Aug 21, 2011
NYC notes, #3: The Carnie Glory of Coney Island
July 11: I wanted to go there & write Ferlinghetti-style odes on picture postcards to every strange little nook of life I saw amid the screaming neon marquee madness, but we ended up just spending a day at the beach instead. While my friends were in the water, I sat in the sand and watched families unpack their lunches, couples stretched out on towels, stubby old men peddling mangoes across the sand... and one beautiful Mexican/Hispanic/Italian/who-knows man with spiky black hair and a tattoo of the Madonna spread all down his back, rays shooting out from her pliant robed loveliness and pinging off his pointed shoulder-blades.
Coney Island is a huge carnival, in a perpetual state of Fourth of July, tinged with a forbidden fading despair that reeks of gypsy carnival. I was enchanted by everything I saw – just the spread of colors and lights and explosions of life when you turn to look back down the beach is enough to melt the heart of any Americana romantic (which I am, undoubtedly). We played in a dingy arcade, ring-tossed, browsed cheap sunglasses & hair-clips & Chinese groceries. Dinner at a buffet beneath the rattling train-tracks.
Mostly to say that I did, I got a psychic palm-reading from an overflowingly large woman leaning back in her lawn-chair along the boardwalk, her huge brown serious scam eyes globbing meaning onto mine. She told me a lot of easily applicable things in a musky foreign accent, such as: I have something holding me back from my cherished future, I have gone to psychics before but they never helped (false), that I need to avoid romantic relationships because they had been disastrous recently. So, she basically listed all of the reasons that someone would ever go to a psychic, seeking answers to their life’s little struggles on the wayside of Coney Island's mystical, reality-defying carnival atmosphere. The most amazing thing was how seamlessly she launched into her sales schpele. Mid-sentence, without changing the cadence or tone of her voice while she was looking into my eyes and telling me about my life, she said, “Now why won’t you let me help you by buying this crystal that will help to balance your chakaras?”
I thought that freakshows had been outlawed, but right next to the fortune-teller there was a man in suspenders & gray whiskers on a soapbox selling tickets to Coney Island’s very own home-grown freakshow, The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, only five dollars. The audience is squashed into rows of soft, old wooden bleachers in a dim-lit theater (atmosphere of intrigue... the venue also doubles as a late-nite burlesque). The MC, Insectavora, was a woman in long, banshee-black dreadlocks, thoroughly tattooed, the right side of her face marbled into a Mayan ruin. She closed out the show with a breathtakingly beautiful fire twirler-swallower-spitter-flinger act. I saw her reared back with a flame curling out bright-yellow from between her kissing lips, a torch held in each hand. She was also scheduled to appear in the burlesque show later that night. Around 11 pm that night I saw her walking down the street, talking to friends she passed in doorways, looking like Amy Winehouse in a black tank-top & her black dreadlocks piled high.
There was the Illustrated Penguin, a little man with hands but no arms, who drove a screwdriver into his nose – a trick called the Back-Alley Brain Surgeon. There was a buxom bondaged woman who danced with a pale-gold python (Serpentina), a Southern woman who escaped from a straightjacket with much sighing and laughing to the audience, a burly man who lifted weights with his earlobes and bottom eyelids. Screaming kids, squirming women, awestruck men. An old, old piano kept dusty vaudeville vigil over the show from the back wall.
After walking around until dark in the vast human carnival, through the old and new sections of rides and games, we rode the famous 90-year-old Cyclone roller-coaster. The whole thing is made of rattling white wood, and feels like it's threatening to collapse at every moment. The riding arc caught the milky half-moon glowing at the very cusp of the first drop before we all went down screaming and clenching our teeth. I was in the last car, with the most bone-scraping neck-cracking whiplash. Staggered off dazed, violated, happy & dripping with adrenaline.