Tuesday, October 10, 2006


There was no way that my mother was going to get me to go on to the boardwalk. No way at all. At four I was a stubborn little boy, and even though it was hot and humid I was not going to go on that long wooden thing that seemed to go on forever. “You’ll feel cooler there and we can go by the water” My mother pleaded. “No no no” I screamed and started to cry. It was the summer of 1951 and my mother had taken my sister and me to Coney Island for a day of sun and fun. But the strange loud music and the people walking back and forth on that endless wooden walkway were scaring me. I started to cry, as my mother tried pulling me up the wooden ramp. My sister her mouth full of custard started to laugh at me and a crowd started to form. They also thought it was a hoot. “Why he’s just a little scaredy cat” one old man said. “Let the boy be” a mother holding her own little boy’s hand said. Now it wasn’t like I’d never been to the beach before. I have lots of photos of me as an infant taking in the noon day sun, but what did I know back then. Now at 4 years old I found the loud crazy syncopated music and that horrible mechanical maniacal laughter that was coming from some sideshow attraction on the boardwalk really frightening. Finally I guess my mother gave up and back home we went. I would a few years later return time and time again to the fading somewhat dilapidated once glorious play land by the ocean. Mostly I would go to Coney with my slow witted Uncle Natie who would take me to Steeplechase Park where I would spend hours in this weird early 20th century playground that was limping wounded into the mid 20th century. Coney Island was only 10 subway stations away from my house in Borough Park Brooklyn. Never a great fan of Coney Island itself I did love Steeplechase with its wooden rides that were brightly painted every season in the reds, blues, greens and yellows that I loved. The paint that they used was glossy and thick from the many coats applied over the long years that the park had been in operation Years later in 1981 I would name one of my open shelf piece sculptures after the park. George C. Tilyou’s horrible looking face loomed over us on the massive glass wall facades that faced the beach and Surf Ave, and in the early 50’s Coney Island still had some charm and life and most of the rides and attractions were still in place. It hadn’t become the desolate and somewhat dangerous place that it would become in the 60’s and 70’s. In Steeplechase that relic of Victorian entertainment for the masses I would love to walk around the grounds and inside the huge pavilion. It was so cool inside with all the voices echoing back and forth off the mile high walls. The great slide and the mechanical racehorses were my favorite rides, and I would drag my poor simple uncle onto the horses that now appear to me to have been dangerous and more frightening than in memory. These were wooden horses that I think were the original ones from the early years of Steeplechase and they would circle the park on a metal track roller coaster. There was nothing to hold one in and you would hold on for dear life to the person in front of you as you raced down and up the iron rails screaming your head off. After you got off you found yourself in an open arena called the blow-hole theatre where clowns smacked your ass with paddles and an underground wind would rush up and raise the dresses of the women all to screaming laughter from the audience that sat around in an amphitheater like setting. Some fun and all for only $1.00. Sometimes my brother would take me to the Washington Baths, which was built in 1933 and was a large indoor pool. It was there in the steam room that I saw my first adult naked men all sweaty and steamy and soaped up. Sometimes for reasons I still can’t understand my mother would let my sister at age 13 take me along with her and her friends to Coney without any adult supervision. We would ride the hot crowded subway passing through the stinky polluted Coney Island Creek that was full of funky junk and small wrecked abandoned wooden boats that had seen much better days, and we knew we were close to the Island. The hordes would leave the subway at the last stop which was the dark, dank and cavernous Stillwell Ave Station and we would immediately be hit by the wonderful and not so wonderful smells of cotton candy, popcorn, suntan lotion, sweat and salt water as we made our way out of the dark into the bright hot sunlight of Stillwell and Surf Avenue. It was here that my sister lost me. Somehow (I sometimes think on purpose) we became separated and I found myself in front of the World In Wax Musee which was right next door to the subway station and before I knew it I was deep inside that dark and spooky place that was filled with large exhibits and life size tableaus of life like wax figures doing horrible things to each other. Some depicted recent murders mostly of women that had been reported in the local tabloid press and were quickly illustrated for the thrill crazy viewers and others were more historical in nature. But all were fierce, grisly and nightmarish and I stood there with my eyes popping out of my head, and my mouth wide open. I slowly moved from one exhibit to the other when I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. I screamed. It was some young guy who worked there and he asked me what I was doing here all alone. I told him I was lost and was looking for my sister. Nice guy that he was he led me out the way I came in, and there standing in front of the musee in the bright sunlight was my sister looking scared and nicely worried. When she saw me, she gave me a smile but then took it back and let me have it. “Promise me” she asked “that you won’t tell mommy what happen and I’ll take you across the street to Nathan’s and buy you a hot dog and a coke.” “Ok I said but I also want French fries.” She took my hand and we crossed the large avenue on our way to hot dog heaven. I would return many times to that horrible place both in reality and in my nightmares and stare at the bloody still murder scenes and sometimes worry that someday I would see my mother and father in one of the exhibits. I couldn’t decide who would be murdering whom.

A note on the illustrations used in this post. From the top
Double exposure photo of my mother and me on the beach at Coney Island
My 1981 sculpture "Steeplechase." (Wish it was in color)
Old postcard of the racehorse ride
Steeplechase montage
Me and My uncle Natie at Coney Island
Me in front of Steeplechase
Steeplechase at night
Me again on the beach at Coney Island


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