"She was throwing sand at me," defended the boy.
"I'll get up and belt the both of yez," replied their mother sleepily, and she turned over on her blanket and closed her eyes with a sigh. It was an exchange my mother would have labeled "more Coney Island than Newport." A pretty teen-age girl, dressed in what seemed to be a mini version of the bikini, walked rapidly toward the water, hotly pursued by a teen-age boy in orange trunks.
"The bathing suit," wrote William C. Ulyat, more than half a century ago, "should consist of twilled flannel, strong and colored brown, blue or gray. The garment should be in one piece of light goods and consist of pantaloons and coat over them.... Some would add a broad-brimmed hat. But, as it is desirable to plunge the head under water in bathing, this...is an unnecessary encumbrance."
From my stakeout in the sand I could look directly under the boardwalk, an area known to the cognoscenti as the Underground Hotel. An architect who recently submitted a plan for the rehabilitation of Coney Island to the New York Department of Parks suggested among other improvements that the empty space under the boardwalk should be "utilized." I am able to report that he would not have been able to slide a rolled-up blueprint between the couples utilizing same. My mother would have been scandalized.
"Your father used to leave me with friends on the beach, while he went off to play the games," she once told me. "The only thing he ever won was a small teddy bear. Its eyes, which were pasted on, fell off on the way home."
After my swim and drying out on the beach, I stopped off at one of the shooting galleries and shot some ducks, threw some baseballs at milk bottles and punctured a few balloons with darts. At a penny arcade establishment called Playland I tried my hand at Bingo-Reno, Skee Ball, Speedway racing, 21, poker and bowling. I collected tickets worth 90 points. A stuffed purple dog of indeterminate breed looked down at me from a shelf. A sign pinned to his collar said he was worth 240 points. His eyes, I noticed, were glass, not pasted on. I told the man who had been changing my dollars into dimes that I would be back.
I was hungry. On the way to Nathan's Famous hot dog stand, I walked again past the bar where the guitar player was still caterwauling his desire to be a brave American.
"Can the U.S. use a mountain boy like me?" he sang, and there was a smattering of applause from people sitting at the tables.
At Nathan's the crowd was three deep. A week earlier Nathan's had celebrated the 100th anniversary of the American Red Hot, which was first served on Coney Island in 1867, brought to the United States by a Bavarian named Charles Feltman, who later opened one of Coney Island's most exotic restaurants. Nathan Handwerker was one of his employees until, enthralled with the potential of the sausage-in-roll, he saved enough money to start his own small stand, specializing in the hot dog. At the 100th anniversary party, formally attired waiters served distinguished guests champagne with their hot dogs. "This Gastronomical Triumph now a symbol of Yankee Democracy has...penetrated all international boundaries, social barriers and mores," read the invitation that went out.
Wrote Edo McCullough, some years ago, in his detailed history of Coney Island: "The...myth-mongers would have it that Harry Stevens, founder of the catering firm, introduced the frank-furter-in-roll to the East around the turn of the century, during a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. This fabrication would be laughable if, at its core, it were not possible to sniff out a sinister plot to permit the New York Giants, rather than the Brooklyn Dodgers, to bask in reflected glory. Quite probably Stevens did vend enrolled frankfurters at the Polo Grounds around 1900; but they had tickled the palates of Dodger fans at Washington Park as far back as 1888."