Some people collect beginnings: they applaud as the rope is cut or the bread is broken. They cheerfully pluck the first dollar from their wallets, and watch as it is tacked over the register. I am not one of those people: I catch endings. “You should’ve seen this place when it opened.” Or, “man, ten years ago, this was the place to be.” It isn’t a morbid fascination, but rather a perpetual tardiness coupled with a kind of introversion that has me naturally hanging to the back of crowds, letting the crush pass. I have grown familiar with a variety of aftermaths.
Today, I am mincing across bleached slats of one of the most famous boardwalks in the world, here to see the glory that once was Coney Island. My leather pumps have turned out to be a poor footwear choice, but the way the boards have separated from each other over the years leaving black empty spaces just as wide as a high heel was impossible to guess.
My friend and tour guide for the day has admonished my shoe choice twice. He says I’m concentrating too hard on the ground and not enough on the sights around me. I am, however, taking in more than it would appear: we of the high heel-wearing variety are often stepping with precision, one eye on the terrain and one on the horizon. It is only my third visit to New York City, and my preconceptions run deep. Coney Island has not measured up, though I blame the land developers. Their dismantling is in full swing, and evidence of the de-construction is everywhere.
Today is a Jewish holiday—though my friend can’t tell me which one—and we are sharing the amusement park and boardwalk with several Orthodox families. They are dressed in black and white, which, against the washed out backdrop of the land and sea creates the unnerving sensation that we are all extras in an orthochromatic film. Being from Methodist country, I have a lot of questions—about the huge fur hats on the men, braided belts on the boys, about the structure of these groups. He is a terrible Jew, he admits, and can answer none of them. He allows himself to be blessed so that we can learn a bit more about what is going on, but the blessing comes in Yiddish and clarifies nothing.
The ‘Save Coney Island’ flyers are abundant and as weathered as the walkway. The Cyclone is boarded up, shut down just days before. I lament briefly my uncanny, yet reliably poor timing. Today, the rides open for adults are the Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and haunted house. We ride each and are the sole passengers. Exclusivity ends up being a distinct disadvantage on the bumper cars. The haunted house is full of dusty skeletons and off-tempo ghoulish jack in the boxes. It is impossible not to laugh at the chainsaw-wielding specter that is a bit loose on his springs or the writhing were-creature that lost a paw.
This section of Coney Island is a colorful patchwork of gaudy decay. Garish clowns painted on plywood compete with piles of debris along cyclone fencing. Whole sections have already been cleared and their bare dirt expanses can be seen between breaks in the de-construction barriers, hinting at the not wholly-welcomed future of Coney Island. There is a “Sunday night at the County Fair” feel to it, like all the best stuff has been boxed up and is already on the trucks.
Unlike the grown-up rides, many of the kiddie rides are still running. The small knots of monochromatic children on Toad’s Wild Ride see alternating views of the ocean and the disembodied limbs of former rides, blue-tarp covered and rusting in the salt air, as they ride around and around in small mechanized loops.
After wandering away from the rides, we head east. My guide points to a concrete shelter between the boardwalk and beach sand that has a high curved roof on top of four heavy, angled supports. Under the roof are several fixed picnic tables.
“These are the ‘old man huts’.” He points to the men huddled at the tables, hunched over chess boards, card games, and backgammon. Down the boardwalk are several more such shelters each filled with men crowded like dark pigeons at bread crumbs. More chess players can be seen at the table-less benches on the other side of the wide wooden walkway. These are the late comers who couldn’t find space in one of the huts. We stop and lean over a couple of games. Old women gossip at separate benches behind giant sunglasses, swaddled in bright head scarves and bulky coats. The locals here have been sitting on these benches for decades, and will be here until all of Brooklyn is swallowed up by the Atlantic, caring little for the fate of a roller coaster or a gaggle of arcade operators.
We duck under the awning at Tatiana, an open air café. My friend asks for a fruit salad he thinks he remembers, but the waiter shakes his head disapprovingly. “Only weg-a-ta-ble,” the waiter pronounces each syllable like it is a word unto itself. We decide to stop anyway, and order the salad and blinis with red caviar.
The sun is bright behind the clouds while we sip at a strong, smooth vodka from squat glasses shaped like handle-less espresso cups and watch the waves out beyond the chess players. Our conversation doesn’t flow in awkward bursts, like a Woody Allen script, we just talk about the people who walk by the table.
While we eat pickled lettuce and watermelon slices, my friend tells me a bit more about how the powers that be are dismantling the attractions on Coney Island for good. Ultimately, the land has become more valuable to developers than tourists. There is a hotly discussed public debate about the whole thing, but he doesn’t keep up with those sorts of things. It is enough to know that its end is no longer a hypothetical scenario. I feel like a speech should be made at this point in our afternoon, a speech about the necessity of youth’s passing, carpeing for the diem, or the stupidity of city planners. Instead, we pay the bill, and sip one last tiny-tasse of vodka in silence.
Then we head north, leaving the boardwalk behind. Within a block, the wooden slats become concrete sidewalk. At first, there is sand in the cracks, then, anonymous grime. The sounds and smells of the beach turn to the horns and exhaust of crowded city blocks. There is a beauty to endings that only those who come late know: the resolved look of a thing moving away through time, like the last paragraph in a book. I look over my shoulder and for a moment, catch a glimpse between high rises of the Wonder Wheel, then it too is gone from view. We head further into the city, toward one of the many taxi-laden streets, without so much as cotton candy remnants to mark where we’d been.