My first association with Coney Island was a copy of ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti my parents had brought in a fit of youthful bohemia, long since abandoned to a top shelf. I was too young to have any grasp of poetry, much less Ferlinghetti’s free verse experimentalism, but I loved the black and white cover image of the fantastic lights, spreading out for what seemed like miles. It seemed such an iconic place, embedded so deeply in the American psyche that everyone knew what it was to have a ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ (in that mid-70’s era of ‘Happy Days’, ‘American Graffiti’, everything I thought I knew about America seemed vastly more comfortable and inspiring and convivial than the spartan, parochial backwoods Canada where we lived.
But when I made it out nearly two decades later, it wasn’t Ferlinghetti I thought of, but the closing act of ‘The Warriors’ which I’d seen about nine times when I lived in a group home in my teens. The decrepit subway train clattering through the last bend of the elevated, the bedraggled, exhausted gang confronting a psychotic Sean Penn rattling coke bottles in his fingers while the trash blew past the graffiti shutters outside. The station was almost derelict, and panhandlers and drug dealers lurked around the station entrance, and the street outside the carny looked disheveled, half-abandoned.
As I noted in a previous feature, I’m a sucker for abandonment and Coney Island became a regular part of my NY itinerary. Who could not love the abandoned roller coaster, half-overgrown with vines, or the vista of the elevated elongating out behind the ferris wheel, and the Cyclone, or the old-time creepiness of the carny itself (what gives carnivals this slightly sinister quality? they have have given expression to some buried pagan mysticism, the allure – and power – of the outcast, the freak. The Disney version gets rid of this hint of sleaziness and danger, this hint of the subconcious, the dream).
I liked Coney best in winter, when everything was shut down, and the boardwalk was deserted but for a few forlorn Russians out on the pier, hauling in their traps. The fog made the carny, the projects at the end of the boardwalk almost otherworldly. An old guy from the area pushed a shopping cart up and down the boardwalk selling hot latkes wrapped in tin foil. Once, not long after the collapse of communism, he said, “I’m not going to say communism was a perfect system, far from it, but the world has lost something with the disappearance of a state built around the working man.”
The carny retained a few freak shows: a sign promising a ‘man-eating chicken’, a ‘flesh-devouring rat’. I paid one dollar to a very bored looking teenager to see the rat. The two black women behind me giggled nervously, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but the killer rat turned to be an oversized hamster, half-buried in straw next to a bowl of kibble.
I did go to the stage show once. I think it cost three bucks. The audience was mostly Puerto Rican teenagers, the performers a troop of very unhappy looking white people, some with piercings and neck tattoos. One guy hammered a nail through his (pierced) tongue, another guy put on a straitjacket, and had someone from the audience tighten it up then, after some struggle, broke free. Between acts, the emcee plugged whoopee cushions – I guess they had a shipment they needed to get rid of. The kids were amused enough but the performers obviously hated their show, their audience, and wanted the whole thing to be over. The seats and the stage were hammered together with uneven lengths of plywood, the floor littered with trash; in those moments Coney Island seemed a symbol of the decay of Brooklyn itself.
But even in its decay it was surreal. A friend told me once how she’d been on the ferris wheel, and the guard dog down below, a Rotweiller or maybe a pit bull, had gotten it’s head stuck in a trash can and for the whole length of her ride she’d watched the dog thrashing about, banging the can against some nearby posts while the ride supervisor looked on, oblivious.
I didn’t go back for a long time, part of a general withdrawing from New York and the world I went through at the time. Friends told me it had become hip, with the Coney Island Museum, the Coney island Film Festival. When I did go back last year, I was shocked at how little of the old Coney remained. Gone the overgrown roller coaster, the derelict bath house, and the flesh-eating rat. Bloomberg plans to revitalize ‘the people’s playground’, but we’ll see if it will indeed be for the people or just another of the rich man developments Bloomberg seems to favor, whether the spirit of Ferlinghetti’s book cover, the Warriors, and that seedy old carney will live on.
More Coney Links:
Coney Island Freak Show in the 40’s
CO Moed’s ‘My Private Coney’
Coney Island Mermaid Parade
Classic Coney Island Movie: Little Fugitive (thanks to CO Moed)
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