I’m already several chapters past this, but it felt like a good time to share. Cuz I FELT LIKE IT, motherfuckers
CHAPTER 11: SEPT. 7TH, 2008—THE CONEY ISLAND APOCALYPSE:
There in the sky, ten thousand feet straight up from here, a four-and-a-half year old refugee with thick plastic glasses will see his first American seagull. He will press his nose to the glass, watching an almost imperceptibly small white figure soar and dive towards the red metal arms that reach endlessly up out of Brooklyn. If the Rx is good he may see the lean stripe of yellow beaches, punctuated here by the Steeplechase Pier jutting half a mile into the Atlantic, and behind it, Deno’s Wonderwheel (and almost certainly the projects beyond). As the plane circles terrifyingly earthward, he will squeeze his eyes shut and dream that unspeakable secret dream, a Made-in-China Yankees cap—preemptively bought—clutched in his sticky brown fingers.
If you, like us, naturalized through JFK instead of Ellis Island, then Coney Island’s Eiffel Tower was almost 100% absolutely the first American thing you saw. The French should errect a new goddamn plaque.
Every summer we return here, spilling out of Ocean Parkway and West 8th Street and Stillwell Avenue, Bangladeshi and Dominican and Cantonese alike; blacks from the West 27th Towers, from Coney and Flatbush and Bushwick; the Russians from their garish pink condos and their bungalows in Brighton; the Persians from the newly redoubled single-family’s in Gravesend, Mexicans and Chinese from the cluttered 5-family brownstones in Sunset Park; the Lubavich and the Islanders from the squat apartment houses of Crown Heights, and the hipsters, like some 11th plague, from the $2,000 a month one bedrooms of Williamsburg, their Canons trained on us like M-16s.
Last week, Astroland Amusements and the developers who own their concrete reached an impasse. Starting tomorrow, the poured plastic wildlife, the space needle and the haunted house and King Neptune water flume will be all leveled, auctioned and removed.
And so for the first time in a generation the Goldshtyns closed their laundries and joined the crush of tourists in their blind migration to the sea. Today would mark at least the second ‘Last Summer of Coney Island’ in Miguel’s brief tenure, the second wave of farewell-wishers to bury their beer cans and nostalgia in the rotting gums of the Atlantic and turn their back on our rabbit-eared peninsula for a new forever. But just for today we shine, and this shit-plated borough is ours.
“Come on Ursula, or we’ll never get a spot!” Miguel shouted from the emergency exit at end of the hallway. He wore a pair of over-long O’Neil shorts and not one, but two sets of slatted black aviators whose plastic likeness now appear on every velvet hawkers stand from here to Cairo. Even these and the Goldshtyns abundance of undue body hair could not deny his biological imperative to be gorgeous.
“Do not wear that.” I snarled, adjusting the Lion of Hashem over my left tit. After much cajoling, I chose the bikini with my mibilnik stuffed in the lining, worn loose under the same intifada green sundress, its faux halter braided into a knot at the apex of my spine. And gold heels, at Miguel’s special request. “You said your brother was saving us a spot.”
He snorted, pushing me ahead into the stairwell. “My brother? I’d be surprised.” The two of us tumbled down into the street, the narrow, fractured sidewalk crowded with vendors of paperback romance, Banana Boat and Aqua D’Gio. This is Brighton Beach Avenue, we declare, these Semitic curls of ours shining like dollars in the September sunshine.
The Rego Park Russians might give the two of us the evil eye, but only because they know this shit is nashi.
This boardwalk, these screws that stand as tall as nails in a Japanese parable, these puckering boards beneath which men have lived and burned alive, each and all of these are ours. These handball courts and these brass tasting water fountains, the narrow, littered strip of Asher Levy Park where dedushkas compete in chess, they belong to us, my cousins and me. The chipped led paint at the Coney Island Arcade, these fiberglass bees and fortune telling bobble-heads in glass cases, all of it. Our birthright.
All this ugliness is zombified on VHS someplace. I would check at the Coney Island Swap Meet, a handful of storage units in an alley off Surf Avenue between the Electric Disco Bumper Cars and the Gypsy Psychic who is neither psychic or a refugee from eastern europe, but then I’m not looking.
“I’m very happy you’re here,” The Great M/M said suddenly, and gripped my hand in his. “Very happy.” He propped his second pair of sunglasses in my hair. “Shall we ride the Cyclone?”
I shook my head. “Not tall enough.”
“How about Nathan’s? It’s Kosher.”
I shook again.
“How about a lemon ice then? Couzina?” He put his arm around me. “We could grab something on the boardwalk. Any sort of thing you like.”
“A mango?” On the West 8th Street bridge and at the mouth of the aquarium, under the Steeplechase Pier where vets with harem lines come down from the Bronx to fish, women in New York Lotto visors cut flowerettes out of whole mangos. Like illusionists, they produce a livelihood from a box propped on top of a hand-cart and chili lime from crushed plastic bottles with squeeze-open tops.
If you look closely you will see the Sunset madres with their umbrella strollers and coolers full of counterfeit churros, first graders in knee-grazing atomic green tshirts marked “Harlem Worship Camp” and “Inwood Community Center”, fat Russian men with their sun-oil sweat and their twisted back hair and beer guts and black Speedos and half-families with orange arm-floaties and boom boxes and beach-blankets that in winter will become quilts and curtains. Their happiness and their worn plastic buckets, everything whatsoever they have, we have in suit, because what is theirs in green is ours in navy blue.
“Cousin! Over here, most beloved cousin!” Even in full-dress Hasidic regalia, it took the full part of an hour to find Alexie in the throng, guarding the spot he had saved near the Wonder Wheel, his tall black umbrella buried beside two wide bamboo mats. He stood to greet us, great rivers of sweat rolling from under his fedora, and appraised us both disapprovingly. At last he harrumphed, making space in the shade for those abhorred by the Almighty.
“Brother!” Mikhail squeezed his brother’s ample jaw into a pucker and gave him a wet one on the cheek. “You look so happy!” In fact, I hadn’t seen him that morose in days.
“Hello, couzina,” American Dream mumbled, nodding, and reverted to the same defeated posture that was his birthright, cantaloupe knees clutched to his bleach-white shirtsleeves, his gaze snared somewhere in the middle distance, a frown tangled in his fingers. Poor Alexie—fun gives him hay fever. His glasses slipped, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw his eyes were wet.
I pulled the dress over my head and lay back on the bamboo, while Mikhail adjusted the umbrella. “Are you quite well, cousin?” American Dream glanced at me and back into Gomorrah, and said nothing. Everywhere around us, the city expanded outward, in 9-month increments as wide as the universe. He sighed.
“Relax. It’s a bikini.”
“They’re not coming,” he sighed again, and turned his face away.
I knew. Lorca’s mother must have called it off. Everybody (or at least, me) knows that Alexie has been secretly in love with her for years, though nobody knows if she returns his affections. What everybody does know is that she is indefinitely married to some certain Odessa deadbeat and not even half a Jew.
“I thought we’d finally…well, it doesn’t matter anyway.”
“But then…that is I’m sure…maybe most beloved uncle could find someone for you.” I reached to touch his arm, but thought better of it. He’s still bal teshuva, after all.
“No offense Ursula, but we’d rather not end up like you,” Mikhail threw an arm around each of us, his all over five-o’clock shadow thrust in between. “Besides, American Dream loves just one thing.” He rubbed his fingers together over his brother’s left shoulder.
I arched my brow (incidentally, never get your brows done in Sunset Park, no matter how cheap it is). “G-d! Of course, American loves G-d,” he said, and abandoned the jest. He sprawled out between us, folding his hands behind his head, and angled his face at me. “Come on couzina, last tan of the season,” he whispered in Spanish, his chapped lips brushing the curve of my ear. “We can see who burns first.”
“All right then, go.”
I had to pull Mikhail’s most hideous black plastic shades over my eyes to keep from searching. Even the water here is crowded, with corpulent sixth graders and dead jellyfish and trash. This Brooklyn detritus gulped out and spit back again in lazy, gurgling swallows. Like gay porn, and just like that, even the Atlantic Ocean has set me on edge.
New York still gives me the most fantastic panic attacks, like an epi-pen to the aorta, the kind of buzz you’d get off a keybump that’s half speed or a defibrillator, maybe. It made me think of Lorca, whose asthma is always acting up because that kid needs more problems. His heart is not so poor as mine, but his lungs more than make up for the deficit. And his eyes…well, we’re a dead heat in that match.
Shades down, the men with their long polls strung heavy with cotton candy no longer reminded me of Chowpatti beach, where we used to sit side by side, watching the hand-crank operators, and the stray dogs and the sunset over Mumbai with our fingers tangled together like electrical wires. It is hot all the time here, from noon until midnight, but the impossible humidity and the sharp tang of urine from the public toilets do not tug at my heartstrings. Rapturous shrieking and the crash of the surf against the pier, the Cartel on repeat, the tinkling of the amusements and Mikhail’s sandy fingers brushing the base of my neck. All of it empty.
“I brought you last week’s Economist,” Alexie’s nasal whine floated not unpleasantly into my consciousness. He waved the magazine over the prone figure of his brother, whose fingers retreated.
I propped myself up on my elbows and rifled through the curling, damp pages. “Thank you Alexie, that’s sweet,”
“The Economist? Are you serious?” Mikhail smacked the magazine into my lap with an open hand. “You two are downright fucking depressing,” he growled, shoving to his feet. He stood for a moment, beating furiously at the lines of sand that stuck where the lean muscles of his abdomen curled inward, and scowled. “I’ll be in the handball courts if you want me.”
“Miguel,” I felt the back of my neck where his fingers had been. “Please, primo,” but he was already stalking across the beach, kicking up great clouds of sand between tattered old gangsters and lost niños in drooping Huggie PullUps. Alexie blinked at me from behind his enormous black glasses, and shrugged.