Gut Instinct: No Man’s Island

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


You’re not wearing your flesh-colored bathing suit," my fiancée told me last Sunday morn.

"It’s my birthday!" I said. She shook her head and narrowed her eyes as if my words were the noonday sun, a look I’ll have plenty of time to get used to over the ensuing, oh, 40 or 50 years. "Just because you’re turning 33 doesn’t mean that you should look like you’re nude. You blend into the sand." Dear readers, that’s the point of wearing a scandalously short swimsuit the approximate color of a Caucasian. Besides, with my bachelor party and the alarming number of go-go bars I’ve stumbled into in recent weeks— on accident, of course—nudity is my new norm. Why not pretend to wear my birthday suit on my birthday?

As it so often does, common sense prevailed. I tucked myself into my red checkered trunks and we alighted for Rockaway Beach, the site of my sandy shindig. This was a drastic departure from years past. For the last decade, I’ve celebrated growing closer to death by camping out at Coney Island. The goal was gorging on gallons of Coors Light, plump Nathan’s wieners and top-notch tortas such as meaty, overloaded specimens sold at Alex Deli (1418 Mermaid Ave., betw. Stillwell Ave. & 15th St., 718-265-0675). After getting good and knackered, I’d let the Cyclone clatter me across its tracks till I was dizzy with glee, then pass out in a sweaty, contented, lobster-red heap on the subway home. All in all, it was a swell annual tradition.

Coney was always rough around the edges, but it had a shabby, plucky dignity—a scallywag with a fresh shave and a pressed, frayed suit. Yet as the years passed and my body slowly began to fall apart, so, too, did the amusement district. Thor Equities bought great swaths of Coney and razed the gritty grandeur, filling the empty lots with half-assed flea markets and bland, whirling rides better suited for a second-rate Six Flags. Like setting your oven to the "clean" cycle, Coney was effectively sanitized. "But Josh, there’s still Ruby’s and Cha Cha’s," you say. True, but they’ve only been granted a stay of execution. At season’s end they’ll be killed off, victims of misguided progress. Call me morbid, but I don’t like spending my time hanging out on death row.

Thus, this year I relocated my bash to Rockaway Beach. For lovers of sand, crashing surf, good eats and getting good and drunk, this is pretty much paradise. Rockaway Taco serves one of the finest fish tacos this side of San Diego, and Connolly’s Bar (155 Beach 95th St., betw. Shore Front Parkway & Rockaway

Beach Blvd., 718-474-2374) pours potent frozen piña coladas topped with a cherry and a floater of rum. Sweetening the deal, this year the Rockaway Taco team has curated a crew of boardwalk vendors featuring the likes of Caracas Arepa Bar, Blue Bottle and Motorboat and the Big Banana, which serves deep-fried sea creatures and frozen, chocolate-dipped bananas.

"I want Rockaway Taco!" my sweetheart told me not long after she arrived at the beach. Her obsession with the shack’s fish tacos borders on the fanatical, like a convert to a culinary cult. "Hon, the lines are too long," I told her. Thanks to The New York Times’ endless slobbering over the Rockaways, it’s nigh on impossible to nab a taco in less than 45 minutes during the weekend. "I want them, and I’m starving."

Oh, no. A famished fiancée is the worst kind of fiancée. When hunger strikes, she turns stark raving mad—a calorie-deprived Jekyll and Hyde act. "Baby, it’s my birthday," I said, gesturing to the crowd of people drinking Miller High Life as if it never went out of style. "I can’t leave." "You can send someone to get you food," she said, once more proving her marriage-worthy merit. A friend was sent via bicycle to the Caracas Arepa stand (Beach 106th Street at the Boardwalk, 718-474-1709) for several of the namesake corn cakes that are split and stuffed with a mélange of meats, veggies, beans and cheese. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, we received fat, palm-size arepas bulging with soft cheese, avocado slices and plenty of fried plantains. The sandwich was fatty and salty, crunchy and creamy—a symphony of scrumptious contrasts that, dare I say it, knocked the socks off a Nathan’s hot dog.

"To new traditions," I said, opening a can of High Life and drinking in the day. 

Where do you like celebrating your birthday? Tell me at jbernstein@nypress.com. Follow me on Twitter @JoshMBernstein.

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