple to those in need.
It felt like a war zone; with dust everywhere and broken bits of homes scattered at every turn. Hand-painted signs thanked people for their help. When we got to Rockaway I did not know where I was. Where were all the beautiful homes? Each corner had food stations with donations from restaurants and bottled water. On the surface, people appeared fine. But when I spoke to them, their houses, their lives were gone. Each block was filled with piles as high as molehills of refrigerators and cupboards.
As we dropped off our rubber gloves and bottled water, I found myself gawking at the display on 140th street. A thin, freckleface kid was placing his comic books outside to dry. Strips of cartoons and black and white inked papers, bubbling up and cracking in the sun. For some reason this seemed like the greatest loss of all.
I thought if I was in his place, at his age, I would have hung all my designer jeans to drip-dry in the mildewed breeze. A bit of my shallow youth, now swimming in deeper waters. But his seemed so pure. The way he carefully placed each beveled edge. I smiled at him and he smiled back. Around the corner would be the Jordache house. Would it still remain? It didn’t matter. It never would be the same anyway.
Photo courtesy of the author