The New York Times
Michael Wilson
SUMMER RITUALS | Under the Boardwalk
Keeping Peace on Salty Planks and Shifting Sands

July 14, 2007

The word itself seems simple enough, just a hunk of wood and a verb slapped together. Boardwalk. But anyone who has spent time at Coney Island's Boardwalk will say there has always been an awful lot more than walking going on there.

And a police officer on his beat can say more than that. Monitoring the goings-on at, near, atop and under the Coney Island Boardwalk is a year-round ritual. It's tending to a salty, thorny perennial that blooms in the summer, when the masses climb out of the subway cars, wait for the Surf Avenue light to change and hurry over the asphalt to sit beside the city's biggest air-conditioner, the Atlantic Ocean.

There were once two boardwalks: one on top and one underneath. The park workers and police officers call them ''on the boards,'' and ''under the boards,'' but the two worlds constantly crossed, the boards themselves not so much a barrier as a long sieve.

''My biggest complaint was people looking up ladies' skirts,'' said Officer John Nevandro, on the job now 22 years, with 21 summers at Coney Island. He pointed to a spot under the boards. ''They would stand up on top of a garbage pail to get close to the boardwalk.''

Officer Nevandro grew up nearby, in the Marlboro Houses, and he didn't like roller coasters and stayed away from the Cyclone. But he was a denizen above and below the boards -- it loses the R in his Brooklyn accent, more like ''bawds.''

''You could just look down for miles,'' he said, pausing at Brighton First Road, one of the access points to the ocean then. ''You'd see people walking under the boards. Smooching, kissing here and there. I did it. Come here with your girlfriend, kiss her under the boardwalk.''

John was 10 when the Drifters recorded ''Under the Boardwalk'' in 1964. The boardwalk was more than two miles and wide open underneath, a breezy, shady portico of 1.3 million nailed-down slats.

Officer Nevandro arrived in uniform at the 60th Precinct in 1986 to work the temporary summer patrol. He did that for four straight summers before transferring to the precinct full time in 1989. His section began at Brighton Sixth Street.

Under the boards, ''I could see all the way to Brighton Fourth, clear as day,'' he said, standing there last week. He made arrests for disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, larceny and the peeping Toms on their trash cans.

In the end, the world under the boards was largely cleaned up by the beach itself. The sand took it back.

In 1994, as part of a $26.8 million restoration project, the Army Corps of Engineers pumped tons of sand from under the water to the beach, making it higher and wider, right up to the waterfront side of the boardwalk. Beachgoers, for the first time, could step off the boardwalk onto sand. But there were unforeseen consequences.

With more privacy there, more homeless people moved under the boards, some 20 or 30 at all times between 1994 and '96, said Martin Maher, 43, chief of staff of Brooklyn parks.

''This one group had stolen a Port-a-San,'' he said. ''They tapped into a phone line. It was a pretty elaborate setup. We moved furniture and that kind of stuff.''

Charles Reichenthal, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 13, remembers poking his head under the boardwalk several years ago and being amazed at what he saw. ''There was not only sleeping, but there was a working fax machine,'' he said.

In 1996, Mr. Maher said, the city put a fence under the boardwalk along the street side to keep people from entering. But the fence, and the windblown litter that it caught, served another purpose, allowing the sand to pile up under the boards.

In summary, Mr. Maher said, ''sand moves.''

In ways, the cure has proved worse than the ailment.

''You have sand right up to the boards, and it's holding that moisture to the boards,'' Mr. Maher said. ''It certainly helps to speed up the deterioration of the boards because moisture's not good for wood.''

Nails pop up and wood splinters and bows. Repair begets repair. Replacing a board on the boardwalk is more complicated than it sounds, when the new wood is too hard to nail through, and the wood supporting the board is too rotten to support a new screw.

Officer Nevandro shook his head. ''The boards are really in bad, bad shape,'' he said. ''Somebody's going to get hurt there.''

Officer Nevandro, now 53, no longer walks his beat. Instead, he rides a golf cart, rattling from Coney Island to Brighton Beach and back. Other officers have taken to the department's new two-wheeled Segways, but not him.

''I'm a little bit too old to be riding on Segways,'' he said.

Last week, a trip on the golf cart was loud, and the wood pounded underneath, as if in complaint. He rolled over to the section near Brighton First Road, finding a gate that was not locked, at the very spot where he used to cross under the boards to the beach in his youth. He pulled out his cellphone and called someone to come with a lock.

The golf cart then stopped outside Ruby's Bar and Grill, and the bartender told him that she would quit and move to Florida in September to live with her son. The officer gave her a hug. He stopped at Tatiana's Restaurant and Nightclub, a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach, but the owner for whom it is named was in Florida for a wedding.

He stopped at the Cyclone. About 10 years ago, when they heard he had never ridden the roller coaster, other officers forced him aboard. ''Four cops dragged me,'' he said. ''I said, 'Never again.' ''

He worked on July 4, a day as busy and bizarre as anything one could make up about Coney Island.

Joey Chestnut, 23, established a world record by eating 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes in the annual Nathan's contest. Officer Nevandro posed for pictures with the new champion.

Then, at 4:11 p.m., a 46-year-old man on the beach approached a lifeguard, shouted, ''Call 911!'' and pulled out a .38-caliber pistol and shot himself in the face. Officer Nevandro had been talking with workers at Astroland, the amusement park, and when the call came across, he rode his golf cart to the scene. The lifeguard and the police tried to revive the man, who was from Pennsylvania, but he was pronounced dead a short time later.

''I'm there 21 years, and I never had a suicide on the holiday,'' Officer Nevandro said.

There was something else. That day, unknown to Officer Nevandro, another sad Coney Island milestone was reached far away, slipping past as quietly as blown sand.

Bill Pinkney was found dead of a heart attack in a hotel room in Daytona Beach, Fla. He was the last surviving original member of a band that had created the theme song for summers everywhere, about a place down by the sea, on a blanket, out of the sun, having fun.

And though Mr. Pinkney, who was 81, left the band before it was first recorded, he had since sung it countless times with his band, the Original Drifters, at oldies shows, the only place it now exists.