My first ever trip to Coney Island, how terribly exciting! Doubly so, given I’ve some great company to share the occasion with – Jackie, plus a visiting Alan Treanor and his new lady wife, Erin. (Living together now in London, they’re in the city for the weekend on green card business… Erin hailing originally from Kansas, so Alan, like me, doing his bit for Anglo-American relations and also, like me, realizing more and more how much that involves having your photograph taken by very serious immigration officials and paying top dollar for the privilege.)
What to expect, though, as our subway train rattled us along? Would Coney Island still have any of its old ramshackle splendor, of the sort Woody Allen evokes at the start of Annie Hall (sure you remember: his Alvy Singer grew up in a family home under a wooden rollercoaster, which reliably shook the matzo-ball soups being supped at dinnertime). Or would it by now be no longer fading but faded? A sad old relic of a place where there’s no sea of people, just sea? I thought of an old vintage postcard I had somewhere back at home: a black and white image of Coney Island in its 1940s heyday; of a destination so ludicrously full of sun seekers that going there must have been more of an obligation than a free-thinking choice. Look, see, I found it on Google:
Safe to say, I think, we wouldn’t be getting that. Even if the blue sky above us was set fair for the day and the temperature just so, somewhere in the mid-80s. But what would we have instead?
Well, to start with at least, a nice sit down on the boardwalk. And some cold drinks… No sense rushing around straight off the train, eh? Best to get our bearings gradually, we agreed, and a better sense of our new surroundings from the relative comfort of a concrete bench, above a long white beach and overlooking the sea (or ocean – we couldn’t quite decide). First impressions. It’s not too busy, no, but it’s definitely not poorly populated either. It’s something in between.
Just the same, it’s neither grand nor dilapidated – maybe the glory days have gone, but seemingly they haven’t yet slipped into anything more sinister. I thought, perhaps, there’d be a slight hum of sleaze in the air, a crackle, even, of danger. But, no. Too many roller coasters and too many other rides still whirring around for that, I guess. Albeit, often empty. (My debilitating fear of heights caused me enough palpitations simply driving over the Manhattan Bridge earlier in the day, thank you very much…)
Next up for us all, some funnel cake – Alan trying it for the first time, and me remembering how much I liked it when I first had the pleasure a couple of summers ago and a hundred or so miles to the south (at the infamous Jersey Shore). Not for us, though, the time-honored thrill of seeing batter plunged into hot oil then sizzle into shape. Our cake, alas, was pre-made and it got to us via the mundane insides of a fridge and an oven. What a shame. There was nothing hot or wet for icing sugar to stick to, and the first few bites were innocuously warm.
No matter, we were cheered up soon enough by other things more pleasing. First up, by that old thing, the amusing passer-by. Alan saw him first: a man with short trousers so incredibly low-slung that his underpants weren’t actually under anything. It’s an old look, I know, but here was a man committing to it with rare, lunatic abandon – as if a moment spent not waving his arse at the world were somehow a moment wasted (the top of his shorts were not merely low, my friends, but lower than the bottom of his briefs).
And then by a $6 go on bumper-cars, something, as ever, impossible not to enjoy – even if the cost of which promised a lengthier drive and a little more speed than the ride itself delivered. Is it more fun to ‘bump’ or to ‘dodge,’ we wondered… for a second or two before trying desperately to give each whiplash. And was there any truth in Jackie’s confident claim that she ‘lapped me two times?’ (Answer: no. From long experience, I know she’s one of those crazily cautious drivers for whom ‘orange’ means ‘start slowing down,’ and not, as of course it really means, ‘give it some bloody gas, man, and you might just make it.’)
It was time, at last, for the crowning glory of our trip – Erin’s discovery ahead of time, Coney Island’s one-of-a-kind Side Show Circus (right next to Nathan’s, where local talk says the hot dog was born). We didn’t know what to expect, but posters out front unambiguously advertised a “freak show… the last permanently housed in the USA.” And, for that matter, “a two-headed man,” and “fire-breathing,” and something about a “bed of nails.” We considered the ethical implications of visiting such a place as we lined up for tickets – but that didn’t last long, on account of us being the only ones in line. “They’re all real people,” we were assured as we made our way inside.
As, indeed, we soon discovered from the back row of bleacher seats in front of an unassuming little stage. No one, it turned out, was particularly freaky in the least. And by ‘no one,’ I mean none of the four ‘freaks’ taking turns to freak it up for our entertainment dollar (well, ten dollars, if you’re counting). They were strange, I’ll give you that – but surely not the surviving creme-de-la-creme of America’s once-thriving oddball scene. Moreover, damn it, I counted four heads in total, definitely not five.
The first of these belonged to Insectavora Angelica, our happy-go-lucky compère. She had a heavily tattoo’d face and banged a nail into her nose, before climbing slowly up a ‘Ladder of Swords’ (sharp enough to cut a carrot!). Then there was Serpentina – a woman whose entire act may accurately be summarized ‘lady holding snake.’ I think she was approximating ‘sexy,’ but it was hard to tell what with the snake and all (weirdly, exactly the color of the gelatinous top section of a lime cheesecake).
Next was Kryssy Kocktail who a) ‘swallowed’ a couple of swords, and, b) bent herself into a custom-made box duly pierced with other swords by compère Angelica (we were invited up to take a look, and Alan and I quickly concluded she was slightly more bendy than your average entertainer).
Last, and also frankly least, was little Miss Patchwork, so named because the dress she wore was kind of patchy. She was quite short and for reasons not immediately apparent her face was painted grey. Oh, and as she aggressively pointed out to us several dozen times, SHE ONLY HAD TWO FINGERS! “You’ve GOT to laugh,” she kept on saying… so much so, we eventually figured it a threat. Maybe she could have tried a joke or two?
And that, more-or-less, was that. With other parts of Brooklyn beckoning, I suppose there’s really only so many two-fingered salutes you can take… Definitely a fun way to spend an afternoon, mind you.