Jerry Della Femina
MY CONEY ISLAND
When it comes to beaches, nothing compares to the Hamptons.
Malibu? It’s a puny strip of sand.
Cannes? Great for bare boobs, but it’s a tiny overrated beach.
Miami? Fake people stretched out on fake sand.
I never get tired of looking at one of our beautiful beaches. And when I stare and look at it long enough, I always think back to what used to be. And what used to be, for me, was Coney Island.
In the summer my mom would take my little brother and me to Coney Island just about every day. For me, it was like traveling to Oz.
When you walked off the subway, some incredible smells fought with each other to get into your nose. The first was the smell of raw clams being squirted with lemon. And then there was the smell of ice-cold beer foaming up and out of the glass in the clam bar that was in the promenade of the subway terminal.
As you walked across the street you smelled the sweetness of cotton candy, and two seconds later you smelled the garlic and spices of those sizzling Nathan’s hot dogs that made your mouth water. By the time you got to the boardwalk, you were starving and reaching in your bag of homemade eggplant sandwiches to sneak a bite.
You could get to the beach by walking onto the boardwalk or under it. (A few years later the Drifters would tell the world about the wonders that could be found “Under the Boardwalk.”) Walking under was the faster way to get onto the beach and that’s the way you always went. You braved the cold clammy sand that hadn’t felt the sunlight in years. You gingerly stepped over (while still managing to sneak a peek at) the teenage couples who were passionately “making out” on the blankets in the dim semi-privacy that could only be found under the boardwalk. Even though I was only 9 or 10 years old I remember looking at them in a clinch, with their lips locked to each other, and thinking it looked like a lot of fun.
The walk on the beach was a joke. There seemed to be millions of people on the beach; consequently, there was no beach. We stepped on one beach blanket after another. Finally, my mom staked out a claim and we parked our blanket, touching four other blankets, and rushed to the water.
To be honest, when I was a little kid the water in Coney Island was just slightly cleaner than the Ganges in India. Every time there is an oil spill disaster it triggers a sense memory that I hadn’t thought about in so many years. For years after World War II, the water in Coney Island was filled with oil chunks that blackened our feet. I remember my father telling me that the oil chunks came from one of the ships that had been blown up nearby during the war. I remember wondering if it was one of ours or one of theirs.
But now the smell in the air was suntan oil, and as a kid I remember staying in the water for hours to fight the waves. Invariably, my mother would call me in because “your lips are turning blue.” She never came into the water. She just joined all the other mothers who were standing on the shore on “blue lip patrol.” When the time came to go home, I always begged for another half-hour. They always gave it to me.
Summer is so much longer when you’re young. For me every day was a week. Every week felt like a year. This time of the year, in mid-August, was when my nightmares of having to go back to school started to haunt me. I hated school. I hated that in September my Coney Island was going to go away. There was nothing sadder than a boarded-up deserted Coney Island in the winter.
I want my kids and grandkids to know about the Coney Island I fell in love with all those summers ago.
Every time I start to tell them I keep remembering my favorite movie line, from the film “Atlantic City”:
A very old Burt Lancaster is trying to impress a very young Susan Sarandon. They’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean. She says, “It’s very beautiful.” He says, “Yes.” Then he looks at her and says, “But this is nothing. You should have seen it in the old days.”
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