Coney Island was the last stop on the subway. I descended at Surf and Still-well avenues. Over the exit hung a huge black-lettered sign exhorting passengers not to panic in case of an air raid, THIS IS NOT A TARGET AREA, explained the sign. I wondered how they knew.
Surf Avenue, where great hotels and restaurants had once catered to the wealthy, looked shabby in the hard sunlight. Gone were the bands of John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert. Instead, on a table in a sidewalk bar, there stood a protest singer, strumming a guitar.
"Ah would really like to be a brave American," he wailed, "And for that precious flag I'd gladly die,/There's a star-spangled banner waving somewahr,/That is where Ah want to be when Ah dah-ee."
The music from a carousel a few doors away drowned him out. It was gay, light, innocent. The horses were brightly painted. Children seemed to float: up, down, up, down, grabbing dreamily for the brass rings as they had done for centuries. In the music of the carousel, I could hear and visualize the Coney Island of my mother's time.
"Your father," she used to tell me, when she was in a mood to knock the poor man, "was always more Coney Island than Newport."
Occasionally she sang snatches of a song called Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland, a popular song of rather short vogue, for Coney's Dreamland Park had burned to the ground in a $6 million blaze in 1911, seven years after it was built. Dreamland, my mother thought, had "tone," because the main entrance to the park led past a Biblical entertainment called Creation. My father, on the other hand, had preferred the rides, particularly those in Luna Park, and most particularly a ride called the Cannon Coaster, over which hung a come-on, saying: WILL SHE THROW HER ARMS AROUND YOUR NECK? WELL, I GUESS, YES!
On the boardwalk the benches were filled, mostly with elderly people gazing out over the water. It was still early, but the sun was getting warm and the beach was filling up. Nobody goes there anymore, my friends told me, and I had rather expected to have the place to myself.
"The temperature at Coney Island," announces the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, in the manner of all chambers of commerce, "is 10� cooler in the summer, and 10� warmer in the winter than anyplace in the New York area." Furthermore, the Chamber of Commerce implies, Coney Island is still the Playground of the World, and anyone who doesn't go there is a rotten apple.
I sat on a bench on the boardwalk for a few minutes, enjoying the cool breeze that blew in from the ocean. Then I went down the steps onto the sand. The beach was so crowded that latecomers were folding their blankets in half and falling upon them with their arms at their sides. Some of the seminaked bodies exposed to the warmth were still winter white; others were brown or black, bodies toasted that color or born that color, all jumbled together in warm, relaxed confusion. Kids ran up and down, their feet churning the sand.
"Hey, Ma! He took my pail," squealed a little girl not far from me. She indignantly pointed an accusing finger at her older brother. Her voice was strong with the unmistakable accents of New York.