Saturday, November 24, 2007


Sometimes on summer mornings my teen-age friends and I would put our nickels into the turnstile and board the Culver local from the station at Union Street and Fourth Avenue. At 36th Street we’d transfer to the Sea Beach Express and ride all the way to the end of the line. We were excited and had smiles on our faces. As the trip progressed we were gradually joined by others, kids and adults, some carrying brown bags stuffed with food, others holding blankets and maybe a pillow. The smaller kids usually had pails and tiny shovels. Soon, the car was filled and we became a huge crowd with a single purpose and one destination in mind - Coney Island. Finally, when the train screeched to a stop at the end of the line, we all burst from the terminal and stepped out onto the street like ants hurrying to a picnic.

Immediately we sensed the salty air and the mixed odor of bodies and wet sand from those returning from the water. We inhaled aromas of garlicky hot dogs, hot corn on the cob, and sugary sweet cotton candy. Our ears were bombarded with the shouts of the sideshow barkers, the organ music of the carousel and the cacophony of words and laughter of probably a million people in search of relief from the heat.

That was Coney Island in the Forties. And we were glad to be walking the streets of Stillwell and Surf Avenues, away from the hot streets of the neighborhood.

As we hurried along with the crowd we saw again that familiar structure, the one we would climb and conquer one more time, the mighty Cyclone. There it was, its wooden frame and its treacherous first hill reaching into the sky. Even from a distance we could hear the yells and screams of the riders as it slowly climbed up the tall hill – click clack click clack, and then raced down, rocking its passengers from side to side. There were other roller coasters, the Thunderbolt and the Tornado but our favorite was the Cyclone. Further down was the giant 150-foot Wonder Wheel, slowly moving round and round, the cars swaying back and forth high above Coney Island. Toward the water looming above was the magnificent Parachute Jump that had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and now resided in Coney Island. I remember being strapped in and taken aloft while those down below would be waving and calling out names. “Hey, Carmine, Vic, don’t fall out!” Then, finally, when we reached the top we saw a beautiful view of the city and then, without warning, like World War II fighter pilots jumping from their planes, the chute opened quickly and we plunged to the ground. The Whip was another ride we liked a lot. It was the one where we sat in a car while being swung around until it felt as if our necks would snap. If we were with the girls from the neighborhood we’d take them to Steeplechase Park and ride the horses so we could sit behind them, get close up and hold them around the waist. We also secretly watched as they unknowingly walked over the blast of air that shot up their dresses as we exited the Park.

After a while, we’d rush to the beach and stake out a spot on the sand near the water. We’d quickly throw down our blanket and towels, strip down to our bathing suits and run for the ocean. It always icey cold but we’d jump in head first anyway. We’d stay in the water for hours. In those days, there was always a polio scare but we never really worried about it until after we got home. People said you could get it from others, wherever crowds gathered, especially in the water at Coney Island. I remember seeing the leg braces kids had to wear.

Back then the older people went swimming too but they called it “bathing”. So you would sometimes see old ladies with soap in their hands, walking up to their knees in the surf and scrubbing themselves as if they were back home in their bathtub.

If any of us had extra change we’d go to a shooting gallery or a penny arcade. We once paid good money to see “Tirza in her wine bath”. Instead of seeing a naked lady we watched someone in a skin-colored body-suit splash herself with purple water.

Before leaving for home we’d always stop at Nathan’s for a hot dog and maybe some fries and a root beer. I remember the sign: “Follow the Crowd - Original Nathan’s Famous”. The long counter always seemed crowded and the countermen were fast and sometimes gruff with us. “Come on, kid, how many, how many, how many?” If we had enough money we’d end the day with a frozen custard which I loved. On the train going home,
sunburned and tired, we’d sit with our feet up on the wicker seats.
I visited the place again in the winter of ’56. After having been away from Brooklyn for a number of years, I wanted to show my new wife what Coney Island was like. We sat on a bench on the boardwalk looking out at the ocean and because it was cold we huddled closely and listened to the seagulls. As we sat, not speaking, sharing a chocolate bar and looking out at the waves, Up and down the boardwalk was deserted. I glanced behind us and noticed that the food concessions were boarded up and that the rides were also closed. The place looked dirty, and part of a crumpled up newspaper was skipping along the ground like tumbleweed. We watched the waves breaking on the shore and I knew then that Coney Island would never be the same and that I could never go back to that earlier time.

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