29 February, 2012

A Baboon in New York, Part 3: Coney Island Blues

[Apologies for the lateness of this post. Slowed down some by this bug I caught in Norfolk and delayed by the absence of WiFi on the train. Expect my Boston update: The Beantown Massacre tomorrow. I have some catching up to do. -Mick]

“I am waiting for the war to be fought 
which will make the world safe for anarchy” 
                                       ― Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind

(My friend Steve on the pier at Coney Island.)
I couldn't end my time in New York without going to Coney Island. But except for the day I spent with my friend Susan in Lower Manhattan, the weather was rainy and on the chilly side. And yes, I KNOW it's been a mild winter, more or less -- at least, every place I've been on this leg of the trip; and I KNOW, it could be a whole lot worse.

But you also have to keep in mind that cities, other being places where a lot of people can live on top of one another in a geographic location that can really only sustain a quarter or less of the population currently existing there, are also amazing wind tunnels.

It was Friday when I went, with my friend and other host Steve, to Coney Island. I had sort of an idea what it was like, based on descriptions. It's one of those places I've always wanted to see -- at least since I first read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's  collection of poems entitled A Coney Island of the Mind. I didn't quite know what to expect off season. I knew the rides would be closed; I was sort of hoping that the freak shows and the burlesque would still be open.

I know, I know. The world is a freak show, and why go to a burlesque when there's internet porn? Because there's something a scantily clad woman hiding behind large feathers that's just Sexy Awesome.

That's right. Sexy Awesome. There's an artfulness and a playfulness, to it. A sort of intimacy that's more satisfying. And yes, it's a fake intimacy. It's a show. An act. So is going to strip club. (You do know, don't you, that the girls don't REALLY like you, right? They're being nice so you'll tip them. Like the cute bartender in the low cut blouse who talks you up. It's business. You know... like marriage.


This is Dannie Diesel, Aka Danielle Colby Cushman of American Pickers  fame. This is  what real burlesque looks like.

This is the bunnygator. One of the acts I missed because the show was closed for the season. :(

The train ride from Queens to Coney Island was a little over an hour. There's something soothing about the rocking and sounds of trains... even subway and commuter rail... so Steve and I both ended up falling asleep. Every once in a while the jolt from a stop or a start would wake me; but that never lasted long. It's nice to be able to drop off and catch a short nap; that's one the things I like about public transit. (It helps that I can sleep just about anywhere, including sitting straight up. I can also roll my tongue and bend my fingers back. Oh yes, Ladies, I am a CATCH!) And every time I opened my eyes, there were fewer and fewer people on the train with us.

Eventually, the train went from underground to on elevated tracks. We were in Brooklyn, and fast approaching Coney Island. Mythic places have always fascinated me... everything from Stonehenge to the Georgia Guide Stones, from the painted desert to that big ball of twine, from the St. Louis Basilica in New Orleans and the graveyard where Marie Laveau and Dr. John are buried to the places that are only sacred to me: Menifee County, my father's grave.

Coney Island is one of those places that, for good or bad, and probably mostly bad, has always had mythic resonance. It's magic. It's camp. It's kitsch. It's crass. It's classless. It's beautiful and gaudy and bawdy;  it's right on the Atlantic Ocean, a body of water I hope to someday cross and go to Europe. Choppy winter waves like the ones I've seen in Norfolk's Chesapeake bay, and the Hudson River in New York have seemed an appropriate metaphor for the things I'm experiencing, the changes in my life. Choppy, but steady. Consistent, but with multiple and dangerous under and cross currents I have to maneuver. And since I am, first and foremost,  a poet, I can't resist an apt metaphor.

The ocean wind was cold and it was spitting rain, which made it difficult to see. The first thing we did was go to the Nathan's Hot Dog Stand, which was one of the few things not associated with the train terminal that was actually open. Coney Island off season is on the desolate side; a few locals who came out to crowd the hot dog stand, there was no one around.

My primary reason for going to Nathan's was that I was told, quite specifically, that I need to go to Nathan's and eat a hot dog. I confess that one hot dog more or less tastes like another to me... except for veggie dogs and turkey dogs which, even buried under multiple layers of chili, onion and peppers, kraut, ketchup, mustard, and cheese, still taste like shit and should be removed from the pantheon. All beef dogs are better. Nathan's are -- technically -- kosher, which means they are prepared under the strict rules of Koshrut Law.

(Which, as far as I can tell, means nothing for hot dogs. I mean, chicken beak and rat turds are still chicken beak and rat turds  regardless of how they're prepared... right?)

All in all, it was a good hot dog. It's not something I'd write to people and tell them they HAVE to go and do... but... well... maybe the adverse weather conditions were affecting my palette. 

After I finished my chili dog, fries, and beer, Steve and I walked down so I could take a look at the Atlantic Ocean. Except for three people who were huddled under the shelter leading to the beach from the street, there was no one around. I took some pictures, stared out at the waves. A significant part of this trip has been about learning to let go, and there's something about the rhythm of ocean waves that helps me do that. I stood there, making small talk with Steve about the ocean and the water and how soothing it is to me, about how the waves of the Atlantic crashing up on the deserted beach reminded me of the waves of Chesapeake Bay behind the cheap ass motel I stayed in while visiting Stella in Norfolk.

Staring out at the waves, I thought again about how I have come to one of those places that feels like the end of the world, if only to release the stress and pain and sense of failure that had been building up in me over the years and over the weeks. 10 years, I thought. 10 years is a long time to wear on a person. 

10 years is a long time to be together, To live together. To experience life together. It's not as long as some marriages last; but I've seen a lot of people who just coast through their lives hoping they'll make it to the end as quietly as possible. But really, depending on how you live, a lot of life can happen in 10 years, depending on how you lived. And, if nothing else, I know Melissa and I lived a lot. We moved around a lot. We started over a lot. Started from almost nothing a lot. Maybe we didn't last; but we lived more than a lot of people do. It was a full decade.

Catch and release. Staring out at the winter ocean, that phrase echoed with the crash of the waves. Catch and release. If we treated the important moments in our lives that way -- understand that each moment, or series of moments, is only ours for a short time and that at some point, we have to learn to let go... not just for our sake, for the sake of the other people with whom we share those moments,and for the sacredness of those moments themselves, then learning how to move forward becomes less about actually moving forward and than it is understanding how to begin again. Because sometimes, there is no moving forward. 

Sometimes, you simply stand in the same place and cast out a new line. Because the universe is vast and life is as vast as we allow it to be.

After letting the ocean spit on us for a few minutes, I asked Steve, who was standing there, patient as always, if he would care to go down to the pier. He agreed. As we turned to leave, one of the three people I spied in my periphery asked me for a quarter.

Now, I'm almost always good for it if I have it. And as I've stated before, I don't really care whether people tell me the truth; whether they really need a dollar for bus fare, for whether they need it to buy a bottle or a few rocks, or some food -- doesn't matter to me. Humanity shouldn't need a reason or justification. 

But I don't like being threatened. And there was something about this guy, this kid, really, he couldn't have been older than 17 or 18, half standing in a shadow, his entire frame ready to jump. He already had one black eye. He looked like he didn't care if he got another, even if all he got out of it was a nickel. And there were his two friends, who were hiding back in the shadows, quietly. 

I'd seen this approach before. It's one that works based on fear. It's not much different than being mugged, really. And while I knew I could put up a fight if I had to, I didn't really want to. This is one of those moments when you have to DECIDE to be a pacifist. It's a conscious decision. But that also means, not giving in to the fear, either. Not allowing people to intimidate you into acting against your instincts. 

So I said no. If he had approached differently, not ready to pick a fight, I would've given him something, even though I really had very little to spare. 

"Oh." He said, and moved back into the shadow as Steve and I walked away.

"Have a blessed day!" One of the other shadows... a girl, called out.

"I'm working on it."

And then the cat calls began. The insults. Calling me selfish. Calling me fat. Calling me other things. Saying that I couldn't spare a quarter, but that I had plenty of money for McDonald's hamburgers and chicken nuggets. So easy. I thought. So easy to read wrongly into someone's life. I didn't particularly care about them calling me fat. I can lose weight. But making assumptions about my life based on the state of their lives? I felt like turning around and telling them what idiots they were; it's possible to live this life and still demonstrate a little class, a little dignity. I've seen it. They need to learn it.

But I thought better of it, and my surroundings. And Steve. And my promise to myself 15 years ago, to try and do no harm to anyone. It's the promise doctors make and some of them even keep. 

And ultimately, I wasn't going to let them destroy the peaceful mood I was in.

We walked down to the pier. Standing on the pier is like standing near the edge of the world. Further down, people were fishing, even on a lousy day like that. Standing that close to the water without being in it, hearing and feeling the crashing of the waves against the wood, you start to feel the rhythm and vibration of the world. It's peaceful and terrifying. 

It's one of those places, you need to remind yourself to breathe. Return to the basics.

[Thanks for reading. Remember, if you like what you read, you can help:

  1. Passing on the link
  2. Donating to cause: click the donate button in the right bar. It takes you to PayPal. If you are able to donate, I appreciate it. Deeply and truly.