Don’t You Know Me, I’m Your Native SonY
ou probably know Arlo Guthrie as the singer-songwriter of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the epic 18-minute song every radio DJ plays on Thanksgiving Day. It’s likely you’ve gone up and down the dial while driving to visit family that day, and found it on every station, all day long. Or maybe you went to school in Massachusetts, and you know Arlo from his song of the same name, which is the official folksong of the state. And, at the very least, you know that Arlo’s dad, Woody Guthrie, wrote the iconic anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”
But this next part might surprise you.
I was Googling “Alice’s Restaurant” for some context one Thanksgiving, and I came upon this:
Arlo Guthrie… “OF HOWARD BEACH.” The Queens neighborhood next to my hometown. The one everyone drives through on the way to Rockaway Beach. I had never seen that in any bio of his. That never appeared in any local gazette.
Later that day, I asked my Uncle Frank, the long-time owner of the Howard Beach Carvel, if he knew anything about it.
“Oh, yeah,” he said casually. “He came by for pistachio ice cream a lot. And he used to buy packed ice cream to bring home. I think his father was sick. The kids who worked for me knew him. Nice kid. He became a hippie, you know.”
What? A hippie? I think he became a lot more than that.
Now I needed to know more. So I reached out to Arlo and, to my amazement, he wrote me right back.
Lenny: What year did your family move to Howard Beach? Why?
AG: We moved to Howard Beach around 1952. At that time, under the GI Bill, we were able to afford a home of our own, having previously lived in apartment complexes in Brooklyn. In fact, the apartment we lived in right before we moved was owned by Fred Trump! It was called Beach Haven, across the street from Coney Island Hospital. Anyway, we moved into Howard Beach about the same time as everyone else there. But, we didn’t call it Howard Beach: We called it Rockwood Park. Howard Beach was what everyone now calls Old Howard Beach.
I can still remember the old farm on Cross Bay Blvd. And the fields of things growing. Then the houses began being built. There was an old farm house on our street—5th Street between 158th and 159th Ave. It was right in the middle of the street, and we walked around it going to where the school bus picked us up. Eventually the folks that lived there moved out, and the place became dilapidated and then torn down.
Lenny: How was your father’s health when you lived in HB. ? Was he able to get around? If so, and I hope so, where did you and he go in HB?
AG: With my father, well, it’s complicated. He needed around-the-clock medical care when we moved in, and eventually hospitalization. My parents divorced then just so that my mother wouldn’t be responsible for my dad’s medical expenses. She remained devoted to him for the rest of her life, but she remarried a few times. So mine was not quite the normal family relationship. There were a few different men, my mother’s husbands, who I grew up with while in Howard Beach. All basically good guys, and they became like fathers to my younger brother and younger sister. But me, I was old enough to remember my real father, and no one could take his place. But he couldn’t go out. Had he been well, we would’ve gotten all over Howard Beach, Broad Channel, Rockaway… I know it.
Lenny: Did you get all over the area?
AG: In those days we didn’t have an elementary school in the area, and we used to travel to PS 63 in Ozone Park. Many times I decided to walk it rather than ride the bus…either that or I missed the bus and had to walk. But, on days when the weather was good, I didn’t mind the walk at all. In fact, I enjoyed it.This was before they built Lindenwood. I can’t remember well, but I think there was a baseball park that Lindenwood ate, and we walked right through it.
Lenny: Enough about school! What did you do for fun?
AG: The bicycle path that runs along the Belt Parkway holds a lot of memories for me. I loved riding along either by myself or with friends. Sometimes we’d go as far as Floyd Bennet Field, turn around and go home. I think I went to Sheepshead Bay once. That was a long ride.
Lenny: Do you remember the attractions on Crossbay Blvd.? The archery, the go-karts, etc.
AG: I loved the go-karts! I mean what kid wouldn’t? There were other rides as well, in that little amusement park. In fact, at some point, after my mother had remarried and moved to the city, my wife Jackie and I lived in the house in Howard Beach, with our own kids. I remember taking them on the little roller coaster there and some of the other attractions for little kids. That was probably sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s. That was great.
Lenny: Every real neighborhood guy has a favorite pizzeria. Which is yours?
AG: I was always a New Park guy. And I remain one today. It’s still the best around as far as I’m concerned. And I sure remember The Big Bow Wow. Burgers, Franks, Fries…AND pizza. It was the best of all worlds! I’m still not over the fact that it’s gone.
And just a couple of days ago, I heard from a guy whose uncle owned the Carvel. He told me his uncle remembered me, and what my favorite flavor was, and he was right. Hey… wait a minute! You’re that guy!
Lenny: Did my Uncle Frank really pack-up ice cream for you to bring home for the family?
AG: Yep. I’m sure of it. I was and remain an ice cream fanatic.
Lenny: Did you go to Rockaway Beach much?
AG: My brother and sister actually went to preschool in Rockaway, so we’d always be going over to get them or drop them off. And naturally, I loved the beach. Show me a teenager who doesn’t.
Lenny: I know we’re going to show our years here, but did you ever disobey your mom and go diving off the wooden bridge at Charles Park?
AG: I was going to ask you about that! Because recently I was going through Google Earth or something, looking at places I’d remembered. I couldn’t find the freaking bridge on any map! But, I was sure it was there. I knew I wasn’t imagining it. When did they tear it down? I loved that little bridge. Who the hell thought taking it down was a good idea? And of course we swam there when we were kids. I remember there were horseshoe crabs there and I thought they were pretty creepy.
I guess it was the early part of 1961 when Bob Dylan showed up on our doorstep.
Lenny: The famous Dylan pilgrimage to Howard Beach to see your Dad…what do you recall of it? Did you really drive him to Euclid Ave. to get the A train? Why not HB?
AG: I guess it was the early part of 1961 when Bob Dylan showed up on our doorstep. He was looking to find out where my dad was at that point. And I invited him in, where we played harmonica together for a while. We had a very nice time, then he left. I didn’t take him anywhere, and I certainly didn’t drive him anywhere: I was 13! Funny how these stories get created and become legends. Look, I would’ve just told him where the A train was in Howard Beach—that’s what we took everyday for years.
Lenny: In your HB years, what were you into? Folk music? Poetry?
AG: What? Stickball! That was the thing we all did. And stoop ball. We played outdoors a lot. Our street was a dead-end and it simply belonged to the kids. This was all before they began extending the streets, of course. Back then 159th Ave., was the last avenue before it turned into what we used to call “The Weeds.” We loved to explore “The Weeds”, with their little streams filled with minnows and the tall grasses. That was great fun.
Lenny: Your first guitar? Musta’ been in HB.
AG: Actually I think I got my first real guitar on my 5th birthday just before we moved to Howard Beach. It was a small Gibson, but it was real. I still have it, although it’s on loan to The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK at the moment. I got my next guitar when I turned 13. And I got one more when I graduated high school when I turned 18. Both Martins, and I have both to this very day.
Lenny: Was your first date in HB? First kiss?
AG: My first kiss was with a girl named Marie. I don’t remember her last name. It wasn’t a date—just a kiss. And not a big slurpy one either. But, in those days that was a lot. We had parties for occasions like birthdays etc., and we’d play spin the bottle. Not very exciting by today’s standards, but it was fun. We would dance and listen to hits on the radio, stuff like the Everly Brothers. Many years later, I got to meet them, and do their TV show. And Phil Everly sang with me on one of my records back in the ’80s. That was a big thrill for me, especially as I’d really loved their stuff. All the kids in Howard Beach did.
Lenny: What else can you tell us about those days?
AG: There’s not a whole lot more to tell. I’ve lost contact with most of the friends I had growing up. Not on purpose, it’s just the way it worked out. I went back to visit the neighborhood a few times over the years, but it’s changed so much. Some of the neighbors are still there, and I love them dearly, but many more are gone now.
Lenny: I clearly owe you three New Park Slices and a Coke for this.
Lenny: I can’t wait to pay up.