How Do You Get to Coney Island?

As a little kid, I remember watching a 1953 classic, The Little Fugitive, and being so uncontrollably jealous of the main character, a kid who gets to live in Coney Island for a day.  The movie saw a kid, who can’t be older than eight or nine, “murder” his older brother when he shoots him with a cork gun. To “escape” from the police, the Little Fugitive runs away to Coney Island and lives under the pier. It seemed like paradise to me! The Cyclone and Parachute Jump! The Boardwalk! Nathan’s Hot Dogs! It was everything I had ever hoped and dreamed of. Yet there I was, a country bumpkin wasting away in a verdant hell.

Since then, I’ve moved to the city from where I grew up in northwestern Massachusetts. I’ve adopted a city-slicker mindset, taking advantage of the urban jungle. I can’t help but feel, though, that I’ve taken advantage of the city a bit too much and that I’ve run out of things to do. Yankees, Rangers, the Zoo: been there, done that. And yet, after seeing what there is to see in the City, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t gone to Coney Island. I had to rectify this immediately of course, so a little while ago, I did what needed to be done. “Ma! Pa! I’m heading out for the day. I need to go ride The Cyclone,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” Dad replied. “Are you planning on going with anyone?”

“No,” I answered.

“Well, you can’t go!”

“Why?”

“You’ll be stabbed by the Russians and be stolen by a pimp, that’s why!” Russians and pimps? I had never heard such malarky. There weren’t any pimps in The Little Fugitive. I was going to Coney Island, not Rikers Island.

“To hell with the Russians and the pimps, I’m riding The Cyclone whether he likes it or not,” I thought as I walked out the door and to the Q. End of the line. I’d never been that far on the train. I felt like an explorer embarking on a brave journey to some strange and foreign land. A land in which the subway is aboveground. I found a place on the train. It was the back right seat in the furthest back car. As the train moved from station to station, people came and people left. The world outside of the train was blurred, only coming into focus briefly at stops. The world was moving around me, unrelenting and rapid. I remained a constant in my seat, waiting as I was shuttled towards the edge.

Thoughts of Dad’s version of Coney Island slowly crept into my mind. Perhaps Coney Island was what he said it was. Was I going to be stabbed and left for dead in some godforsaken alleyway? Perhaps. I didn’t really mind. I was on a mission. Stops passed one after another, until finally the train pulled into its final stop.

The Coney Island station looked like any other. It reeked of the seventies: beige tiling, dilapidated escalators, the works. The one thing that separated this station from every other was that there was an empty lifeguard chair sitting in the center of the station’s lobby. Outside the station, rain fell unrelentingly from the dark grey sky. The wind was sharp and brisk. It was far from my imagined picturesque sunny day but, as far as I was concerned, Coney Island’s magic lay in its attractions, not the weather. 

It was eerily quiet. As I walked through the various sidestreets of the amusement park there wasn’t a soul in sight. Having Coney Island to myself had been a dream of mine for as long as I could remember. This though, this was different. There was a gloom to it all. Shops were boarded up, gates were locked. Down an alleyway, in front of the fence to the park, I saw a man with an umbrella looking around. He was the only person in sight, so I thought it would be a good idea to speak with him. As I was walking, a white van pulled up next to him. Out of its window a man leaned out and exchanged goods with the man on the street. It didn’t seem appropriate to interview the man on the street after that. He likely was busy at the moment, so I continued on my way.

Much like the exterior of the park, the interior was empty. The only people there were the workers. They looked lifeless, like zombies. They glared at me with disdain as I passed. I walked up to two or three of the games. Every time I asked to play, the attendant told me, “You need to pay.” Music boomed from the park speakers as I drifted from stall to stall, and every stall had an attendant. There were people in the ticket booths. What was the park waiting for? It certainly didn’t seem like they were hoping for visitors. They may have been waiting, but I certainly wasn’t going to wait. I had to ride The Cyclone. I was so close.

 I could see the splintering on each of the century-old beams. I could almost hear the ricketiness of the coaster and the screams of excitement of the generations of thrill-seekers who had come before me. No line, no worries! I strutted up to the attendant like I was Mr. Monopoly, king of the world. I didn’t care how much I had to pay to ride, I had come all this way, I wasn’t about to let my odyssey out here be for nothing.

“It’s not open,” the attendant said. “Why are you here?”

I didn’t have an answer for him. I turned and walked away. I stepped out of the gates of the amusement park and left the rides behind me. As I stepped onto the boardwalk, I looked both ways, as if I was checking for a car trying to hit me, but no, there was nothing. An empty boardwalk and an empty beach. Out in the distance I saw the pier, the Little Fugitive’s home. I made my way along the beach, heading towards the pier to pay the Fugitive a visit. The sand sank beneath my feet with every step I took, and to my left waves crashed. After an exceptionally large wave had come down and soaked my feet, I turned towards it to give it a piece of my mind, but all I saw was the ocean. Vast and blue, no end in sight. It really was the edge of the world. What was out there beyond the horizon? Medieval kingdoms? The mighty Sahara? Infinite possibilities lay out there, places to explore, people to meet. What did the Dutch and the English see when they came? A beach and a forest. Not some dumpy amusement park run by gangsters and pimps. I kicked up some sand, only for it to be blown back against me. I turned towards the park and was hit with an immeasurable sense of awe. The dazzling lights shone brightly along the rides, and the music! Oh the music! It cut through the doom and gloom of today and showed me what it used to be, back in the twenties, back in the fifties. Back when the playground for the rich and famous still needed an actual playground. Rising high above everything else stood Parachute Jump. Where people used to float down slowly from the top like leaves on a fall day. Now it was decrepit and rusty, defunct and abandoned by time, but even Priam’s great citadel had to fall. It was only a matter of time.

As I got to the pier, I saw someone under it. They were lying face down in the sand. Was that person alive? I don’t know, I didn’t care to find out. In the sixty-seven years since the Fugitive ran away to Coney Island, the place has changed. Is it for the better? Something is happening here and I don’t know what it is. I had enough Coney Island for one day, but I needed to grab some lunch first.

I went into Nathan’s and ordered a burger.

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