Orchard Beach


Mary Ellen Botter/Dallas Morning News/MCT

Margaret Lamb /Writing to the right-hand Margin Prize (Fiction) Award Runner-Up

I always knew when summer was here because memorial day mami would pack us up with her car that we only really used to go to Orchard and drives us up past south Bronx, beyond Pellam parkway and the end of the 6, to where the Bronx is beautiful landscaped parks and greenery just like central park pero more inviting. It would take her an hour just to park and Luce would sit there pouting because he hated going, but I always loved it. I would sit in the front and Luce in the back reading with our overflow from the lawn chairs, umbrella, cooler with cerveza for mami and Kool aid for us, pollo rostizado, ensalada de papa, potato chips and sandia. We would take blankets and towels, mami always took a change of clothes, and two pairs of chancletas—one for the beach and one for dancing later. And the boom box. We could never go to the beach without the boom box and mami’s CD case over flowing with Hector Lavoe, Celia, Fania All-Stars, Elvis Crespo y more. From Memorial Day on every Sunday was Orchard Beach—Luce staying pale in the shade reading and mami and I becoming golden brown and then café con leche brown and then morena brown, her flirting with the single fathers and divorcees, me with the boys from my school who were there every weekend with their families anyway.

They call it chocha beach because it smells of sex and pot and unflattering bikinis. It is marked by landscaped flowers and filled with los boricuas y morenas de Nueva York. But these are not the Latinos of the age of Shakira, JLo or Ricky Martin before he was gay. Orchard Beach is cellulite, wrinkles and fat dimples. It is styrofoam cups, faded tattoos and beer bellies for men in their 40s and above who still huddle in posses around their boom boxes painted with the Puerto Rican flag and check out the passing women. It is women with knit dresses and tiny bikinis would never think to cover years of high fat diets and multiple pregnancies. This ain’t South Beach baby.

Pero, como las camisas dicen Orchard is the “riviera del Bronx.” Warring music, gold chains, fanny packs, fake nails and fried food is also on the Beach with New York’s softest sand, most convenient concessions, and live salsa concerts. Spanglish, street speak and profanities float above the lap of gentle waves, the happy cries of children, and the hum of grills. Orchard is a place where families go—playgrounds for when you’re little, basketball courts for the boys, conciertos y bebidas for the adults.

The first time we went there was with mi papi, the three of us, the familia that we were for those few short years before mami got pregnant again and papi decided two kids was too much responsabilidad. Papi decided to take us there for my fourth party. So mami made me pink frosted chocolate cupcakes that matched my pink polka dotted one-piece and we piled into the car, a red Nova that got stolen the year later and got replaced by a gray used Volkswagen that I always worried was gonna break down any minute. Papi en su “uniforme”—fitted jeans, a black tucked in black shirt and a gold chain—dragged our brand new cooler down the runway as him and mami already arguing fought over the best location to set up our chairs and umbrella. But I didn’t care. We never did anything as a family. I was always following after my papi, sure that the reason we were always in la calle was because my mami was always nagging him about this and that. I wasn’t old enough to understand that all she wanted was money for groceries or that when the electricity went off it was because she had stayed quiet for once and he spent all the money meant for utilities.

Pero, that day we were happy. I ate three cupcakes and played in the water and my parents mellowed by hours in the sun and countless cervezas complimented my sand castle and attempts to draw in the arena. That evening was the last time I saw them dance together, but that memory—my mother glowing from exertion of the endless turns my father threw at her—is why I can never fault my mother for falling in love with a no good numbers runner or why me puede criticar for falling for a drug dealer. El Primo danced just the same.

“Cuanto años tiene?”

There are no more salsa concerts at Orchard Beach. The stage stands empty, a reminder of my childhood and the one day of happiness my family shared. So now I am at the other end of the beach, a DJ spins salsa now by lot 5.


The man, a graying Moreno holding the beer looks me up and down. “Soy Tomás, Dominicano de San Cristobal.”

I nod and turn back to watch the dancing. My mami is center stage again, waist length hair swaying back and forth over her bright pink top, cut-off jeans and three-inch platforms. Since she first got coaxed onto the dance floor over an hour ago, by a viejito with a Puerto Rican jersey shirt she hasn’t been without a partner since. Two years ago I would’ve been out there even though most of jovenes hang out on the beach, but I’m mesmerized by my mami. She looks younger and happier than ever. She spins twice and her partner, a middle aged papi chulo covered just by army fatigue shorts and thirty years of tattoos drops to the floor for a push up before jumping up and re-partnering. I laugh, wave to Tomás and turn to walk down the boardwalk. This is no longer my scene.

I can’t tell if Orchard Beach seems so different because I’m older or the beach has changed. It’s been two years now since Luce’s death, a year since I testified against El Primo and a month since I’ve been back to New York.

I walk back to the beach and dig my feet into the sand. There are no more salsa concerts and Orchard Beach, and not all of the concession stands are open anymore, but it’s the same soft sand I always used to love. The water is still fishy and stinky and littered with trash you have to dodge like coke bottles and pampers.

“I saved you,” I hear and turn to see a woman in her 50s boom in a loud voice. She’s wearing a black strapless bikini, her long pink nails holding a Coors Light. “I saved you, otherwise you would have a record. If your brother had listened to me he wouldn’t have that felony right now… Hell no, I told that bitch.”

“Same Orchard,” I whisper to myself.

I walk back to the entrance, where the barren stage lies and climbed up the stairs. These are the stairs Luce and me used to wait for my mother on, complaining that we were tired and ready to go home, the parking lot where I learned how to drive. I take out my sketch pad, planning to sketch the shore line but instead my pencil outlines faces. Two faces, Luce and I huddled in our towels, ready to head back to El Barrio.

It’s only 2 p.m. so when I board the Bx-12 back to the six train it’s almost empty. I grab a seat out the window and watch as Orchard Beach turns into Pellam Bay parkway and then on the six as green turns back into high rises and projects. I walk  past my mother’s apartment on 114th. On 116th, la misma vejita is selling tamales, the cuchifritos place has a line out the window, and the Mr. Softie truck is lined with kids. At 117th I stop and stand in front of my mural. All I can think is that it’s not enough. The design is too simple, the colors too bland, the one story size two small.

I rush home, grab my sketch books and start going through the pictures. I take a picture of Luce and tape it to my wall, then one of Julissa and El Primo. I think of all the others, the kids I went to school with in prison or dead and sketch until my wall is covered with light pencil markings and torn out pages.

Four hours later I’m exhausted and lying on my bed. I’m gonna paint it on the towers, I decide. I’m gonna cover it all.