Monday, June 23, 2008
And on the summer solstice, the mermaids - they came to us...
Summer is finally upon us, by way of solstice. And with it came that most magical of events: the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. On this glorious day, all manner of magical sea beasts assemble on the streets of that briny carnival town and perform in a most delightful display of color, fin, and tentacle.
Saturday was our little group's second annual outing to the parade, and we're beginning to believe that everything is always magical on that particular peninsula. The sun shines, the wind blows just enough, the few clouds are picture perfect, and everyone is happy. Our first trip, last year, set the trend, and this year fixed the picture in our minds for good. These visits feel like stepping into a charming, nostalgic memory - except infinitely better than any memory could be.
Last year, of course, we were afraid that it would be our first and last visit, and certainly our only chance to ever see the parade. (Last year I also forgot my camera, which I was pretty darn upset about.) A real estate giant called Thor Equities has bought up much of the tourist area, including Astroland, and even with their "revised" plans it seems that they intend to reduce the amusement park footprint from its current 61 acres down to a paltry 9. They want to build condos, of course. What else? Oh yes, and malls. There has been such an outcry that plans keep changing, and this year the parade and parks have continued unmolested. It seems only to be a clam before a storm, though... but we'll talk more about that later.
Right now, what you want to hear about is mermaids. Big ones and small ones, girl ones and boy ones, old ones and young ones, white ones and black ones and blue ones and purple ones and orange ones... and Aquaman. And jellyfish. And other fish. And mysterious sea monsters from the deep. And aquatic thingymagigs of unknown origin and indescribable morphology. The variety is truly stunning - both in the creativity and diversity of the costumes, and in the range of people that this event draws out.
There are of course plenty of mermaids, and even within them there is a huge diversity. There are mermaids that have been enchanted to have human legs but are still dreaming of the sea, mermaids hopping about struggling with tails, mermaids coyly enjoying a landlocked cocktail and cigarette, mermaids proudly displaying shoreside booty in the form of prize teddy bears, goldenrod southern belle mermaids patiently waiting for their beaus. One particular mergirlie is just on the verge - to give birth to a little one named, of all things, Noah. There are topsiders celebrating the tropics - whole gangs of Carmen Mirandas, for instance. There is the older gentleman with an inclination toward heavily skirted evening dress, whose cocotiel is never so happy as when it is perched upon his helmeted head. He's been spotted in Queens. There are men of gold, and there are men of silver. And oh, the jellyfish, how I do love the jellyfish! But then invertebrates have always been a soft spot of mine.
The backdrop for this spectacular showcase is of course Coney Island itself, or at least the amusement district so known and loved throughout the world. About 60,000 people do actually live and work in Coney Island as well, though these genuine neighborhoods are not what's generally thought of when the name is spoken. The amusement district today is made up of four separate parks: Astroland, Deno's Wonder Wheel amusement park, 12th Street Amusements, and Kidde Park. There are other amusements scattered here and there, like the bumper cars on Surf Avenue and Shoot The Freak on the boardwalk.
Me, I'm not good with rides. For one I'm a chicken, and for two I'm not good with sun, jerky movements, or moving backwards or upside down. This puts roller coasters right out of the question. Last year I eyeballed several of the smaller, less intimidating rides, but we didn't end up partaking. This year though, Jonathan and I got down early when crowds were small. We needed a restroom, of course, and found the pay toilet (see sign), which just happens to be next to the Wonder Wheel. With a wait of less than five minutes, we thought what the heck?
It was totally worth it. Not only is it a historical landmark, and not only does it provide amazing views of the rides and the beach, but it also gives quite a thrill - being that high up and yet unenclosed is just kind of insane. First you come up the back, so you have the whole wheel between you and the open air in front. That's not so bad. But then you have this moment of realization as you near the top that you're going to come down the front, and there's nothing, but nothing in front of you save this thin metal mesh. Yes, for such a simple ride, I did kind of freak out, which Jonathan will happily tell you all about. But don't let him fool you. I enjoyed myself immensely, and no matter what I was saying I was smiling the whole time. After that, we watched the parade, went to the museum, met up with our best friends, and had a truly wonderful day - as did several thousand other people around us from all walks of life.
Since it's accessible by subway - that's how we got there - Coney is truly something that everyone can enjoy. The rides in the parks cost the big bucks - up to $6 a ride for the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel, but it's absolutely free to watch the parade, wander through the streets and parks, walk the boardwalk and the pier, and frolic on the sandy beaches. Bring a bottle of water and a picnic lunch, and you've got yourself a day-long beachside spectacle for the cost of a roundtrip subway ride - that is, four bucks. Not bad for a day out in New York. Toss in one more dollar and you can visit the Coney Island Museum. It isn't big or fancy, but it houses some stunning artifacts from amusing days past, including bumper cars, silly mirrors, lots of classic old signs, a hand carved carousel horse, and a very knowledgeable curator.
About the people who call Coney Island home. These are real people, working people. All kinds of people. And even on Mermaid Parade day they come out on the boardwalk, out on the pier, just like they would otherwise. Some take advantage of the opportunity, selling waters and cokes, and beers hidden underneath the first two. Some come out to be festive, play bongos and dance and shake maracas. And some just come out to fish and throw out crab traps, to show their children how, to find some dinner. There's also the huge Russian community, their own demographic, largely concentrated in the adjacent Brighton Beach. We were fortunate enough to get a little taste of their world at dinner...
On Saturday, Russia beat the Neatherlands in the Euro Cup. Do I know this because I'm such an enormous sports fan? Um, no. I know this because of the chanting, hectic gang of young Russian twenty-somethings that were hanging out on the boardwalk immediately next to the outdoor seating area of the Winter Garden Restaurant in Brighton Beach, where we decided to have dinner. These boys were seriously excited, and they showed their excitement with cheering... and vodka. As for the restaurant, it was a fascinating experience. They had a minimum charge and added a 10% gratuity to every check. Despite this indicator of fancy-pantcy-ness, the service was terrible and ludicrous slow. While we were literally in the middle of ordering we were told we'd have to move tables. We only got three water glasses for four of us, and one of the beers came in a cracked mug, which we discovered when its owner pulled glass out of his finger. But you know what? The food was delicious and we had a great time. Everything's crazy at the beach, man.
OK, now about that ugliness. Not for the first time, people with big googling dollar signs in their eyes want to change the face of Coney Island, to take it away from everyman and make it only for the elite. They want to do what's been done in so many other places; Times Square, for instance, or Chinatown in Washington D.C. All in the interest of "progress", of course - progress in the form of their own bank accounts and stock portfolios, but who's being picky. And the result of all this progress for the rest of us? We'll go to Coney and find a pitiful few remnants of the joy has been there for well over a hundred years in some form or another. The prices will be higher and you'll get less. The views will be of condos instead of beaches, and the restaurants will be Applebee's instead of locally owned places. Instead of a vibrant, gritty, real place with history and soul, it will become a Disney-fide and plastic facade.
And now you're like, total bummer! Why is this chick telling me all this depressing stuff when I can't do anything about it? Well guess what? You can! (Come on, you knew that was coming.) The Save Coney Island Coalition is all over it. Go to myspace.com/saveconeyisland and be their myspace friends to learn about exactly what's going on down there. Go to coneyisland.com and become a supporting member - while you're there, check out all the cool stuff that goes on even off season, like the film festival! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get updates on petitions, protests, and other goings on. Go to the public meeting tomorrow night, 6pm at Lincoln High School, 2800 Ocean Parkway and speak out, or if you can't make it in person send your written thoughts on the matter to before July 11 to Rachel Belsky - email@example.com. If you live here in New York, or even if you don't, you can bug Mayor Bloomberg about it - City Hall, New York, 10007; (212) 639-9675; fax (212) 788-2460. You've got a voice, dontcha? No one will know that you care if you don't use it.
I'm not from New York. I didn't grow up spending long summer days at Coney; I don't have fond childhood memories of balloon races and cotton candy and carousels. But I can see when a place has magic, when a place is loved, when a place is infinitely more valuable than any price tag that can be put upon its real estate. The world needs Coney Island just as much as Coney Island needs the world. We need the Cyclone, we need Nathan's, we need the boardwalk and the freak show and the Wonder Wheel. Too much has already been lost to greed and some ridiculous concept of "progress" at all cost. Coney Island cannot be one for the history books. It should be, must be, the place where our kids take their kids some perfect sunny Saturday, to watch mermaids rise up out of the ocean and parade along Surf Avenue, hand in hand with the jellyfish.
I took a lot of pictures this Saturday, but this one is my very favorite. We were sitting on the boardwalk, toward eveningtime, and down the way we saw what appeared to be a middle aged man shimmying into a spangly purple dress. A few moments later, he came a-strolling by...