Coney Island Baby

By Jimmy Maher

I was sorely disappointed by the Manhattan subway system. I had been conditioned by years of gritty television crime dramas to expect a graffiti-splashed world of seedy, tough spoken characters going about their slightly disreputable business. I had even half-expected to be held up at some point, so I made sure not to carry too much cash on me. All I found, though, was a rather bland environment that was almost -- God forbid -- clean. The closest I ever felt to threatened was when I couldnít figure out how to operate the ticket turnstile and received a few dirty looks and exasperated sighs for my naivete. Another childhood illusion falls by the wayside.

But BrooklynÖ now this was more like it. I rode all the way to the edge of the borough, and the further afield I got the more the city resembled the caricature of New York I had come to know and love through television cop shows. As we rattled into the last station on the line and I made my exit, all of my romantic fantasies of squalor and decay were coming true.

The station smelled like concrete, mildew, and urine. There were no decorations other than a few faded posters advertising Broadway shows long passed, and the walls, floor, and ceiling were all the same dirty gray cement. The monotony of the bare walls was broken only by a tiny ticket window. A long ramp led out, which I followed into a gray, blustery afternoon. New York in March.

I made my way down from the platform -- a relic, my guidebook told me, of the elevated train system that had proceeded the subway Ė and down the street. I made a few turns with the aid of Lonely Planet, and then I stood before Nathanís, garishly decorated in yellow. "The Worldís Most Famous Hot Dog StandÔ ," proclaimed its sign. A huge but unmoving wooden Ferris wheel towered in the sky above. I had arrived at Coney Island.

Nathanís appeared to be open, if not exactly doing a booming business, but all of the other shop fronts on this side of the street were closed up tight. A huge pile of rubble, remnant of what I wasnít sure, marked the other side of the street. I walked on, heading toward the waterfront and feeling, I must admit, a bit underwhelmed. I came upon a small roller coaster a couple of blocks down. It looked fairly serviceable, although it was shuttered and locked. Lonely Planet informed me that this was the Cyclone, built in 1927.

The waterfront showed only slight activity. The pebble beach was deserted, unsurprising on this 50-degree day, and only a few hardy souls roamed the boardwalk, walking dogs or riding bicycles. Ocean, beach, and sky were of the same uniform gray. I zipped my jacket against the sea breeze and went for a stroll. I passed a series of clapboard stalls that looked ready to blow over on the shoreward side of the boardwalk. Their faded signs reflected carnival games long past. I sat down on a bench.

"Iím afraid the place isnít quite what it used to be." A voice startled me, and I swung around to see a well-dressed old man unwrapping a cigar. "Got a light?"

I shrugged apologetically. "Iím afraid I donít smoke."

The old man grunted. "Just as well. I shouldnít be smoking these things anyway." He walked around the bench. "Mind if I have a seat?"

I wasnít in the mood for company, but what could I do? "Be my guest," I answered, as good-naturedly as I could manage. I looked at the unoccupied benches that ran all down the boardwalk, and started to calculate how long I would have to sit here before I could leave without my reason for doing so being obvious.

"How old do you think I am, son?" He smelled of whiskey. My fears of a meandering lecture about the good old days were being realized. And yet, there was a twinkle in those bright blue eyes of his, and the whiskey on his breath was good single-malt, not rotgut.

"I donít knowÖ seventy?" Were old men as sensitive about their age as middle-aged women?

The old man beamed. "Iím ninety-one last January."

I made appropriate gestures of surprise. He was remarkably hale for his age.

He gazed at the empty arcade, but he seemed to be looking through and beyond the boarded-up stalls. "What a magical place this was, before the Depression hitÖ"

Amy smiled at me and hopped off the bench. "Okay, Kenny, I think Iím okay now. Letís check out some of the sideshow games." Nobody else in the world had ever called me "Kenny." It sounded thoroughly ridiculous and yet wonderful to my ears.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"Yeah, Iím sure. Itís funny. Roller coasters donít bother me a bit, but those spinny rides get me every time." She smiled again. "At least I didnít throw up. Youíd never want to go out with me again if Iíd done that, would you?"

I just smiled in return, not bothering to tell her that nothing she could possibly do could cause that reaction in me.

She grabbed my hand, and I let her pull me along in that funny way she had of walking, like she was half skipping and her feet werenít touching the ground. Coney Island had just opened for the season, and the weather was still quite chill, but the boardwalk was crowded with people on this spring evening. Neon flashed everywhere -- from rides, from the gaily colored streetlights, and from the carnival games toward which Amy now directed me. The air was filled with smells of candied apples and popcorn and the shouts of the sideshow barkers, and the Wonder Wheel towered over it all like Mount Olympus.

I felt a little trepidation amidst my joy. Iím not exactly the worldís most athletic fellow, and I could imagine humiliating myself thoroughly in some game of coordination and strength for which I was totally unsuited. Hell, I didnít even know what I was doing here or why this gorgeous girl at my side was wasting her time with me when she could have any guy at our high school.

"Step right up! Step right up! Only ten cents for five tosses!" The barker beside us wore a flashy, and undoubtedly fake, gold chain that matched his three gold teeth. "You, young man! Come win a prize for that pretty girlfriend of yours." Amy smiled and squeezed my hand at being called my girlfriend, a gesture that made my hopes soar. "Sink three out of five rings and win this!" He nearly knocked Amy over with a ridiculous pink rabbit almost as big as she was. I was trapped.

I handed over my dime and accepted five plastic rings from the barker. I shuffled up to the line like a condemned man, staring down the long canvas tunnel toward the iron spike that was my target. I wasnít even sure how to go about throwing these things. I tried to spin the first one out of my hands like a Frisbee. It flew off wildly to the right, bouncing against the canvas and hitting the ground about halfway between my target and me. I glanced over my shoulder with what I hoped was an unperturbed expression. "Getting my bearings, you know," I said. Amy just smiled.

I decided to try my awkward underhand throw that didnít make me very popular when we were choosing teams in gym class. The ring wobbled like mad all through its flight, but it landed only a few inches from the spike. Perhaps, just perhaps, I could do this with a little concentration. Forget about the damn girl for a minute, I told myself.

My next toss was beautifully placed, and nestled perfectly over the spike. Amy gave me a pat on the back and a squeeze on the shoulder, but I refused to turn around. I was in a groove. My next toss wasnít quite so perfect, but it caught the edge of the spike and flopped down over it. One more to go. I was actually shaking. Perhaps thatís why my next toss was too low and bounced off the front of the spike.

The barker grinned down at me good-naturedly. "Thatís a strange way to throw, but it almost got the job done. Youíre such a cute couple, Iím going to give you a consolation prize." He handed Amy a little black and white kitten.

She laughed and rumpled my hair. "Good show!"

 

The old man snapped out of his reverie. I realized that the sky had darkened considerably as he had talked and as I had listened, rapt with attention in spite of myself.

"Sorry to bore you with my rambling stories, son," the old man said.

"No, not at all. Iím fascinated," I said, and I meant it.

The old man smiled and stuck out his hand. "Ken Farrar is the name."

I grasped his hand. "Jason Chilton. Pleased to meet you, sir."

"Itís getting a bit cold to be sitting still like this. Care to take a walk, Jason?"

"Sure."

As we walked, Ken asked me what brought me out to Coney on such an inhospitable day. I could have told him about being in New York for the first time on business and having an historical interest in the place, all of which was true enough, but instead I cut right to the chase. "Itís about a girl, actually."

Ken chuckled. "It always is, isnít it?"

I told Ken all about Holly. I told him of her fascination for this place, which she called the embodiment of an American innocence that has been lost forever. I told him of the good times Ė that first weekend in New Orleans when we fell in love, that crazy road trip to Chicago. I told him how sweet she was to kiss, and about the poem she wrote for me. And I told him about the bad times Ė how she would withdraw into herself for days at a time, how she would sometimes come home from her church proclaiming our relationship a sin, how she would cry and push me away after I had made love to her. And I told him about that bitter day when I realized it was over for us.

Then I told him about Kim -- how she was better looking than Holly and made good money, and how low-maintenance and stress-free our relationship was, and how dissatisfied I was.

"Kimís a great girl," I said. "But sheís all surface and oblique angles, you know? Anytime you try to break through to something underneath, you sort of slide off sideways." I struggled for words. "ItísÖ well, sheíd never write me a poem."

Ken gave me a gentle smile and gestured at the yellow building we now stood before. "What you need, my friend, is a hot dog from Nathan's. Coming to Coney without visiting Nathanís is like going to D.C. and forgetting the White House."

The place was yellow inside as well as out, festooned with American flags and giant pictures of all sorts of heartburn-inducing food items. I was surprised to see that they actually had a few customers. We stepped up to the counter and placed our orders with the crusty old gentleman behind the antique cash register.

Iím not a big fan of hot dogs, but this one actually left me wanting another. Some of the gloom of our desolate surroundings left me, and I could almost picture this place the way it might once have been. "So Nathanís is quite the institution here, is it?" I asked my companion.

 

We wandered back up the boardwalk, stopping occasionally at a sideshow exhibition. I didnít play any more games, though. I figured it was best not to press my luck any further. Amyís hand was now firmly ensconced in mine, and I really didnít want to blow this. She had the most expressive hand I had ever held Ė not that I had held that many. She would involuntarily squeeze when she saw something particularly delightful, like the "Worldís Smallest Horse." It was quite obviously a small dog with various fake appendages attached, but it was so over-the-top ridiculous that I couldnít even feel ripped off.

I did have a destination in mind to guide our wandering. Amyís family had moved to New York the year before, and she had never had a Nathanís hot dog. The garishly yellow building stood out even amid this carnival atmosphere of lights and colors. "Are you hungry?"

"Yeah, I am, actually."

"Well, then, waitíll you try this place."

We each had a hot dog and a big orange soda, standing up to eat out on the street because finding a table inside was impossible. I hardly tasted anything.

It was getting late. I had promised her parents to have her home by ten, and it was a fair ride on the El back to the city. As we tossed the remains of our meal in the nearest trash can, I reluctantly mentioned that we should probably be heading home.

She looked at me mischievously. "You donít want to take a ride on the Thunderbolt first?"

"Are you sure youíre up for it?" I asked

"Yeah, I think Iíll be fine. I think my problem last time was that I didnít have any real food in me. I always get sick on an empty stomach."

This sounded liked a dubious theory to me, especially as it seemed to contradict her previous explanation about only spinny rides affecting her, but I wasnít about to turn down a chance to prolong the evening. We made our way across the street to the roller coaster, and I bought two tickets from the booth. The crowd was beginning to thin as closing time approached, so we only had to wait in line for a few minutes. That amazing hand of hers held mine like a vice.

"Really, we donít have to do this, you know," I said.

"No, no, itís fine," she replied with a bit of a shake in her voice.

Soon it was our turn. We stepped onto the platform. I chose a car right in the middle of the train, which I knew would offer the least nerve-wracking experience. We lowered the bar, and I put my arm around her shoulders. She huddled up against me, so close I could feel her heart beat and her chili-flavored breath on my cheek. We jerked off the platform. The chain caught, and we began to clatter up the first and largest hill. I turned to look at her, and she looked so pretty that I got downright spontaneous and kissed her on the mouth.

I guess she wasnít expecting that, because she started and dropped the little stuffed kitten she had been carrying for most of the night. We both grabbed for it, but too late. It rolled down the gutter at the side of the track, then tumbled off the side, bounced off the roof of the platform, and finally slid underneath a maintenance shed down on the ground.

I groaned. That was me, a suave and cool character all the way. I started stammering an apology, both for costing her the kitten and for being so forward in the first place. She stopped me with another kiss. We were still kissing when the train crested the top of the hill and we started down.

 

"So whatever happened to Amy?" I asked.

"Oh, we were together for a number of years, but eventually we had to break it off. Her family had money, and they were Republican all the way. As for meÖ well, in a few years time I was marching on Washington, singing about revolution."

"Why do silly things like religion and politics always have to muck up the best love affairs?" I wondered aloud.

"I donít know, son, but I do know that a young person has to dream, has to be true to himselfÖ or herself. Anyway, I met another gal a few years later, and we had over fifty wonderful years together."

"Did it feel the same way it did with Amy?"

Ken chuckled. "Hell no, son, it never feels quite the same. But in its own way, it can be just as good. Youíll see."

I realized with a start that the first stars were twinkling overhead. I was supposed to meet a couple of guys from the office at ten oíclock to see a band one of them was keen on.

"Iím so sorry, but I have to get going," I said. "It was wonderful meeting you. Thank you so muchÖ for everything."

"No, son, thank you for indulging an old man." He paused to look me straight in the eyes as he clasped my hand. "You take care now, you hear?"

"You too, sirÖ you too."

I left Nathanís to head back to the subway. I glanced over at the pile of rubble I had noticed several hours before, and for some reason I decided to cross the street and have a closer look before departing. What had it been? There were weeds and grass growing from the debris. Apparently some sort of structure had been knocked down some time ago, then left there. Odd, that.

As I turned to go, I noticed a small shape sitting almost on the sidewalk. A closer look revealed a dirty, badly torn stuffed animal of some sort. A dog or something must have pulled it up from God knows where, then thrown it down when it became obvious it wasnít good to eat. I picked it up and brushed it off. Could it be? No, it couldnítÖ could it?

I thrust the raggedy lump into my jacket pocket and hurried on my way.