Take A Walk Around Coney Island

by Slim Price

 

Take a walk! C’mon, take a walk with me around Coney Island. It’s the slow time of the day, so we can eat and prowl around a bit.

 

Straight across Surf Avenue from us is the most impressive Merry-Go-Round I’ve ever seen! All day it provides a background counterpoint to our show, with all the bells, cymbals, drums, and traditional Carousel music anyone could ever want. It’s huge, with a beautiful menagerie of animals and seats, carved by masters who seem to have given some of their own life and soul to the work. The mechanism of the ride and the organ is complex and wonderful. It’s fun to watch riders try to catch the brass ring as they pass it, hanging out as far as they dare, kind of like watching an old time western without the shooting.

 

So many things at Coney Island are taken for granted, just because all the parts of it are melded into one whole experience, the sounds, the smells, the colors, and the attitude.

 

Turn around for a minute and look at our show. The lobby, open to the street, surrounds the bally, our “front porch.” On the right is the ticket box, which has inside it a half-a-dozen signs for “this show only,” ranging from fifty cents down to fifteen cents. The ticket taker will change them according to the talker’s whim, depending on the size of the tip, the time of day, and just the level of the crowd’s interest. It’s a fine art. The talker’s object is, of course, to make money for the show. On any good day, hundreds of people will pass into the show, and truly will get their money’s worth. I love it!

 

Right around the corner, there’s an Irish bar, with singing waiters.  I’m too young to go in there yet, but I can look through the doors, and see them slinging huge, foamy mugs of beer. I hear stories about customers being given “Mickeys” and being rolled for their money. Maybe it’s just as well I can’t go in. Right across the street from here, I ate my first knish, an onion flavored potato cake fried in deep fat. Sounds like something good for an Irish kid, but it’s not! It tastes to me like something that ought to be called a knish!

 

Almost next door, I’ve been told, is one of the places “Little Egypt,” Fahrida Mahszar danced the “Hootchie-Kootchie” (belly dancing) about 1895. Anthony Comstock, the country's most powerful censor, tried to shut down the dancing shows and caused more publicity than she would have had otherwise.

 

Back up to Surf Ave. In the next block is Dave Rosen’s show, The Wonderland Circus Side Show. It has a different feeling from our show, the vibrations are different, it doesn’t seem happy. I’ve got a crush on one of the dancing girls who works on his bally. Her name is Beth, and maybe I’ll tell a story about her!

 

 Meanwhile, if we cross Surf Ave. to the other side, and go up Stillwell Ave., we’ll come to the Stillwell Subway Station. It’s hard for me to comprehend the number of people who ride the thing. As many as half a million people a day, along with picnic baskets, blankets, umbrellas and all the other beach stuff they carry. Lord! The reason I mention Stillwell is because it’s where I had my first “Denver” omelet. I’ll never have another omelet as good. Even when I worked in Denver, where I discovered Mexican food. (Go figure!)

 

A little further along Surf, is Nathan’s. In front of Nathan’s, the crowd is almost always fifteen deep from the counter to the curb, but the service is so fast, and the food is so good that I don’t even notice the short wait. (I’m still growing, I guess, ‘cause I like to eat!) All along this walk, we’ve passed joints and games, food stands, and rides. I know a lot of the folk along here, but except for a “Hi, How are ya?” We don’t really socialize. When the Island is awake we all work hard to make a buck, and when it’s asleep we disappear.

 

A guy called Larry who will not paint if he’s sober painted many, if not most of the garish, lively signs and pictures along here. In no time at all he can paint an ear of corn or about anything else and make it live. His girlfriend is a snake handler named Princess Eunice. She’s the one who had her hand paralyzed by a bite from a boa. They are a mixed couple in a time when the rest of the country is enraged by race problems, but here, it doesn’t seem like any of us even notice. None of us are even aware of it, but our value system is different from “society.” We’re some sort of vagabonds, loyal to our own, honest in a strange way (you can’t cheat a person who is honest, it’s the ones who think they “have the edge” who provide our sustenance.)

 

Time to turn around. There’s more to see all over the Island, but there are special things I want you to share. Back, just past our show, and going the other way, there’s a roar and a racket married to screams! It’s the Cyclone, on the corner of Surf and Tenth Ave. Eighty-six feet high, built in 1927, sometimes it has lines of customers blocks long waiting to spend their quarters.

 

Diagonally across the street, there’s another freak show, also belonging to Rosen, starring Betty Lou Williams, with several more strange people. He also shows a “Freak Monster Animal, The Only One In The World!” Actually, it’s a Tapir and the only thing that makes it a freak is an extra toe. I guess what you don’t know doesn’t hurt.

 

Up a couple of blocks past several more shows and rides, if you look towards the Bowery, you can see the Wonder Wheel. You can’t miss it. It has sixteen cars on a wheel one hundred and thirty feet in diameter. It’s amazing that a thing that big can move at all. Each car holds four people and rides on an inner track, looping from the center to the outside rim, rocking outside the outer perimeter. It looks like it should be a romantic ride, but actually it ‘s a gut twister.

 

Time to head for the boardwalk. From Surf, we cross the Bowery, with lots more to see, and them come up onto the most wood a kid like me has ever seen in one place! It’s eighty feet wide, with the planks at an angle and it seems to go for miles along the beach. Along one side are more joints selling all the typical stuff. You can hire a “Rickshaw” to ride the entire length. There are often kids (and old men) who look up through the spaces between the planks from the beach level for purposes I won’t explain. If you come here at dawn, you can see many men on the beach with metal detectors, looking for lost valuables, money and whatever the typical daily horde of beach of beach-goers can lose.

 

It’s a long walk up to the end of the boardwalk through crowds of people, past other attractions, especially Steeplechase Park, all it’s rides and attractions, including the Parachute jump. Two hundred and sixty feet high with twelve parachutes! This is one hell of an experience! You are strapped into a canvas seat, hoisted up to the top, and dropped! Although cables guide the chutes, your first sixty or so feet are free fall until the parachutes start to slow you!  From there it’s one hell of a way down to the bottom, and a blessed, if shaky terra firma. One day I actually rode it nine times, and I still don’t know why.

 

One of the perks of any amusement employee is our common code. Saying “I’m with it” identifies you, and usually brings free rides, discount food prices, and most important, camaraderie. It also makes you vulnerable to “in-jokes” among your own breed. For example, if you take a date on the parachute jump, they are likely to let you hang up there for what seems forever. Back up on the boardwalk, we come to the end, where rows of ancient seeming women work on their tans with folding reflectors held close under their chins. They look like a mummy factory.

 

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