Monday, June 1, 2020

"The Coney Island Knish Guy" by Phyllis Reilly - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

The Coney Island Knish Guy


   Phyllis Reilly

In the 1950’s, we lived in a three-room apartment on the top floor of a run-down apartment house in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  In the summer our apartment was like an oven…a tar roof boiled by the sun made it unbearably hot. When it got too oppressive, my parents took me to Coney Island Beach to cool off. 
               The Atlantic Ocean sounded so big to me, but it was a lot of sand with too many people and even though it was an ocean, there was never enough water. The shoreline was littered with people who wanted to cool off and dunk themselves in the shallow water. They sat on  low beach chairs, waiting for the waves to splash over their bodies... more people waded in the water, then actually swam. There were a few floaters that bobbed up and down on the rhythm of the waves and the occasional swimmer doing the back stroke, gliding along with the current… arms moving in slow motion like a synchronized swimmer.

               Coney Island was like rush hour on the IRT subway. Blazing heat. People packed close to one another,  careful to make sure their blankets never touched. Everyone safeguarding their tiny piece of paradise. A summer day with striped umbrellas and lunches packed in wax paper tucked inside brown paper bags. Some people had coolers packed with ice, filled with drinks. Other people walked to the refreshment stands on the boardwalk for a bottle of cream or orange soda.  Unless you were in the water, it was hot at the beach. But if you were under an umbrella, it was bearable, and by late afternoon boasted a breeze that helped cool the day.

There was this guy with a cart. He was there every summer.  He pushed that cart along the beach and plowed through the crowd selling hot knishes.  The sun followed him across the beach like a spotlight. His nose was white, painted with zinc oxide. He wore a safari hat that had cloth hanging from the back to protect his neck from the sun.  His face was lobster red. He looked miserable. Maybe he made a lot of money, maybe it was a great job but sitting under our umbrella, it looked like torture to me.  He never smiled just dragged himself and his cart across the sand.
Every few minutes he shouted,
 “Hot knishes. Get your hot knishes.”
They were round patties made from potatoes and popular with the beach crowd.  The only other place I knew that sold them, was the Jewish Deli on Flatbush Avenue.

               He had a silver change maker on his belt and wore these oversized brown shoes that reminded me of clown shoes, that curled up at the toes. providing protection from the sun and sand. I don’t know why but the Knish Guy fascinated me.  I didn’t know him. I never bought a knish from him He was just one of those people.  You don’t know them, but  you wonder about who they are, where they live, what’s their life like.  I would sip my cream soda under our beach umbrella, my body still damp from the water and watch him.

  When he finished for the day, he pulled his cart up the steps onto the boardwalk and disappeared.
I wondered if this was his forever job. Maybe you could make a good living selling Knishes on the beach but what happened to him when the summer ended?  I thought that he went to Florida or California and worked there during the cool months of Brooklyn. -- like a travelling salesman. He would return to Coney Island when it was summer. Visit his family and do it all over again.  I realized that he was probably too young to do that. 

I decided he must be a high school kid, and this was a summer job.  He was working hard, saving money to buy a red sports car so he would look cool and could pick up girls.

What did he do on his day off? I doubt he went to the beach. He probably went to the movies. Sat in the dark air-conditioned theatre far from the heat and sun. Cool enough to bring a sweater just in case it got too chilly. Or maybe he just stayed home. Slept late and watched cheesy TV shows, stretched out on the sofa with a bag of chips and a Coke; a large floor fan, blowing loud noise and cool air.
 I thought I saw him in the lobby of the Loews Kings Theatre. He was with a beautiful pale girl. She had long black hair and was so fair that I was convinced she never sat in the sun.

Granted, I had no idea what The Knish Guy actually looked like, but that didn’t stop me. They were at the candy counter holding hands.  The guy was sunburn and the skin on his face was raw and  peeling.  Based on nothing more than an over active imagination  I decided it was him.  I worked up enough courage to go up to them.
“Excuse me, but aren’t you The Knish Guy from Coney Island?”
He looked confused.
“The what guy?”
Thinking he hadn’t heard me I asked him again, only this time, louder.
“The Knish Guy from Coney Island?”
“No I’m not. I don’t even know what a Knish Guy is.”
They were both laughing. I was embarrassed and left the candy counter with out buying any popcorn.

                I realized that anyone who dragged himself around the beach getting fried by the sun must be crazy. And anyone who spent time thinking about him, was not far behind…
 He wore sunglasses and was so covered up, that he was featureless. I thought when he removed all his sun protecting clothes, he might be like the Invisible Man character in H.G. Wells’ novel.  I read it at the beach and just incorporated into my already crowded fantasy life.

The following summer, he was gone. I looked for him every time we went to the beach but he was nowhere to be found,   I hoped he hadn't died of sunstroke or skin cancer and that he had moved on to a better life. I never saw him again. I missed him. He was part of my Coney Island childhood. 
Things changed.
I stopped going to the beach.  I joined Farragut pool and went there with my friends almost every day in the summer. When I was older. I went to Riis Park beach… drank beer, smoked Marlboro cigarettes and fell in love with a lifeguard named Bob.

Years later, I met someone from Brooklyn, who knew the knish guy. He told me he earned enough money from selling knishes to pay for college and was a Chemistry Professor at some midwestern college.       

As a kid, I spent a lot of time wondering about him. I guess you could say I was obsessed.
I didn’t know him.  I never spoke to him, but I was happy for him—happy to hear he was out of the Knish business…out of the sun.
No matter how much time goes by, no matter what beach I go to…
               I still think about him.

No comments:

Post a Comment