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Go to Coney Island

by John Saward
July 4th, 2019

Go to Coney Island. Go when it’s so hot you want to fight strangers taking too long at turnstiles, when you have contemplated the hygienic consequences of sleeping with a bag of frozen corn in your armpits. Go when your life is a nightmare; go when your life is so good you want to forgive your enemies. Go when your life is neither of these things, when each day is just in dull slow-motion and only the grease-shined sun-drunk mayhem of a carnival laid along the ocean can hot-wire you. Go when it’s Wednesday. Go for no good reason. Go in March, when after dark not one soul is there besides two meaty old men moving along the boardwalk with a triumphant bounce, dragging fishing poles behind them, the hooks swinging in the wind.

Go in mid-July. Take the train the whole way, with the man who gets on at 33rd street, pushing through the doors with a rhinoceros grunt a shopping cart filled with bottles of water dripping in the heat with fat bulbs of condensation. “I’m a lone wolf. I’m an entrepreneur. I play the game. One bottle two dollars, three bottles five dollars. You want headphones, you want an iWatch, I’ll work with you, I’ll get you an iWatch. I got Starbursts, too. You like Starbursts?”

The train goes underground and everyone looks at their reflections in the windows, fixing their hair, checking their texts, giving up on their hair, giving up on their texts. The kids smearing their faces against the glass, cupping their hands around their eyes and searching for rats.  Men wearing socks with sandals, men with crumpled posture, men digging in plastic bags for nasal spray. Men on their way to work with puffy eyes, eating sliced mango from ziplocs, turning them inside out and holding them upside down and over their heads like someone shipwrecked trying to drink rainwater off a leaf. Women with noisy earrings getting on at Atlantic, falling asleep by Prospect Park, riding the Manhattan Bridge high above the grey-green funk of the East River.

Fall asleep yourself, wake up by Kings Highway with the car mostly empty, coasting through long grass and mattresses tilted on their sides and cut open with the stuffing spewing out, past castle-wall-thick concrete barriers covered with graffiti, aluminum cans stomped flat everywhere, the beach waiting for you somewhere right after the horizon breaks off.

It is a place that almost should not exist. It was discovered by accident by Henry Hudson in 1609, and for the next 400 years it was nearly erased by fires and economic disasters and by hurricanes. By the crusty scoundrel Robert Moses, who tried to shut down its amusement parks so people would drive to the beaches and parks he built instead, who said in 1937, “The important thing is not to proceed in the mistaken belief that it can be revived.” By Fred Trump, the President’s dad, who bought most of Coney Island in 1965 to build “Miami Beach-style” condos on it. He was told he wasn’t allowed, that it was to be designated a landmark, so before the city could make it official he threw a party to demolish part of it. He sent out invitations, there were models in bikinis drinking champagne and he made them all stand in the scoop of a bulldozer and pose for pictures next to him, sweating in a heavy jacket with his disgusting mustache, holding up an axe like he’d never seen one before in his life. Then he told the crowd to throw bricks through the stained-glass windows of the Steeplechase. When they were done he bulldozed the leftovers.

But now Fred Trump is dead and Robert Moses is dead and Coney Island is still here and it is beating its chest standing on their graves.

It is not pretty, it is not cobblestoned New York with Ferraris sitting outside Diane von Furstenberg like leashed Dobermans. It is not New York with minimalist menu designs or New York with restaurants that have umlauts in the name just because. It is not Time Square’s glowing hellscape or the Department-of-Parks-and-Recreation-really-worked-its-ass-off manicured beauty of the High Line New York. It is not the New York where every soundtrack choice feels selected to precisely convey both “expensive retinol cream” and also “summer in the Maldives.” It is not New York, the Artisanal Ice Cream Sandwich In A Brioche. It does not feel curated. Everyone doesn’t have expensive shoes and immaculate jawlines and that determined Manhattan stride of “Revolutionary War general on way to demand your surrender.” It feels worn-out but not regal; it is bruised and grimy, it is not New York’s bones or its arteries but its ragged cuticles.

It can sometimes feel like Manhattan belongs to everyone, a buffet to be picked at by families on vacation from Orlando, by howling idiots from the suburbs in on a Friday to terrorize the Lower East Side, by elementary school kids on a trip to see the giant squid. But Coney Island feels almost inaccessible, on the fringes, on the edge of the earth, it is not on the way to anything else and it cannot be squeezed in.

It is indestructible and brilliant, the simplicity of it, how abundantly it provides for our most juvenile appetites. Warmth and apexes and drops from great heights, broiled meat, opportunities for corny but reliable romance, salt and cheese, all varieties of low-grade thrills, abnormal reptile cadavers in jars of foggy formaldehyde behind a curtain that says FREAKS on it, women swallowing three swords at once. It knows our fondness for sleazy charm, our weakness for nostalgia and ballads about our own mythology. So it gives us Journey choruses sailing from bars with sticky tabletops, a wooden rollercoaster that teeters around each curve and seems to adhere to only the most lenient possible safety regulations. A ferris wheel that winds you up past ancient looking screws driven into dented metal beams and caked with layers of paint, dangles you in front of them at eye level until you realize with a faint kind of horror that this is the only thing keeping you airborne. Most of Coney Island feels like an “eh, close enough,” a land that algorithm’d perfection has not yet put its hands on. It is our dreams just winging it.

We love danger and gluttony and heroism; win her a stuffed bear, eat six hot dogs, drive bumper cars directly at people looking the opposite direction. Give three dollars to a man dragging an enormous snake in a suitcase up and down the sidewalk, let him hang it across your shoulders. We want to be scared but tell us ahead of time. We want everything, but not too much of it.

Go with no ideas. Bring nothing with you. Go on the first hot day or the last hot day, when everyone is roaring like they’re in a getaway car, when they’re on their stomachs with puddles of melted lotion in the bends in their knees, everyone’s fingernails glistening with mayonnaise residue, their bald spots illuminated, mangled toes, the crazy lines of thigh flesh conforming to the jagged rocks on the jetty. Go when it seems, as if mathematicians were convened to perform a geometric exercise, that there are so many umbrellas and plastic coolers squeezed strategically up against the water that there is not one granule of visible sand in all of Brooklyn.

Go to the very tip of the pier, where the young couples are dozing in and out, leaned against each other and touching each other’s palms, speaking at a gentle volume and then lunging suddenly to chomp each other’s necks till the other gets pretend-afraid and they wrestle and rock in unison, looking at the waves, both of them silent now like unplugged machines. Where the old men with bizarre hats thread worms and raw chicken thighs onto fishhooks, slapping each other’s backs as their lines settle under the surface of the water, men with hairpin triggers who are also connoisseurs of calm, round lords holding cans of Budweiser with chunks of ice sliding down them like a commercial, humming six seconds of a song you almost recognize.

Go for the maniac children drawing soccer goals into the sand, begging strangers to play with metal detectors, husbands who won’t smile for the camera, mothers who have had it up to here. Teenagers doing gymnastics on pull-up bars inside a ring of dazzled faces. Lifeguards whistling for all of eternity, standing on the rocks and mesmerized by their own calves, looking like they would eat them if they could, like they would shave them with big deli slicers and drop thin pieces of their beautiful bodies into their mouths. Plump seagulls hanging in the air as if tethered to an invisible string, waiting to pluck at straw wrappers with melted chocolate ice cream on them. Men wearing only tiny bathing suits and thick gold chains, contorting their bodies with an obsessive comprehension of light and angles, holding their arms up over their head to tan their armpits.

There are subtle tans from long weekends, the crown of Vacation, a dust of latte brown, smooth and handsome, like the sun has nourished you as it would a plant and now you are a more virile and robust and delicious version of yourself. But there is also a Coney Island tan, men scorched to a kind of purple upholstery, men who are going to be there all day long and maybe even tomorrow too, it’s none of your business, men who are veterans of the great Leisure Wars.

In the summer at Coney Island you will reach a point when your hair has become a catastrophe and your shirt fabric is soggy and clinging to your body, when you’ve accepted the sweat and the disruption to your look and your delicate spiritual homeostasis, and you will feel like your spine has finally uncoiled for the first time in three years. There is no shade or spot to hide, no dark sexy corners, it is not a place for your dainty ideas about your personal brand and your deeply-considered internet aesthetic, it will rip that out of you like an exorcism. There is just everyone laid naked on this surgical table, every appetite for booze and mildly erotic moments and departure from responsibility. Here I am, here are my gaping pores, the peculiar geometry of my nose. The power of Coney Island is the feeling of solitude in a salivating, panting hive of people. You cannot be judged, and so then you are invincible.

Go and witness, around 6:30, before the heat has exhausted you but after it has worked you to a state of madness, everyone having rambunctious conversations, everyone wild and itchy all at once. Girlfriends giving slobbery kisses to boyfriends who have their eyes stretched open cartoon-wide, people who are going to call in sick tomorrow, people pushing strollers with boomboxes sitting in them through little dense clouds of vanilla hookah smoke, everyone tangled in someone else’s moment. And in the distance, the high-pitched laughs of children running in and out of the water, daring the ocean to come and get them.

Go toward Brighton Beach, past the elderly at Sea Crest Nursing Center parked in wheelchairs on a gated patio, staring at the action and listening to the Isley Brothers. Wait at West 5th street and listen to the pop of racquet balls, sneakers sliding on pavement, the clicking of poker chips dropped into piles on folding tables. Men in cheap plastic chairs whose legs are begging for mercy, hands under their underwear elastic, laughing phlegmy laughs and sucking their fingers clean, answering their phone and shouting something about taking the chicken out to defrost. Men with their shirts unbuttoned all the way and gigantic stomachs they are proud of like it were a son they raised, dipping their bald heads into water fountains and closing their eyes. Fight monotony and it’ll give you an ulcer. Give yourself over to it and you can tumble into it like an opiate high.

Watch men standing next to parked cars on the side streets, polishing the hoods of beat to shit Lexuses with balled up socks, telling women who walk by god bless you mami, have a special day, you heard me mami? Watch her snort at Lexuses and men so ruthlessly no one ever purchased a sedan again in the history of gasoline. Watch kids smoking cigarettes and making plans in the middle of the road, playing music over iPhone speakers, volume fading in and out as their hands swing up and down while they chase each other. And at every quiet pause red-faced cops drum empty plastic soda bottles on the rim of a trash can, yelling at them to keep moving.

All of it is there the moment you come down off the train, all of it spread out for you, this zombie cathedral, everyone rowdy and half-naked and drenched, where in the sand you can have a sockless epiphany so delicious you’ll want to send a sincere text to everyone you’ve ever met. Where you can have a crisis too, wandering a billion wooden planks and turning around, where you can lean into malaise. Where there is no extravagance or acrobatic displays of irony or Manhattan’s flattening pressure of ambition. You spend your 20s pounding on windows for people to notice you. Drop down an elevator shaft into your 30s and you realize sometimes it’s a lot less work to be invisible. Do all of this there and no one will say a word.

It is oblivious to style, the choke of appropriate, your loose under eye skin. It is not Online. It is disheveled and feral and screaming at the sky, it rattles and creaks, it malfunctions, the bathrooms flood and stink of potent disinfectants, it will test your patience. But then as the sun starts to set and the slouching crowds pack up to drag each other back home a breeze finally arrives for you like something between religion and pornography, and it will feel like an earned moment, like you have been delivered somewhere far from where you came.

Stay till it’s dark, till there’s only little yellow dots in the high-rises, every window-unit AC ever made, after the rides have shut down, after they board up the ice cream huts and the dance studio and the furniture liquidator across the street. Until the Wonder Wheel sits there colossal and still like a brontosaurus fossil in a museum and there is just the floating smell of go-kart gas and the faraway screech of trains passing. Stay as long as you like, stay till the heat is gone, till it’s autumn, till the air is cold and sharp like a razor and it won’t be summer again for a very long time, till only the men with the fishing poles are there. It is a place where everyone will disappear, you and me and everyone who built it, everyone who came to see it and everyone who tried to destroy it. Coney Island is there because it cannot die.

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