2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
“Greetings From Coney Island”
You have never seen a crowd until you’ve been to Coney Island. You may have had to squeeze into a piss-soaked subway car or wedge yourself into the corner of a once hip, now over-hyped bar, but those hardly count as crowds. You will find the real crowds at Coney Island, where sweaty New Yorkers go to take off their clothes and eat hot dogs. They bake in the sun and their vomit bakes in the sun. If this city is a body, the boardwalk is that strip of hairy skin right before the thigh becomes groin—smelling of sex, good for a tickle. Hot and revolting and infinitely mesmerizing.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Coney Island’s history has been one of so-called “mass spectacle,” when trams, trains, ferries, and finally the Brooklyn Bridge connected the mobs in Manhattan to the once remote island off the southern edge of Brooklyn. An early resort getaway and even proposed nature preserve for the weary bourgeoisie, Coney Island soon became overrun with what cultural critics like Lindsay Denison called, “human flotsam and jetsam.” According to members of the old guard like Denison, the Island had been invaded by “every defaulting cashier, every eloping couple, every man or woman harboring suicidal intent.” In spite of Denison’s protests, the human tide came unrelenting, unperturbed, softening the once rigid upper-middle-class foundations that had supported the great Victorian hotels like The Oriental and the Brighton. Owners of the Brighton actually moved the hotel five-hundred feet back from the waterfront in 1888. They jacked the six-thousand ton structure onto one hundred and twenty railway cars without breaking a single pane of glass. Though the Brighton managed to flee the physical erosion of the beach and reopen for the season by June 29th, its doors and windows were shuttered within a few short years, never to reopen.
The new “Sunday vacationers” weren’t staying in the fancy hotels. They wanted cheap thrills like “The Tickler” and fantasy worlds like Luna Park’s “Trip to the Moon”: replete with three astronomically-themed chambers, thirty dancing “Moon Maidens,” twenty giants, and sixty “Lilliputians.” By the time Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton filmed their rollocking 1917 “Coney Island,” the once serene strand had become unrecognizable to its former summer residents, who remembered when beach-goers required a private carriage and hotel reservations to reach the Island. With the expansion of public transit, visitors needed only a nickel. So the moneyed chose to summer elsewhere, picking up their beach blankets and spreading them in the Hamptons, Montauk, and Shelter Island while the hoi polloi trundled across the blistering brown sand: dogs, kids, and towels trailing behind.
Good -bye My Con -ey Is -land Ba -by, Fare -well my own true love.
I’m gon -na go a -way and leave you. Nev -er to see you an -y -more.
I’m goin’ to sail up -on a fer -ry boat, Nev -er to re -turn a -gain.
So good -bye, fare -well, so long for ev -er,
Good -bye My Con -ey Isle, Good -bye My Con -ey Isle,
Good -bye My Con -ey Is -land Babe.
My grandfather grew up in another Brooklyn—before the McKlarens and golden-doodles and artisanal mayonnaise shops—when Brooklynites had undesirable accents and pronounced “certainly,” Soy-tan-ly. A greaser hood in the making, my grandfather began sneaking cigarettes in the alley next to his house by the age of ten. At thirteen, he swaggered down the boardwalk, found a hole in the wall shop, rolled up his sleeve, and got his name, “Bill,” needled into his upper shoulder. He had the tattoo sit high on the arm so he could hide it from his mother, a strict woman who supposedly spent Mondays through Saturdays cleaning houses and Sundays in church. Freshly inked, he sauntered through the front door of his Bleecker street apartment in what is now Bushwick with a teenage grin that can mean only a few things, none of them good. A sudden bolt of pain galloped down his shoulder—his mother’s calloused fist connecting with his new tattoo, turning his arm to carpaccio. He howled and cursed, not quite the Cagney he’d imagined himself to be, but when the purples and yellows withdrew from his pale flesh, the graceful black letters remained intact, unsmudgable.
Among the galleries of bloody corpses and tenement infernos featured in “Murder is My Business” an exhibition at the International Center of Photography, I stumbled upon a room filled with gauzy photographs of a faded Coney Island. Arthur Felig, or Weegee, is best known for his pulpy, flash-bulb images of crime scenes, leering onlookers, and passed out drunks—not smiling sun-bathers. On display until the end of the summer, these comparatively placid images lead to a short color 16mm film documenting a dreamy, oft-imagined, long gone Coney Island. It begins with Weegee’s camera panning over the roiling crowd. Thousands of bodies shiny with sweat and baby oil, naked children shrieking as the water laps at their heels, teenage girls draped across their boyfriends, their skin glued together. An old man stalks the wet sand with purposeful strides. Bare chicken legs sprout beneath his dark suit jacket, pants folded across his arm, shoes and socks clutched to his chest. A Jersey tomato splurts in the mouth of a bug-eyed boy. Sailors crowd around accordions and radios, feathers of smoke weaving between limbs, diffusing in the ocean breeze. Old, toothless women clap castanets and mug for the camera. A young couple awkwardly sways to the music, the frame drifting down to the woman’s wiggling behind.
A girl reclines on a wrinkled blanket surrounded by other beach-goers, her hands placed over spindly legs. She flashes a coy smile at the photographer, a handsome young man with a cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth. He puffs lightly as he searches for the right focus, a Seagram’s sign blurring in the background, her slender limbs sharpening. It is 1952. My grandmother is fifteen, my grandfather a wizened seventeen. I wonder if they were among the thousands of “lovers” Weegee captured on the beach, each pair pretending to be alone among a crowd of one million. It is hard to imagine them this young—my grandmother’s nervous flirting and popsicle-stick limbs, my grandfather’s tennis-ball biceps and shock of swept back hair so similar to my own. For a quarter each, they rode the cyclone as long as they could stand, whipping around turns in the last car, plummeting sixty-four feet in the front, laughing at the queasy kids puking up their neon jelly beans and fried dough. They stayed out watching the galaxies of fireworks flare into existence and shimmer back to earth, whispering those things teenagers whisper into each other’s ears, swaddled in the humid air and the glow of dancing lights.
“Warriors, come out to play!” intones Luther, the shaggy-haired villain and leader of rival gang, the “Rogues.” His hand bends into a strange claw, an empty glass bottle protruding from three fingers. He clinks them together in a steady, menacing rhythm. “Warriors, come out to plaaaaaaaaay!” Luther’s voice is now an animal screech, the bottles building to a crescendo. The bedraggled Warriors prepare for the inevitable rumble. They tear detritus from the underside of the boardwalk: pipes, a broken chair leg, a thin scrap of metal. They are tired, and Coney Island is a forgotten shithole, barnacles clinging to ancient pylons like hemorrhoids, but this weirdly multi-ethnic group of kids are prepared to die for it. It is their turf.
The Mermaid Parade celebrated its 30th anniversary this June, which makes the march down Surf Avenue ten years older than I am. I imagine the event as a kind of older sister, a young-ish woman who remembers a grittier, pre-Guliani New York. I had always meant to come as a teenager, but somehow, the parade eluded me; camp or family functions always standing in the way, blocking my view of what I’d often heard was a salacious event. I hadn’t spent a summer in the city in years, so I was determined to scratch the parade off my list of New York things I never did when I grew up here.
Emerging from Stillwell Avenue into the hot sun, my friends and I squirm into the throngs trying to sniff out a good spot from which to view the procession. We wait for the bawdy marchers and pass the time by watching the stretch of asphalt shimmer. Runny suntan lotion stings our eyes, but no one complains. This will be fun, maybe even a little debauched. First, the vintage cars roll by to mixed review: Thunderbirds, Cadillacs, and the odd Grand Am. A Delorian coughs along to great admiration and I remember that in a few days, Marty McFly is slated to blast into 2012. The meme has been plastered all over Facebook for weeks: a film-still of a digital clock indicating his imminent arrival, pithy comments on our current lack of hover-boards usually tacked below. What did Coney Island look like in 1985? A scene from Requiem for a Dream springs to mind—the one where a wild-eyed Marlon Wayans sprints from the cops, his face splattered with blood and bits of nameless organic matter.
A thin school of mermaids emerge from behind the curtain of heat, waving to the crowds, tossing cheap plastic beads. I expected glamorous blue eye-shadowed P-town drag queens, creatures with names like Musty Chiffon and Thirsty Burlington, but instead find mostly tweens and their scantily clad moms. A vaguely aquatic man hands out blow-up swords to the cheering crowd and two separate hands grab for the same hilt. One belongs to an elderly Asian man wearing a fishing hat, the other to a small child. The old man attempts to wrestle the sword from the little boy’s grasp, his teeth gritted, his eyes steely. The boy whimpers, clearly losing the battle until the mer-person intervenes, yanking the sword from the man and handing it to the little boy ceremoniously. The kid happily whacks his sword on the fence as more cars trickle through, the whole parade seeming to stop for every red light though the street has been closed for hours. The elderly man sulks. Every float sponsored by an alcoholic beverage elicits great whoops and hollers from the visibly pregnant woman standing to my right. A micro-brewery truck stops and she shouts for a man dressed as a pirate to throw her a can. I stare at the striations on her stomach, a combination of tan lines and stretch marks. It is an ideal coaster.
A venerable tradition of sideboob and overweight men with leopard print thongs dug deep into their ass-cracks, the parade offers a glimpse of an Old Coney Island I can only half-remember, the last refuge of freaks in their natural habitat, a kind preserve for the vulgar and seedy. When I squint into the sun the right way, the electro-blasting PBR float disappears, leaving only the unsanitized jiggling and rusted out egg scramblers of a vestigial past fast losing ground to the present. My grandfather may remember the bearded ladies, mule-faced boys, a Lynchian dwarf who blew up the skirts of unsuspecting girls, but I have only the nadir to misremember fondly. Chipped paint and crusty, crepuscular kids on the nod, hard slats of light cutting across their slumped bodies in the penumbra of the boardwalk. I tell myself there was a time when the Thunderbolt really rumbled past Woody Allen’s bedroom window, a portal looking out onto pyramids of tan backs and straining arms, carnival barkers waxing their mustaches, natty young men wearing panama hats without a hint of irony. Luna Park, Steeplechase, Dreamland: closed, sold off, or burnt to the ground. On Saturday, I arrived at the Hot 97-sponsored Technicolor mess having missed the golden age and the bad old days, left with only the familiar aqua and orange of Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the red skeletal parachute jump, and the clockwork rattlings of the Cyclone.
We decided to take the train the wrong way, not Manhattan-bound, but headed to the end of the line. We travelled in a pack—too young to drink forties on a Friday afternoon, but too old to come home for Oreos and Pokemon. We clanged through the subway cars, swinging on the greasy poles, screaming as loud as we wanted; few passengers bothered looking up from their books or their stupors. Three to four p.m. is a special kind of corridor—no sharp-toned rebukes, school bells, or gym whistles. More crimes occur in New York during this short hour than any other time of the day. Ours were relatively minor: jumping the turnstile though we could pay the fare with our school-provided Metrocards, hanging upside down from the steel tubes meant for tired grown-up hands, our shirts pulled towards our chins, baby fat and new breasts drooping in unaccustomed directions.
Tiring of one car, the herd lumbered forward, the bravest among us turning the heavy steel handle of the emergency exit door. “Riding or moving between cars is prohibited,” the signs read. I remember sliding the door open for the first time, how it seemed miraculous, like a spaceship or a bulkhead. I must have taken a tenuous first step, but I can’t picture it, only the crack between the cars yawning wide.
Little Odessa whistles past, flashes of Cyrillic and whiffs of perogies. It is a short ride from Sheepshead Bay to Stillwell Avenue, but between two subway cars, time stretches out elastic, its white gummy strands clenched between teeth and fingers, loose threads stuck to lips. My long hair flies in every direction and the train roars like some kind of twisted chimera. The screaming wheels chug along mindlessly. I remember once seeing a basketball chewed up under a passing train, rubbery shreds hardly recognizable in its wake. Imagine a body. And then we are on the other side in the next car playing it cool laughing loud feeling the dampness under our arms. The march continues until we reach the first car, our faces pressed against the foremost window. We watch the station devour us like a long rope of mozzarella cheese.
We took the stairs two at a time or slid down banisters on our butts, a mass of kids deposited onto Surf Avenue, unsure of what to do or where to go next. We ruled out the aquarium—that was for babies and would probably cost money. So we headed south, to the boardwalk, to empty lots and shuttered arcades, their bleeps and bloops in hibernation, waiting for the summer.
It is a cold, glary March afternoon. The rides sit motionless, save the empty Wonder Wheel cars. They lurch back and forth, the occasional gust of wind carrying their creaks down to the boardwalk and sand below. The world is somewhere between color and black and white, an amateurish attempt at faux-historicity, so flat, so drained of blood. We take off our shoes and head towards the shore in an effort to feel summery. A figure emerges from the white frothy surf, a ruddy sausage squeezed into a bathing suit casing, his black chest hair matted into a nest of curlycues. He is no merman.
With the wind, the air is thirty-five, maybe forty degrees and the colorless sand numbs our bare feet. I look out across the beach scanning for signs of life. We walk alone, save the masochist swimmer now in the distance, the circling gulls, and an army of unused trash cans. They are municipal, flimsy and naked, consisting of an open lattice of metal bars, their lack of contents readily apparent. They wait for the crashing waves of June garbage, but for now, remain empty. Each can a solitary guard, mouth open, ready to swallow a half-eaten box of sandy cheese fries, the jellyfish carcass of a used condom. Wrappers kaleidoscopic, juices bubbling in the sun, the steaming barrels of garbage dot a shore so tightly packed with bodies they condense under the pressure—a single undulating mass pressed between the boardwalk and the sea.
 Rich white guys.
 Much of what I know about Grandpa Penny is second-hand, stories filtered through my father and uncle, but I had always taken their versions of his life in pre-Moses Brooklyn for granted. Definitive. When fact-checking this story, I found out that my grandfather had actually gotten his tattoo on the Bowery, not on the Boardwalk, a detail blurred over the years like the navy outlines of a mermaid’s breasts. My Grandfather told me “It made a better story,” that I should stick with what my dad had said and leave it at that. I now know that shortly after my grandfather had gotten his tattoo, the unscrupulous tattoo artist’s protege, Brooklyn Blackie, had moved to Coney Island. It turns out the cursive “Bill” is a famed Charlie Wagner original, a mark from the man who invented the modern tattoo gun. My ink-loving uncle still envies him because of it.