I think we all have our lifelines back to the past, some object or event that connects us to the happy child we used to be. For some it's an old toy, maybe a favorite food or a special song that activates the time warp. For me, it's a place...Coney Island. I've written here before about Coney Island, and probably will again because it is that powerful a talisman for me. The memories that come flooding back when I lay eyes on the Parachute Jump are jumbled and random; they flash in my mind's eye for a moment and then they're gone, but for those brief seconds I am seeing the sights and hearing the sounds that so impressed me as a ten-year old. I am a skinny kid in a navy blue bathing suit, with a string I couldn't tie tight enough to keep the suit from sliding down my bony hips when I dove into the waves.
I am walking along the same type of weathered grey boards, only it's the Coney Island boardwalk under my feet, not South Beach. I see the young men placing protective arms around their giggling girl friends as the bored attendant in the dirty undershirt straps them into the swaying seats of the Parachute Jump ride; I hear the carny barkers pitching their well-rehearsed spiels to draw the suckers into the freak shows (bearded ladies, two-headed dogs, Siamese twins, the Wild Man of Borneo); the rigged boardwalk games with the giant stuffed toys that nobody ever won; people standing at the water fountains washing the beach sand from their sticky bodies before boarding the Franklin Avenue el train with the straw-covered seats that carried them back to the reality of whatever Brooklyn neighborhood they hailed from.
Further down the boardwalk is the entrance to Steeplechase Park, the laughter and screams from the people on the rides beckon to any soul with an ounce of fun in them; the handball courts near the Ravenhall Baths ruled by old Jewish men, their wrinkled skin tanned a nut-brown from hours spent in the sun taking money from guys who thought they could beat them because they were younger and faster...they left wiser and poorer; the man dressed in white walking on hot sand selling Humorette creamsicles out of a heavy box filled with dry ice; the mother yelling at the kid whose orange Humorette lay in the sand after melting off the stick in a 95-degree Coney Island sun; the lifeguards in their orange bathing suits and cream-coated noses trying to simultaneously scan the water for swimmers in danger while scanning the beach for girls to impress.
I'm wading into the water now, looking for a wave cresting high enough to dive into; I'm surrounded by fat women in bathing caps who waddled into the ocean for a "duck" as they called it when the heat on the beach became unbearable; I swim over to the colorful barrels strung together on thick manila ropes that were used to separate the beach into sections called "Bays"...the lower Bay numbers were assigned to Brighton Beach while the higher numbers meant you were in Coney Island waters. I dive under the water doing my famous hand-stand, skinny legs sticking straight up out of the water, hoping someone, anyone, will notice my aquatic acrobatics; I pull up my sagging bathing suit and head for our blanket where I know that incredible-tasting pepper and egg sandwiches and a jug of watery Kool Aid are waiting.
If you're reading this and thinking: "That's it...that's the magic place you time-travel to when you want to feel young again?", I can only say I feel sorry for you for not having known Coney Island in its heyday. For anyone who does remember, I hope the journey back was a pleasant one for you. It's important that we stay in touch with the happy child that still lives deep within us. The connection grows more tenuous as we get older, but don't ever let go completely. When life's troubles press in on you, spend a few minutes with that exuberant child who ran everywhere, laughed at everything, and worried about nothing. You'll be surprised how differently you look at life, at least for a little while.
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