We did not know what to expect. Leaving Manhattan behind, we boarded the Coney Island bound D train heading into the unknown. The weather called for rain and thunderstorms, but postponement was not an option. There was an adventure to be had.
It was early afternoon when the four of us wandered out of the train station into the graying light of the streets. Two columns of striped tents were set up to our left leading to a clear shot of the boardwalk. Gazing down the car-filled isle, David mused, I didn’t expect Coney Island to be so much like a parking lot. Pressing on towards the boardwalk, we passed Flea by the Sea stopping only briefly to browse through the sunglasses. Standing in the rundown and dusty parking lot, perhaps realizing that purchasing sunglasses with an overcast sky was futile, we debated where to go from here. It was at this point that one of our colleagues took leave. Lauren headed out to find a bank, while James, David, and I continued on toward the boardwalk.
With the smell of grease hanging in the air, we were faced with and defeated by the temptation of pizza. At $3 per slice we savored every last dripping bite. The boardwalk was lined with army-green trash barrels standing in perfect formation in a continuous battle against stray waste. Supporting these stationary troops with a donation of plates and napkins, we began to take in the scene around us. The central part of the boardwalk was flanked by peeling, faded, and sometimes outdated signs advertising pizza, popcorn, ice cream, soda. Loud music issued from each line of vendors. An enormous red structure similar in appearance to a radio tower with a wide, circular platform at its peak enhanced the skyline. Not sure what this red monstrosity was, we let our imaginations get the best of us (upon further research, this is a parachute platform… not on our list of guesses).
The most disturbing feature of the boardwalk was a carnival game entitled “Shoot the Freak”. A rotund gentleman happily seated to the side of a vacant lot yelled out insults at unsuspecting persons. “Are you just going to stand there and take pictures? You’re in the wrong state of mind for Coney Island! Come on, Shoot the Freak!” The vacant lot appeared as a post-apocalyptic alternate universe. A burning barrel, spray painted boards, and plenty of trash set the mood. Several loaded paintball guns sat in a row waiting for patrons to take them in their arms, aim, and fire at what was advertised to be a “live human target.”James was brave enough to get this picture and get out:
By this point, we were beginning to worry about Lauren. Had she lost her way? Was her phone not working? Was she abducted by angry carnies, and forced to participate in a never ending game of shoot the freak as the live human target? Were we about to go on a top secret, super dangerous rescue mission? The phone rang; it was Lauren. She’d meet us in 5 minutes….
Lauren returned to us with tales of cat calls and inappropriate behavior. Apparently Mermaid Ave is not the place for a girl to walk around by herself. Happy for our reunion, the four of us kicked off our shoes, stepped off the boardwalk into the sand, and headed towards the ocean carefully avoiding broken glass and hoping not to find any stray syringes.
David and James immediately headed for the water. Sticking my reluctant toe in, I deemed the water far to cold, and sat on the beach with Lauren. When David and James rejoined us, we sat for about 30 minutes reflecting, talking, and digging in the sand. James, headed for China, had managed to add a substantial cavity to the surface of our earth, and was repaid with a sharp stabbing pain at the tip of his finger. He had dug too deep and ran into the sharp end of an ivory sea shell. The shell splinter now embedded in his finger, he patiently waited while I coerced the splinter to part with his flesh. All agreeing that we had enough beach time, we headed back “inland” to forage for food.
After way too expensive pizza, we were on the lookout for a deal, and a deal we found at Flea by the Sea. One vendor was offering $1 Thai food. Assuming each item to be only $1 we each got a container full to the brim of delicious Thai food. However, upon receiving our change, we realized that each container itself was $1! Fantastic! James and I each got a spring roll stuffed with lettuce and whole mint leaves, and we split thick noodles with a sweet sauce (all of that $1, really). Not letting his stomach down, James also purchased plantains, an empanada, and peach juice from a separate vendor.
The combination of sweet and spicy made our group very thirsty. We had saved money on dinner. A few drinks were in order. Looking for a bar, we walked around taking note of the many attractions. Coney Island Museum, bumper cars, go carts, Angel Snake Woman, a freak show?! Even to a savvy group of individuals such as ourselves who are not easily fooled, Angel Snake Woman and the freak show were enticing.
Making an executive group decision, we all valued beer over freaks, and saved our money for a bar known as The Freak Bar. Maybe we would get a little bit of both?
Upon entering the brightly colored room our decision was validated. A lot of space, not a lot of people, a jukebox with a good selection, a piano, pinball, and good beer. There was also a Friday night cabaret show going on in the back.
Not quite ready to try the Coney Island beer, I played it safe with Magic Hat #9. One of the perks of being back on the east coast.
The relaxed atmosphere and good conversation lead us all to a second beer. Made brave by our first bottles, we headed up to the bar for some Coney Island beer. James and I split this huge bottle.
A double shot of bravery led James to the spindly old up right piano. A few moments later the sounds of Tom Waits filled the bar as Lauren, David, and I allowed ourselves to be amused by the seriousness with which James approached the piano. Notice the individual chair that he pulled up just for his beer.
A friendly burlesque performer surprised us all when he revealed the piano’s secret. This perfectly normal looking, well used bar piano is actually a player piano. The mustachioed and suspendered man loaded a scroll of paper splattered with alternative notation into a hidden sliding door. Using two foot pedals to power the score, the paper began to rotate, and the stiff piano keys began to move on their own.
We spent approximately 3 hours in this bar mostly oblivious to the changes going on around us. Looking out the window, we could barely see across the street. The tall housing projects were now obscured by a thick layer of fog. The mist combined with slight intoxication altered the mood of the four unsuspecting adventurers. Coney Island was no longer a rundown, decrepit homage to the past. For us, it was transformed to its former glory. Angel Snake Girl? why not. Digging through his pockets for $1, James paid the carny, and headed up the trailer steps while the rest of us waited with anticipation. 4 seconds later he descended those same steps, disappointedly shaking his head. Angel Snake Girl was an over-sized plastic boa constrictor with a mirror set at its head reflecting the head of a real woman. No problem. We still had the beach.
The beach. We all had different yet similar ways to describe what the beach looked like at night in the dense fog. It felt like we were in a giant dome with limitless boundaries. All light became glowing balls of fuzz in the distance. We were surrounded by people; yet separated by the fog, we were alone. Throwing our bags down on the sand, and stripping down to our swimming apparel, James, David, and I ran for the water accompanied by a single purple flash of lightning. What had seemed impossible earlier that day had now become inevitable. My feet, then knees, then stomach hit the ocean, but the cold sting was not there. Stifling my fear of the various creatures living beneath the opaque water, I became completely submerged (a slight push may or may not have helped this process). Running out of the water and back to Lauren who stood guarding our belongings, we peeled off our wet clothes behind the concealment of towels, and carefully pulled on our dry clothes, failing to avoid picking up more sand. Just as we stepped back onto the boardwalk, a planned fireworks show began on the beach. The fog blurred the fireworks and morphed them into clouds of bright colors. This was not the same Coney Island of the early afternoon.
Was it the fog? The fog that hid the depressing reality of what Coney Island had become. The fog that hid the trash and dirt and grease.
Was it the beer? The pint sized bottles. The Freak Bar. The player piano
Maybe, thinking back to the rude heckler at Shoot the Freak, we had just entered the “Coney Island state of mind.”
Regardless, the only word for our Coney Island adventure is surreal.