ONLY NOISE: Coney Island, Baby

coney

As the glad hand of summer tightens to a fist, I feel hungover. These three hot months we wait for all year melt us into believing that we can live this way forever; damp and in torn jeans, drinking beer at 2pm and eating hot dogs at 2am. Perhaps summer to others is less slovenly, but it’s hard to be fresh-faced in the New York sun, which radiates off black pavement and carries the scent of freshly baked garbage up your nostrils. Where else in the country does summer = hot garbage? Better yet: hot garbage juice, which I’m sure we have all stepped in, wearing sandals.

This of course, isn’t everyone’s summer in New York. Portions of the Upper East Side and Park Slope seem to be refuse-free. And while many would find the above description noxious, there is one place in New York that seems to spin all that trash into colored candyfloss every summer: Coney Island.

Coney Island was a place I loved long before I walked its busted boardwalk, jutting upwards like misaligned teeth. It was a place I knew from song, as it has been immortalized in many. It seemed to be a perpetual place of interest for Tom Waits, who recorded a salty version of “Coney Island Baby” for 2002’s Blood Money. The beachside town has achieved an honorable mention in Waits’ “Take It With Me” from the 1999 LP Mule Variations, and it seemed the rakish balladeer perhaps knew the place better than anyone else.

Yet the artistic fascination with Coney Island doesn’t start or stop with Waits. The Ramones bopped about it in “Oh, Oh, I Love Her So” from 1977, singing about going “on the coaster and around again” in the grade C theme park. The only coaster they could mean is the treacherous Cyclone, which has provided thrill-seekers with whiplash since 1927. In the same decade Coney was fetishized by the Ramones, films like Annie Hall and The Warriors tipped their hats as well. While its use in the former merely provides a comical backdrop (Woody Allen’s character grew up in a house beneath the Cyclone, hence his neuroses), the latter catapulted the area into cult status. Where Waits had provided a mood, The Warriors affronted with a forceful visual of dueling gangs in leather vests and headbands.

I knew far more about Coney Island than I should have prior to moving to New York. I knew about the Wonder Wheel, and the Freak Show, and Nathan’s Hot Dogs. I knew that it was most likely filled with large women, and men named Frank. But I didn’t fully understand the allure until I first went for myself in 2009. By then I had discovered another “Coney Island Baby,” the classic Lou Reed track off of his 1976 album of the same name.

Something churned within me as I got off the F train that summer…and I realize now that same feeling can be explained by Reed’s lyric:

“Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place/
Something like a circus or a sewer
/And just remember, different people have peculiar tastes”

It was right then that I grasped the elusive beauty of Coney Island: it is an absolute shithole. It appeared that all of the collective enthrallment with the neighborhood was very aware of this fact. What’s more, the contradiction between the dirt and depravity of such a hood and it being a place of magical, family entertainment only seemed to increase the morbid fascination.

“The city is a funny place/Something like a circus or a sewer.” This rotated in my head as I walked past a portly, sun-baked woman, the length of her strangled in a fluorescent pink fishnet bodysuit. To my left, children were running through sprays of water generated by large blow-up palm trees punctuating the beach. Seagulls dove through the mist as old men wetted their balding heads, no one discriminating against the offerings of the plastic foliage. A boom box accompanied a saxophonist blowing away to Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and pieces of garbage floated past my feet, though none of the famed “Coney Island Whitefish” I’d heard so much about, a.k.a, used condoms.

While I can’t say the same of many places, Coney Island is exactly what I’ve always wanted it to be; and it maintains its appeal almost eight years later. When I went the other day it was waiting for me, running up to say hello with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other. I accepted and sat on the cement benches at Nathan’s, listening to “Year Of The Cat” by Al Stewart and innumerable Fleetwood Mac tracks. Neither of these made any sense, and I wish I could say something like Reed or Waits was playing, but I was happy to choke down shameful food to something familiar, something un-Carly Rae Jepsen. And that is what this place is all about: shame, pleasure, and familiarity.

Perhaps the kernel of Coney Island’s appeal possesses the same molecules as comfort food, guilty pleasures, and poorly produced music. It isn’t so much about the overt, qualitative aspects of a thing, but the gut reaction it elicits. Did that hot dog feel good in my gut? No. But did it feel good in my gut’s heart? You betcha.

After waddling out of Nathan’s, where I once watched the world famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest (to the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) in another bout of poor taste, I made my way to MCU Park to take in my very first Brooklyn Cyclones game. Blaring out of the shoddy sound system were soundtrack versions of Disney songs: “Bippity Boppity Boo” and “A Whole New World” and the like.

Because Coney Island can only get weirder every time I go, the game is themed: it is princess and pirate night at the stadium, and there are hoards of terrifying children literally screaming for ice cream in sparkly pink dresses, tiaras, and pastel eye shadow. Large men with robust Brooklyn accents address their families with jovial shouting, which is later directed at the baseball team, only less jovially. As it turns out, the Cyclones are a pretty terrible team. A man behind me begins heckles the athletes while wearing a Cyclones shirt: “Come ON! My daughter hits betta than you!” he blurts. A princess-disguised hellion stands behind me, prodding my neck with something. I turn and realize it’s a chicken finger.

If it weren’t for Princess Poultry I may have stayed for the last two innings, but my companion and I were growing heavy from the heat and hot dogs. We laughed at the absurdity of such a place, and that a baseball game could be so comically bad. “You know what though?” my friend asked. I completed the thought before he could, “we would have been disappointed if they were really good.”

When I am asked to defend my bad taste, in the same way I must when my dad inquires about my preference for crappy bars as opposed to slick ones, I never have a ready-made reason at hand. But I think that it is the unrefined things that possess the most endurance. It is the rationale that against all of the information I possess about the health detriments of hot dogs, I still adore them. I know that Bob Dylan does not technically have a beautiful singing voice, but I will continue to love it. So when asked why in the hell I love Coney Island so much, I can’t help but counter:

“Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place/
Something like a circus or a sewer
/And just remember, different people have peculiar tastes”

Related
  • PLAYING ATLANTA: Seersha Returns With New Single, “Lecture Me”

  • PLAYING THE BAY: Grumpster is “Crumbling” in New Video

  • Gear Repair