Footsteps in the Sand: A Day and Night in Coney Island
As I look of out of my bedroom window, the Verrazano Bridge looming in the distance, its suspension cables cascading like giant serpents, I lament the passing of summer and shudder at the winds of autumn blowing from the sea into Brooklyn. Fall is finally here after a summer of perspiration and weak deodorants which couldn’t withstand the onslaught of humidity and my sweaty metabolic system. Perhaps my biology wasn’t made for New York in the summer.
This October weekend my wife and I took our daughter to walk along the waterfront near Caesar’s Bay shopping center. The water was jagged platinum shards reflecting, like a cubist painting, the indifferent void of a gray sky. This, I thought to myself, was the sea which inspired Melville, his Leviathan a manifestation of the colossal unattainability of a titanic nature. Gazing down the shore past SeaGate, the famous Parachute Jump Tower of Coney Island stood erect and permanent like a metal rose frozen against the backdrop of the ocean. Walking away from the waterfront, I remembered how an innocent curiosity of the summer turned into a memory which will not soon be forgotten at the place called Coney Island.
I had one memory of Coney Island before this summer. Wild, untamed, and totally New York in all the guts, funk, and glory. Probably ten years ago or more I showed up to Coney Island in the summer, green behind the ears, without expectation nor experience of what I was to find. The sea of people on the sand stretched down the shore to Brighton. Salsa competed with Rock and roll; the Russian tongue danced between the notes of Spanish staccato; the burkini wasn’t an issue, it was happening right next to kids playing handball in the surf. A man orange from the sun, maybe 70, was shaking martinis under a tent. Secretly I was hoping he would offer me one. I read once that Coney Island was called “Sodom by the Sea”. Perhaps that is what it used to be called but on that summer day it was like a parade, a Fellini-esque carnival of souls. Beautiful and completely catching me off guard I watched hidden behind 35 proof sunscreen. Not much else I remember and little did I know it would take me well into the next decade of the 21st century to make it back.
After my wife Boni and I moved to Bensonhurst, usually our radars were pointing towards Fort Greene or Manhattan for entertainment. Of course this is natural. There is much to love about these places. But once the summer of 2016 arrived and the consciousness of our surroundings expanded, Coney Island became something more than a peripheral neighborhood. It was an object of exploration. When one afternoon we were bathing in the sun and surf we said to each other “let’s have our next date be a day in Coney Island.” So when my mother came to visit, we did.
On the afternoon of August 20th we arrived off the D train, two short stops from our apartment. We came for the sand sculpture contest, at least this was the flimsy pretense. Of course the contest was incredible. The Eiffel tower, Creature from the Blue Lagoon, Marilyn Monroe, even the Great Wall of China were strewn across the shore slowly eroding from wind and surf. It was almost a race against time to see these masterpieces but it was also overwhelming. The sand sculptures seemed innumerable and the crowds were teeming. Children were playing hide-and-seek around The Creature from the Blue Lagoon and a drunk man tripped and fell over the Pyramids of Giza. Grain by grain these sculptures were being swept away not only by the winds of time but also the human element was causing the demise. Of course this came as no surprise. We decided to leave the beach and head toward the rides, Boni dying to do the ferris wheel. But a strange detour took us slightly off course.
The Coney Island History project has a stall just off the boardwalk next to a booth selling marionettes. However, for something so small it sure packed a helluva punch. The exhibit at the History Project ultimately led me to a greater understanding of Coney Island in the context of a larger picture, a picture that has relevance today. What is on display is a history of Fred Trump, the father of Donald, during the development of post-WWII Coney Island. I am not a political person but the picture painted by the exhibit, using testimonials, newspaper articles, and city records, was about as flattering as a vomit trail at the exit of the Cyclone. But this is the story of America in general. I wasn’t surprised that a rich and powerful man, choking on greed, would buy land, raise prices, and build slums in a city overpopulated thus the demand for what he can sell was at the mercy for the terms he named. But this is my own naive interpretation. Perhaps I was influenced by the impassioned tale spun by the humble historian. Any of these views, however, in no way reflect the views or policies of the son, Donald, because never, ever has the son ever followed in the footsteps of the father. (cough, cough. Wink, wink.) Sometimes the son is much, much worse.
As we left the booth, the sun had begun its daily decline. Shadows were beginning to become longer and more formidable, harder to avoid. Families were shaking off their beach blanket, the sand and dust thrust into the air. Soon, a strange element emerged, previously concealed, by the exodus of the happy masses. Shady individuals with shifty eyes dodging in and out of narrow walkways became more apparent. The lights of the amusement park became blinding, reinforcing the darkness of the coming night.
Boni and I were on our way to the nearest bar when an agent working a basketball game made me a mark for his hustle. I bit the bait and stepped right up. I was always a sucker for basketball and when the guy called me over not once, not twice, but for the third time, I forked over the cash and took a deep breath. For some reason there was a crowd. Maybe because I was talking up my game. Listen, I don’t like to toot my own horn but the proof is in the pudding. I hit the first shot, nothing but net. He threw me a tiny teddy bear, too tiny for a toddler. He passed me back the ball and upped the ante. I hit again. The big bear was mine. Off to the bar just as the day turned to night, and Coney Island showed us what it can be when ruled by moonlight.
Coney Island has, like most of New York City, been a neighborhood in continual transition. According to Wikipedia, Coney Island was first inhabited by the Lenape tribes who called the area Narrioch, which means “without darkness” on account of the lack of shadow during daylight hours. But of course this didn’t last forever and the Dutch came, then the British. After the American revolution, in the early 19th century, Coney Island began to take on a new persona: vacation place for the inner-city elite. Later in the century it became more for the masses and by the time WWII hit, a series of amusement parks and railroads converging to the sea made Coney Island a destination for millions who could make their way to the beach. After the war Coney Island became a story of land developers and municipal power players. I already mentioned Fred Trump but the influence and power of city planner Robert Moses would change the course of the neighborhood, like much of the city, permanently. None of this, however, was taken into consideration by the time we reached our destination.
The lobby to the Coney Island Museum is actually a perfectly fine bar serving a wide selection of delicious Coney Island Brewery beer. We were beckoned by a woman dressed in a Mermaid outfit, an urban siren from a side door, waving us with a welcoming finger. At the bar we found a couple stools in the corner. The eclectic, mishmash of decor was kitschy like Jack Rabbit Slims from Pulp Fiction and the clientele was equally strange. One of the people sitting next to us was a school teacher from the UK on a pilgrimage to the final destination in The Warriors. Another man sitting on the opposite side of the bar was South African Mark Wijsman, actor, writer, and radio-host. I mention him because he gave us an open invitation to Cape Town.
Soon the music became louder, the crowd more boozy, and then an announcement was made for the beginning of a show. A surreal burlesque was about to begin in the adjacent theater. Boni and I looked at each other and knew we had no choice but to go along for the ride. We bought tickets and were ushered up the stairs by someone in a gorilla suit. We walked through a maze of magic mirrors and found ourselves in a theater lit by a single spotlight. A man with a strange moustache quietly entered from behind a curtain, taking center stage, and told us he was summoning the spirit of Salvador Dali, then he looked to the crowd and pointed to me. I slowly rose and walked to the front of the stage as if in a trance. I am not one to believe in spirits or ghosts but this night in the old theater, there was a definite supernatural presence, Dali or not, which nobody could explain and I was right in the middle. He had me pick a series of cards and then he asked Dali to find the cards I picked. Strangely the same cards were picked by an invisible hand. Suddenly to the shock of everyone in the audience, a table off to the side of the theater began to convulse violently. Then without warning it rose up into the air. People from the crowd were running up to the table to see if any strings were attached but no! Was it magic? Boni recorded the whole thing on her phone for proof. After a few moments the table gently landed itself back on the stage, then the lights faded out and we were left in the dark. Ushers previously unseen stepped from behind crumbling pillars and directed us down to an even greater theater already occupied by a large crowd. Everyone seemed confused. Where did these people come from? Had they been with us all along? There were more questions than answers up to this point and what was to follow was a strange, funny, sometimes vulgar variety show that became more bizarre as the night wore on. By the end we were all in a frenzy, howling and shouting. Then the show was over and we stepped out onto Surf Avenue, and the emptiness of the street couldn’t have been in more contrast to the place we had just previously occupied.
Still feeling the excitement of the show, we didn’t want the night to end. We walked back to the beach. The ocean had a stillness reflecting the calm of flickering stars. As our eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight we searched the beach for the sand sculptures. We made our way to the base of what appeared to be the Eiffel Tower, but in the dark it was difficult to tell. All around us we saw shadowy structures. They looked like sleeping mountains all around us and we felt like giants gently stepping so as not to make them crumble. In the dark were hushed discussions from other people who had the same idea as us, wanting to be in their presence but not wanting to disturb them.
We decided to make our way further down the shore. As we walked, it seemed the moon’s light lit up the beach. Boni noticed the sand muddled with hundreds of ever shifting footprints; each person leaving their mark in the sand over the course of a day, a week, a month, and we thought how appropriate everything now seemed.