Like Emerald City, Coney Island Beckoned
I tried going home last weekend. Not in a metaphoric Thomas Wolfe-manner of speaking. More like what Dorothy Gale was striving for once she found herself over the rainbow. And the odyssey to my past life was similarly enlightening.
I left my current residence on Cape Cod early Friday morning, driving five hours to Astoria, Queens to pick up my son, Joshua, my escort for the day’s journey. We headed out to Coney Island — Brooklyn’s oceanfront playground — where I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. Our first stop, naturally, was Nathan’s Famous and, while I rarely eat hot dogs anymore, I made an exception for a blissful taste of childhood. We also shared a large bag of the golden brown fries. I mean, why even bother make the trip and miss out on the crinkly fries?
Onward to the Wonder Wheel, the 250-foot centerpiece you see on all the fading postcards. We chose a rolling blue car that swings along its track giving you a sense you’re about to fall into the abyss to a not-so-pleasant end.
Surviving that, we made our way along the Riegelmann Boardwalk to the Coney Island pier for a closeup of the Parachute Jump, a 1939 New York World’s Fair transplant from Flushing-Meadows. It hasn’t actually hosted any jumpers since Steeplechase — the last of Coney’s big-three amusement parks — closed for business in 1964 (Luna Park and Dreamland being the other two).
Next it was on to the Cyclone, the original 1927 rickety roller-coaster that still uses a single wooden crank as an emergency brake. They don’t let you wait for the front seat nowadays but we were able to time our position on line to get there, though I readily admit, the front-row view on the 60-miles per hour thrill ride wasn’t my idea. There may have been a silent prayer uttered as we climbed the wobbly 85-foot wood track that still feels as flimsy as the dilapidated shack in Annie Hall. Believe me, the fact that it has been designated a New York City landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places didn’t console me.
We didn’t bother with any of the newer rides — they were never part of my Coney childhood — so we stayed away from the vertical-drop Thunderbolt and the bungee-jumping Sling Shot, much to my son’s disappointment. We did walk more on the boardwalk, stopping to take in a gratifying memory — Brighton 2nd Street Park — where my brother and I had enjoyed many half-court basketball games. Josh and I had planned to go all the way to Manhattan Beach but it started drizzling and, alas, the umbrella had been left in the car.
We passed the cement handball courts on our way back, stopping at Asser Levy Park — formally Seabreeze Park — on West 5th Street. This had once been our sanctuary while attending High Holiday services at Seabreeze Synagogue. As soon as the rabbi announced we were about to start the Torah-reading portion of the service, that was our cue for a trip to the bathroom. The monkey bars, swings and a game of Hide-And-Go-Seek beckoned, making it feel as though we’d busted out of prison, our two-sizes-too-small Bar Mitzvah suits and patent-leather dress shoes notwithstanding.
The rest of my frenetic four-day getaway kept me pretty busy — afternoon sailing in Oyster Bay, a nostalgic peek at our former Halesite home, a play featuring an Agatha Christie murder mystery, a Jersey cemetery unveiling, a trek to the Great Falls of Paterson, and a Brooklyn-like pizza dinner in Scarsdale — all reasons to visit with cherished friends and family.
So, was Thomas Wolfe correct in his assessment? Perhaps in the context of his novel. Who am I to question Thomas Wolfe?
But spend a day in Coney Island with your millennial son reliving childhood dreams, visiting personal landmarks while enjoying time with your closest friends, and add a tasty Nathan’s hotdog with hot sauerkraut to the equation, and, every once in a while when the stars are aligned, as Dorothy learned, you can go home again.
Michael Solomowitz’s debut novel, Behind The Fourth Wall, will be published in January, 2022 by Black Rose Writing.