This past Saturday, I visited Coney Island for what will probably be the last time until Spring comes around again. The end of summer means the end of summer places, and let’s face it – Labor Day is the end of summer, no matter what the calendar says.
My original plan was to set my alarm and get up at 6:30, so I could arrive very early, when there would be few people. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. After sitting at home all week to let people in for repairs, I had to sit at home for a few more hours to let someone in for repairs. I was…upset.
Nothing about Coney was easy this weekend. But that seems right somehow. I didn’t go to Coney Island this weekend for fun. I went to get a workout that’s more interesting than 45 minutes on the treadmill, and I went to reconnect.
I got the workout. I walked what I think of as “my circuit” twice – that is to say, I got on Riegelmann Boardwalk at Stillwell Ave., walked to the East end, walked down to the surf, walked along the water to the West end, got back on the Boardwalk, and walked back to Stillwell. Twice. If I’d just walked back and forth on the Boardwalk, it would have been ten miles, but counting the walk along the water, it was probably more like eleven or even twelve.
As for what I mean by “reconnect”…well, I’ve said it before, and nothing has changed since then:
I love beaches. Any beach. They’re very elemental places. You can’t put your feet where the Earth, Wind and Water come together and think about bullshit. Dreams and fantasies, yes, especially those, but never bullshit.
A beach is the only place on a round planet that you can go to the end of the world and look over the edge.
I have said these things before, maybe on this very blog, and I’m going to keep saying them, because they’re part of my truth. Sometimes I think I’m like Antaeus, and I need to draw my strength from the Earth, but unlike Antaeus, there are only a few places I can do that. My parents’ home is one. My college is another. Then there are the beaches. I go to Coney not just to cool off and eat greasy food, but to draw strength.
When I walk along the beach, I’m able to leave the day-to-day worries back inland, look out at the open water, and think of the big things.
But as I was walking this time, it occurred to me that there might be more to it than even that. When I walk in the water, Coney Island is elemental. When I walk the boardwalk, Coney Island is its own little world of bright colors, joyous noises, and neon history.
I smile at the bright lights of the amusement parks and the carnie charm of Paul’s Daughter:
Sometimes I stop for ice cream at the refreshment stand off the Boardwalk, like I used to stop at the Country Store when I was a kid:
I set my iPod to place songs about the beach and being young – not songs from my youth, necessarily, but songs about being young:
(Here’s the video for that last one – I would have included only the video, but the sound quality is a little off)
And of course:
(Plus someone else’s brilliant YouTube version, which seems appropriate to the moment, with its setting and its celebration of young love)
As I do these things, I dream of what it would have been to grow up in a beachside neighborhood. Hot summer days spent swimming, watching night roll in over the ocean during the cool twilight of fall, playing games in the arcades around the Coney Island amusement parks. Walking the boardwalk on a hot summer night with my girl, kissing under a street lamp, looking out at the moonlit ocean together from the pier.
(Theoretically, we could do this today, but Red Molly and I live at the wrong end of town. Nothing kills the romance of a walk along the beach like getting home at midnight after a two-hour subway ride.)
Then I talk to my friends who’ve lived in Brooklyn their whole lives, and I learn that it wouldn’t have been like that. Coney Island’s heyday as the playground of America was eighty years ago. In the Nineties, when all of these fantasies would have had to happen, Coney was a dingy, rundown pit. Diapers and hypodermic needles floating in the surf. A detox clinic across from Nathan’s Famous, where the It’s Sugar candy store is now. A walk on the beach or the boardwalk with my girl at night might well have resulted in a mugging.
So when I walk the Boardwalk, and I think about youth and hot summer nights and the Boardwalk and the beach, I’m not imagining the truth. Not even close. Instead, I’m walking through the dream of Coney Island, a dream made of a thousand summer songs and beach movies.
And you know what? I’m okay with that. Just as it is with the land of American Rock and Roll, the dream of Coney Island is a place I need to go. What is my job, if not to go into dreams and bring something back?
I think there’s a story in that.