My father loved Coney Island. More specifically he loved Washington Baths, a public pool to the west of the famous Steeplechase rides. It was New York City’s largest Salt Water Pool; filled and filtered directly from the Atlantic Ocean. Washington Baths was located between Neptune Avenue and the Coney Island Boardwalk.
Once you paid your entrance fee you had use of all the facilities until dusk. Your admission entitled you to use of picnic tables cemented into the concrete, handball courts, speed bags, punching bags. Attempts at uneven parallel bars, rings, shuffle ball, bocci and basketball courts, complete with the appropriate size and shaped balls. Separate men and women’s steam rooms and sun decks where people laid out naked, nude, without a stitch of clothing on. (Shocking) Lockers and small private dressing rooms (that were always cold and damp), hot and cold showers, and a snack stand selling the best greasy fries stuffed into a cone shaped cup. OMG they were the best whether you were hungry or not.
There was a sun parlor in the women’s building that had a glass ceiling and about one hundred individual mirrors each with a small shelf in front for make-up, bobby pins, combs. The entire room was painted a fresh butter yellow on top and lime green on the bottom. Come to think of it, many areas at Washington Baths were painted these two colors. After a day at the pool with our respective families my counterpart, Helen, and I would take forever putting our wet hair up in pony tails, and as we got older adding a hint of lipstick and mascara , while we chatted away like only little girls can. My uncle Christy, her father, Paul, and my dad, Pete, would say the same thing every time we emerged from the inner sanctum to the elevated promenade surrounding the pool, “You two pineapples look the same as when you went in.”
These Saturday trips to Washington Baths were so looked forward to every summer from the time I was about five until my father’s passing in 1959. Our gang Italian and Greek from East Harlem, dad, mom, grandmother, sister, uncle, various young aunts and friends, would meet up with the Brooklyn Greek gang, dad, mom, kids, cousins, uncles, aunts and friends, at the sunny side of the pool at the agreed upon time.
The Tsaldarius clan lived in Brooklyn. We traveled on the New York City subway system from 116th Street in Manhattan to the last stop on the BMT Stillwell Avenue, with several changes in between. Besides the requisite towels, bathing suits and sweaters we also carried several shopping bags of sandwiches, and a green leather portable radio (weighing about six pounds because of the six D batteries you needed to run it).
This pool is where we all learned to swim. My father would have me hold him around the neck and lie across his back. Then he would swim to the deep center of the pool where a fountain splashed filtered water. Here he would slide me off his back and give me a push back to the side we had just come from. In the most ungraceful like fashion I windmilled my arms and kicked my legs through the water with him floating beside me. I can still remember his words of encouragement. “Come on, you can do it. I’m right here. Keep those legs kicking!”
It was a great time – we made a huge clan. At lunch time we would parade to the picnic tables and the shopping bags we brought merged with Paul and Dorothy’s bags. All the waxed paper wrapped sandwiches were dumped out. No one worried about who made what. Peppers and Eggs, potatoes and Eggs, Tuna Fish, Salami, Baloney, Ham and Cheese on fresh Italian bread all made that morning before the migration. Sodas bought at the snack bar and ooooo those big fries to add to the calories. Once in a while, for an extra treat, Helen, I, and the younger kids would get ice cream. Not all the time.
We weren’t allowed back in the water until an hour after we ate, the excuse was we would get cramps. In looking back we all ate so much we probably would no longer float. That waiting hour was spent on the sand making mud pies and pretending they were cake or pizza – one track minds. Then finally, what seemed like an eternity to me, we were allowed to shower the sand off and go back in the pool.
The day ended with an evening stroll on the Boardwalk. Helen and I would get a ride on the whip and of course more potatoes (this time it was a knish) before the long ride home on the NYC Subway system.
This is one of my favorite memories.