Coney Island was the last stop on the subway. I descended at Surf and Still-well avenues. Over the exit hung a huge black-lettered sign exhorting passengers not to panic in case of an air raid, THIS IS NOT A TARGET AREA, explained the sign. I wondered how they knew.
Surf Avenue, where great hotels and restaurants had once catered to the wealthy, looked shabby in the hard sunlight. Gone were the bands of John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert. Instead, on a table in a sidewalk bar, there stood a protest singer, strumming a guitar.
"Ah would really like to be a brave American," he wailed, "And for that precious flag I'd gladly die,/There's a star-spangled banner waving somewahr,/That is where Ah want to be when Ah dah-ee."
The music from a carousel a few doors away drowned him out. It was gay, light, innocent. The horses were brightly painted. Children seemed to float: up, down, up, down, grabbing dreamily for the brass rings as they had done for centuries. In the music of the carousel, I could hear and visualize the Coney Island of my mother's time.
"Your father," she used to tell me, when she was in a mood to knock the poor man, "was always more Coney Island than Newport."
Occasionally she sang snatches of a song called Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland, a popular song of rather short vogue, for Coney's Dreamland Park had burned to the ground in a $6 million blaze in 1911, seven years after it was built. Dreamland, my mother thought, had "tone," because the main entrance to the park led past a Biblical entertainment called Creation. My father, on the other hand, had preferred the rides, particularly those in Luna Park, and most particularly a ride called the Cannon Coaster, over which hung a come-on, saying: WILL SHE THROW HER ARMS AROUND YOUR NECK? WELL, I GUESS, YES!
On the boardwalk the benches were filled, mostly with elderly people gazing out over the water. It was still early, but the sun was getting warm and the beach was filling up. Nobody goes there anymore, my friends told me, and I had rather expected to have the place to myself.
"The temperature at Coney Island," announces the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, in the manner of all chambers of commerce, "is 10° cooler in the summer, and 10° warmer in the winter than anyplace in the New York area." Furthermore, the Chamber of Commerce implies, Coney Island is still the Playground of the World, and anyone who doesn't go there is a rotten apple.
I sat on a bench on the boardwalk for a few minutes, enjoying the cool breeze that blew in from the ocean. Then I went down the steps onto the sand. The beach was so crowded that latecomers were folding their blankets in half and falling upon them with their arms at their sides. Some of the seminaked bodies exposed to the warmth were still winter white; others were brown or black, bodies toasted that color or born that color, all jumbled together in warm, relaxed confusion. Kids ran up and down, their feet churning the sand.
"Hey, Ma! He took my pail," squealed a little girl not far from me. She indignantly pointed an accusing finger at her older brother. Her voice was strong with the unmistakable accents of New York.
"She was throwing sand at me," defended the boy.
"I'll get up and belt the both of yez," replied their mother sleepily, and she turned over on her blanket and closed her eyes with a sigh. It was an exchange my mother would have labeled "more Coney Island than Newport." A pretty teen-age girl, dressed in what seemed to be a mini version of the bikini, walked rapidly toward the water, hotly pursued by a teen-age boy in orange trunks.
"The bathing suit," wrote William C. Ulyat, more than half a century ago, "should consist of twilled flannel, strong and colored brown, blue or gray. The garment should be in one piece of light goods and consist of pantaloons and coat over them.... Some would add a broad-brimmed hat. But, as it is desirable to plunge the head under water in bathing, this...is an unnecessary encumbrance."
From my stakeout in the sand I could look directly under the boardwalk, an area known to the cognoscenti as the Underground Hotel. An architect who recently submitted a plan for the rehabilitation of Coney Island to the New York Department of Parks suggested among other improvements that the empty space under the boardwalk should be "utilized." I am able to report that he would not have been able to slide a rolled-up blueprint between the couples utilizing same. My mother would have been scandalized.
"Your father used to leave me with friends on the beach, while he went off to play the games," she once told me. "The only thing he ever won was a small teddy bear. Its eyes, which were pasted on, fell off on the way home."
After my swim and drying out on the beach, I stopped off at one of the shooting galleries and shot some ducks, threw some baseballs at milk bottles and punctured a few balloons with darts. At a penny arcade establishment called Playland I tried my hand at Bingo-Reno, Skee Ball, Speedway racing, 21, poker and bowling. I collected tickets worth 90 points. A stuffed purple dog of indeterminate breed looked down at me from a shelf. A sign pinned to his collar said he was worth 240 points. His eyes, I noticed, were glass, not pasted on. I told the man who had been changing my dollars into dimes that I would be back.
I was hungry. On the way to Nathan's Famous hot dog stand, I walked again past the bar where the guitar player was still caterwauling his desire to be a brave American.
"Can the U.S. use a mountain boy like me?" he sang, and there was a smattering of applause from people sitting at the tables.
At Nathan's the crowd was three deep. A week earlier Nathan's had celebrated the 100th anniversary of the American Red Hot, which was first served on Coney Island in 1867, brought to the United States by a Bavarian named Charles Feltman, who later opened one of Coney Island's most exotic restaurants. Nathan Handwerker was one of his employees until, enthralled with the potential of the sausage-in-roll, he saved enough money to start his own small stand, specializing in the hot dog. At the 100th anniversary party, formally attired waiters served distinguished guests champagne with their hot dogs. "This Gastronomical Triumph now a symbol of Yankee Democracy has...penetrated all international boundaries, social barriers and mores," read the invitation that went out.
Wrote Edo McCullough, some years ago, in his detailed history of Coney Island: "The...myth-mongers would have it that Harry Stevens, founder of the catering firm, introduced the frank-furter-in-roll to the East around the turn of the century, during a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. This fabrication would be laughable if, at its core, it were not possible to sniff out a sinister plot to permit the New York Giants, rather than the Brooklyn Dodgers, to bask in reflected glory. Quite probably Stevens did vend enrolled frankfurters at the Polo Grounds around 1900; but they had tickled the palates of Dodger fans at Washington Park as far back as 1888."
If the hot dog is still penetrating international boundaries, it is probably thanks, in part, to the industry with which Nathan works to promote his delicacy. Let any well-known celebrity of international renown set foot on American soil and he will surely receive, within a day or so of his arrival, a sample box containing hot dogs, with a message welcoming him to America. One of the last such to receive a box of Red Hots was Stalin's daughter, who took time out, amid the political furor attending her arrival, to write Nathan a gracious note thanking him for his gesture.
Said Premier Kosygin severely, when questioned about Svetlana Alliluyeva at a press conference after the Glassboro affair, "She is morally unstable. We consider her a sick person." My own feeling, as I munched one of Coney Island's specialties, was that anyone who likes Nathan's hot dogs can't be all bad, for the Coney Island hot dog tastes as different from the run-of-the-mill frankfurter as lobster tastes from canned tuna.
"It's in the spices that go into it," the counterman told me. "But the ingredients are secret."
"Don't you believe it," whispered a man who stood beside me, chewing furiously. "The secret of Nathan's hot dog is that the grill hasn't been wiped off since the place opened back in 1916. All that great taste is thus preserved as each dog is simmered."
Everyone has a theory. I would subscribe to the secret-ingredient theory, for Coney Island itself defies analysis, harboring whatever secret ingredients it takes to survive against all odds: political intrigue, social change and fiery holocaust.
It is fitting, perhaps, that Coney Island, which has devoted itself to amusing others, should have started as a joke perpetrated by the Indians on the white man. It was in 1649 that the sachem of the Canarsie tribe, no doubt laughing behind his peace pipe, sold Konijn Eiland to a gullible Dutchman named Van Salee. What made the transaction funny was that the Canarsie didn't even own it; it belonged to the neighboring Nyacks, who sold it again, five years later, to another Dutchman for three pounds of gunpowder, two guns and 15 fathoms of sewan (a sort of wampum much in demand by the Indians).
By 1671 the British had taken over New York, and an area known as Gravesend, which included Konijn Eiland (named for the rabbits that inhabited it), was parceled out to farmers who had settled there. No one paid much attention to the five-mile area of sand, scrub and water that lay beyond the farms, except that the settlers occasionally went out with guns to snipe at the rabbits or to dig up clams, and duck hunters made frequent forays into the marshes. It was not until 1734 that the first road, constructed of shells, was built, encouraging tourists to make the trip to Coney. A lot of them did. In 1823 the Gravesend and Coney Island Road & Bridge Co. was incorporated. Coney Island was now on its way to becoming a resort.
By the mid-1870s Coney Island was swinging—being swung, in fact, by a corrupt political boss named John Y. McKane. He was to give Coney Island her first black eye, an injury from which she never fully recovered. Mr. McKane's main business was politics; his sidelines were graft and land-grabbing. By 1881 he had managed to have himself appointed Chief of Police, which in the present day would be tantamount to appointing Willie Sutton president of the First National City Bank. On McKane's police force were men wanted by the police in other areas. Dilapidated buildings in an area known as the Gut housed thieves, con men, refugees from justice, pickpockets, touts, prostitutes; decent people stayed away. McKane was willing to lease "his" land to anyone who could pay him a fee. Horse racing, someone told him, could be profitable, and in 1879 Brighton Beach opened a track. A year later, an even more fashionable track opened at Sheepshead Bay. In 1886 the Brooklyn Jockey Club got into the act at Gravesend. Coney Island became the racing capital of the nation.
Prizefighting, someone told McKane, could also be profitable. McKane promptly issued a license permitting the use of a cavernous wooden building, with a seating capacity of 10,000, which came to be known as the Coney Island Athletic Club. But McKane had already overreached himself. For years Brooklyn's ministers had labeled Coney a Sodom-by-the-Sea, and when McKane flagrantly violated election laws—he even hired a goon squad to rough up investigators—he was brought to trial, convicted and sent to Sing Sing. But sport on the island was in full swing. While Tod Sloan amazed horse buffs with his peculiar monkey-on-a-stick style of riding, Promoter Billy Brady wowed fight fans by presenting Tom Sharkey vs. Jim Jeffries (a bout that lasted a grueling 25 rounds, with Jeffries retaining his title). The last big fight, between Jeffries and "Gentleman Jim" Corbett (the latter was defeated) was fought in 1900. Then reform—that killjoy of fun and games—took over. Horse racing on Coney Island was finished. The Horton Act, which had legalized boxing by calling it a "theatrical entertainment," was repealed, and boxing in New York state came to a standstill. It looked as if Coney Island was finished, too.
But not for long, for a man named George Tilyou had his own ideas about Coney Island. It could be, he thought, a great amusement center. In 1897 he built Steeplechase Park, named for a mechanical racecourse consisting of an undulant metal track over which large wooden horses ran on wheels, coasting by gravity and climbing by momentum. It did not carry, perhaps, the same thrill as watching Snapper Garrison ride to the finish on a sweating, live horse, but the public loved it. Tilyou promptly added the Ferris wheel, a Grand Canal, a Trip to the Moon and other rides. Steeplechase became a full-fledged amusement center. But in 1907 a lighted cigarette thrown into a wastepaper basket in an attraction known as the Cave of the Winds ignited a fire, and Steeplechase burned to the ground. The following morning, the enterprising Mr. Tilyou put up a notice:
"I have troubles today that I did not have yesterday; I had troubles yesterday that I have not today. On this site will be erected shortly a better, bigger, greater Steeplechase Park. Admission to the burning ruins—10¢"
Tilyou was as good as his word. A better, bigger, greater Steeplechase Park was erected.
In the meantime, other would-be capitalists were not standing still. In 1903, Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, who were later to build the New York Hippodrome, opened Luna Park, installing the country's first midway and presenting to the public's delighted eye gardens, broad lagoons, extensive towers and minarets over which incandescent lights twinkled.
Coney Island's third great park, Dreamland, threw open its doors one year later. "The park," wrote a journalist, "was a triumph of architectural ingenuity. Elaborate amusement structures with gaudy facades fronted on broad promenades.... A number of new attractions were installed, along with a few that had been pirated from Luna Park. Frank C. Bostock presented his wild animal show.... The Infant Incubator, it was announced, would exhibit newborn infants under the care of a corps of trained nurses.... Wormwood presented his dog and monkey show and the Midget Village had a population of 300 Lilliputians, all housed in a miniature reproduction of old Nuremberg in the 15th century. Coasting through Switzerland was a scenic railway, with sleighs jingling over snow-peaked Alps against a vast panorama.
Naturally, the rivalry among the three parks for the public's favor became frenetic. Hoping to attract crowds to Steeplechase, George Tilyou had an old square-rigged sailing ship beached in front of the entrance. The owners of Luna Park retaliated by announcing that Topsy, an irascible elephant, would be executed before the public. Topsy was led out and fed allegedly poisoned carrots, which she promptly spat out, after which it was announced that she would be electrocuted (an idle threat for whatever publicity it might be worth).
Dreamland Park mulled over the efforts of Steeplechase and Luna, then advised the public via the newspapers that an airplane flight would be launched from the top of the Shoot-the-Chutes. The airplane consisted of a wicker basket with muslin-covered wings hinged to the sides. The wings were operated by a pilot by pulling cords and pushing pedals, no flying experience necessary. A local character known as Dutch Charley was given his wings and installed inside the basket. Then the plane was hauled to the top of the Chutes and suspended by a cord from an outrigger, 50 feet above the surface of the ocean. Charley had been given his instructions by the inventor. He was not to attempt to fly farther than Rockaway the first time out. A short ceremony was held before takeoff. Then Charley was given a signal and he began to pedal furiously. The cord was cut, loosening the plane, which promptly fell into the ocean. Charley was rescued by lifeguards.
As the big amusement parks tried to outdo each other, so did Coney Island's oceanfront hotels, enormous wooden structures with deep sprawling verandas. Most of the hotels had gone up in the late 19th century—the Brighton Beach, which catered to highly respected businessmen and the horsy set; the Manhattan Beach, popular with the cream of New York society; and the Oriental, which rented suites to wealthy families, not only for a weekend, but for the season.
It was not until 1927, a few years after the extension of the subway had made Coney Island "a mecca for the millions," that the Half Moon was built, a hotel 14 stories high, designed in modified Spanish style. The Half Moon specialized in "invigorating saltwater baths, roller chairs in which to glide along the Boardwalk, a spacious sun deck, and delicious food on the Ocean Terrace." Rates started at $3.00 a day. The hotel became popular with politicians (mostly Democrats), vacationing tourists, honeymoon couples and sportsmen. But for those who could translate economic conundrums correctly the "good old days" were already over. First, there was the Depression. Coney Island, along with the rest of the nation, went into a decline. Then World War II broke out and, finally, in 1941 a third event took place that shook the Half Moon to its very foundations at the least. It was the Abe (Kid Twist) Reles affair.
Reles, a Brooklyn gangster, who had agreed to inform on a horrifying bit of Americana called Murder, Inc., headed by the notorious Albert Anastasia, was put into "protective custody" in a five-room suite at the Half Moon. His protectors were five police guards who "looked in" on him every few minutes. But somehow they weren't looking when, early on a chill November morning, Kid Twist Reles reportedly went out of his bedroom window clinging to the end of two bed sheets, which, to do away with technicalities long since forgotten, came undone. His broken body was found on the roof of the hotel's kitchen extension, two floors above the ground. Whether he fell, was pushed or thrown (if so, by whom?) is still an open question. His body, it was discovered, had landed about 20 feet from where it should have landed had he merely fallen. It did seem, said one policeman ruefully, "that he must have had a little help." For weeks the Half Moon Hotel was in the headlines, and people no doubt went to Coney just to gawk, but it was hardly the kind of publicity that encouraged paying clients. Like so much that had sparkled in Coney's past, the last great hotel had lost its glitter. A year later it was being used as a hospital by the Navy and finally, in 1951, was converted into a convalescent home for Brooklyn's aged and infirm.
Throughout its long history Coney Island has been plagued by fires. In 1911 a spectacular blaze leveled 50 amusement spots, including Dreamland, where the fire started when a workman accidentally overturned a pail of pitch. Animals perished horribly, reported the newspapers, but the incubator babies were saved. Dreamland was never rebuilt. In ensuing years no less than half a dozen fires left Coney scorched and scarred, and in 1944 most of Luna Park went up in flames. Today only its name is preserved, in a housing development that stands on the site. Steeplechase, the first and last of the great amusement centers, closed down for good in 1965 "for lack of business," said George Tilyou's heirs. Its famous horses have been sold to an amusement firm in Great Britain, its other rides dismantled, all but the outside framework of the famous Parachute Jump, which still stands high and proud, a lonely-looking oddity surrounded by empty land.
Sideshows were another unforgettable aspect of the old Coney, and they proliferated to the extent that they replaced the broad lagoons, esplanades and tree-lined walks. Barking and spieling and ballyhooing became flamboyant, raucous and artful. "Yes, look well upon this group of savages, ladies and gentlemen! They are the dread Igorots, fierce headhunters from the Philippine Islands! And what you see before you is but a miserable tithe of the vast anthropological, educational, thrilling, and altogether unimaginable sights that will unfold before you as you pass through the Igorot Village!"
The king of the freak shows was Samuel Gumpertz who liked authenticity. "It was 1905," wrote Edo McCullough, "when he whisked them past an astonished immigration official; in the next quarter-century the number of freaks, oddities and outlandish human beings he similarly escorted was to rise above 3,000.... Gumpertz was constantly on the prowl for new grotesques. Five times he went to Asia, with side trips to Java and the Philippines; five times he went to Africa...." There were Zip, the What-Is-It, 19 wild men from Borneo, a succession of bearded ladies and fat ladies. He was inordinately fond of midgets. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you please, step over here and see the world's tiniest people. Note the yardstick—an accurate, an exact, a perfectly calibrated instrument against which to measure the height of these minuscule humans, some of them members of the foreign titled aristocracy! (Step forward, Count, and you, too, Baron, and stand by the yardstick.) Each and every one of these little people, ladies and gentlemen, is a full-grown human being! Thank you, Count. Thank you, Baron."
Coney Island's visitors were goggle-eyed and slack-jawed, but they could always relax at a band concert, attend a theatrical production at Henderson's Music Hall, watch a young fellow named Harry Houdini perform miraculous escapes from impossible fortresses, admire the muscles of Angelo Siciliano, who later changed his name to Charles Atlas. At Feltman's restaurant they might catch a glimpse of Diamond Jim Brady. ("Looking at Diamond Jim," said an oldtimer recently, "was like looking at a lighted chandelier.") At Carey Walsh's cabaret a singing waiter named Eddie Cantor was popular with the tourists. Louis Stauch, who sold filet mignon with all the trimmings for 75¢, hired a thin, wiry young man named Israel Baline to sing to his customers. On his own time, Baline composed music that he later published under the name of Irving Berlin. Also at Carey Walsh's, a long-nosed comic named Jimmy Durante thumped the piano, and later took off for Hollywood, as did a gaunt, hungry, good-looking young man named Archie Leach, who marched around on stilts advertising attractions. On TV late shows he is billed as Cary Grant. Marie Dressier ran a popcorn concession as a publicity stunt. A swarthy roughneck had a job as a bouncer in one of the speakeasies before going on to Chicago, where he went into business of a sort as Al Capone. Mae West's father once pounded a beat on Coney Island.
But in the 1930s New York's new parks' commissioner, Robert Moses, said, "Coney Island is honky-tonk," and promptly tore out the only adequate parking facilities Coney had, installing tennis courts that nobody used. Sideshows, thought the commissioner and other watchbirds of public morality, had gotten out of hand—as indeed they had. With the advent of microphones, the spieling and ballyhoo had become deafening. An ordinance was passed requiring that loudspeakers henceforth be muted, and gradually the gaudy sideshows went the way of the parking lot. Today the comparatively few spiels are generally delivered over toned-down P. A. systems to which few pay attention.
Still they come to Coney, the poor people and others, pouring off the subway, for, whatever else has vanished, the sun, the sea and the sand are the same. And there are other things to see.
I stood on the old Dreamland site, now occupied by the N. Y. Aquarium. Coney Island is determined to rebuild, and the Aquarium is one of the first steps in that direction. Half a million people each year troop past a tank containing Beluga whales, huge white mammals that cavorted in their glassed-in prison with Flipperlike smiles on their bland faces. Nearby, at a tank containing electric eels, it was time for a demonstration.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced a soft voice over a loudspeaker, "as food is thrown to the electric eels you will hear the sound of their discharge. Will the adults please stand back so the little children can see the eels? [The adults looked sheepish and shuffled their feet, but stood where they were.] You will see," continued the voice smoothly, "by the thermometerlike device beside the tank the amount of electric discharge." The meter recorded 660 volts, and over the speaker came a crackling sound.
"If I touch the glass will I get electrocuted?" asked a little boy hopefully.
"Yes," said his mother, dragging him away. The crowd moved on to peer into other tanks containing sand tiger sharks, and into still other tanks, at smaller, brightly hued, exotic varieties of fish.
"The day of just having a menagerie is passé," said Dr. Ross F. Nigrelli, the Aquarium's director. "The public is no longer satisfied just to look at a fish [or an Igorot, for that matter]. People want to know what its role is in the economy of nature, why its life is of value to humans. The fish is important to biological research. After all, we all go through a fish stage, swimming in water and breathing through gills, before we are born." It was a sobering thought, if not a particularly pleasant one.
"Someday," said Dr. Nigrelli, "Coney Island will have the greatest aquarium in the world. Within two years, probably, another unit will be added to this building that will house a whale and dolphin exhibit under stadium lights. We will demonstrate the capabilities and intelligence of these remarkable mammals. Another unit eventually will house the sharks and perhaps another school of fish like the tuna. The sand tiger shark is a very sharky-looking shark. We caught 15 last year right off our own shores. However, in spite of their sharp teeth, they seldom attack. The sand tiger shark in Australia is a man-eater, but not in Brooklyn's waters, for some reason. Of course, occasionally.... There are also whales out there, and we are conducting feasibility studies about where they live,' how they travel and how they can best be caught."
When I got back to the beach I conducted my own feasibility study and decided it was not feasible to go back into the water. I might get a confused shark who didn't know the difference between Australia and Brooklyn. Instead I walked to the end of the pier. Down below, people were beginning to leave the beach. It was getting late. Some of the little sand churners were fast asleep on blankets beside their recumbent parents.
Little boys on the pier were fishing for crabs, dropping wire baskets fastened to long ropes into the water below. There seemed to be plenty of crabs for all. Other fishermen, with poles and live bait, stood patiently in the time-honored manner of fishermen, waiting for a bite. Occasionally someone brought up a fluke. I paused to admire a particularly large specimen, gasping its last on the pier.
"You want it? Haifa dollar," said the fisherman, squinting at me with eyes that seemed to reflect the blue of the sea. I tried to visualize myself transporting a dead fluke on the subway.
"No. Thanks anyway," I said.
"Stick around," invited the fisherman. "When it gets dark, we get striped bass."
In the background I could hear the screams of children riding the Cyclone, Coney's most popular ride.
"Your father could never get me to go on the roller coaster," my mother used to tell me. "What I liked best was the Ferris wheel. The one at Coney Island is the biggest in the world."
Almost everything else had changed, but the Wonder Wheel was still there. I took a ride, then looked up the owner to tell him that my mother and father had ridden his wheel about four decades ago.
Coney Island concessionaires take an almost childish pleasure in pleasing their customers. Many of the concessions are family affairs, having been handed down from father to son. Fred Garms, who owns and runs the Wonder Wheel, is no exception.
"My father built the wheel in 1920," he told me. "It's 150 feet high, weighs 200 tons and has carried over 20 million people. My best day was July 4, 1947. I rode 12,500 people in one day. What do you think of Coney Island?" He didn't wait for an answer, but rushed on. "My mother, who lives in an apartment right here under the wheel, helped paint it when it was built. She's 77 years old. On her day off she likes to go to the racetrack, but mostly she wants to stay near the wheel. My father was 82 when he died." When I managed to get a word in, I commented on his own youthful appearance.
"It's the salt air at Coney, the long hours and hard work. The wheel has kept me young. We have a saying out here that once you get the Coney Island sand in your shoes you never get it out. How do you like Coney Island?"
"Fine," I said.
"I'm not surprised," said Mr. Garms. "We have the best of everything at Coney Island—the best fishing, the best swimming, the best sand, the best and safest rides. They're putting up a Convention Hall and an indoor skating rink. Before long, if things go right, we'll have the year-round swimming pools, restaurants that look out over the ocean like in the old days, community and puppet theaters, maybe even a new marina, so that boats can tie up the way they used to. How does it sound?"
"Fine," I said.
"We've had the highest class and the lowest class of people at Coney Island. The important thing is that people can live together, all mixed up, and it makes no never mind. We have the longest and the widest boardwalk, and we have the best beach, because there's no undertow. Did you know that?" I shook my head. "We have the Atlantic Ocean, but no undertow, which means no drownings. We have the best police protection. We have more fish than most places in the world. July and August we're so busy it's murder! Weekends in June are fabulous. We have the best sanitation department. This place is spotless by 11 a.m. every morning. Our beach is cleaner than it ever was. They used to say our water was polluted. No more. New York City is to be congratulated. People need Coney Island. It's an outlet. People come by the busloads from as far away as Boston. On a hot Saturday night you'll find about 3,000 people sleeping on the beach. It beats an air-conditioned hotel. Sometimes the gypsies get out there and hold their rites—guitars, dancing. It's a pretty good show. At Coney everyone lets himself go, has a ball. Would you like another ride on the wheel? How about Spook-A-Rama? We've added Batman."
In Spook-A-Rama, which was pitch-dark, there was hideous laughter, skeletons rose up from coffins, something spidery crossed my face.
"Were you scared?" demanded Mr. Garms, when I got out of the cart.
"Shivering in my boots," I said. I complimented him on the lifelike appearance of Batman.
"We like to keep up with the times," said Mr. Garms modestly.
Before I went back to Playland, where my purple dog was still sitting on a shelf, waiting to be won, I filled up on clams, corn on the cob, knishes, french fries and Coca-Cola. It was dark when I finished, and lights twinkling from the rides, glancing off the water, were transforming Coney Island into an illuminated fairyland.
"Back again?" asked the good-natured heavyset money changer at Playland, jingling the coins in the capacious pockets of a canvas apron. The place was jumping, and I had to wait for a chance at most of the games.
"If you play that poker game again," he said, converting a dollar into a handful of dimes, "try rolling the ball very slowly along the edge of the board. That's the way to come up with five of a kind. We have people come out here got it down to a science." I didn't have much luck with poker, and my ball-rolling lacked control, but an hour later I was almost an expert at Skee Ball and Bingo-Reno. I turned in my tickets and collected the dog. It might have been worth $1.95 at the outside, and it had cost only $6 to win it. It was better than carrying a dead fluke home by the tail.
I fell asleep on the subway. At home I could still taste salt on my lips, and after I had taken a shower there were still a few grains of sand sticking to my feet.