Coney Island, for me, has maintained this connotation of an unexplored, highly anticipated adventure–fun yet to be had, rides and games yet to be conquered, festive memories yet to be made. The county fair-meets-coastal theme park combination entices my young adult going on working adult instincts to seize the moment for popcorn, cotton candy, ferris wheeling and stuffed prizes. When Josh nonchalantly mentioned tentative plans to visit I jumped at the opportunity. A two-hour train ride is the closest I’ll come to a road trip for a while and I haven’t seen a beach or a theme park in an unacceptable length of time. We’re so excited for this new adventure we meet at 10:30 am to relish in ample childlike fun before the night shift.
(The week before the half marathon someone from work asked what I was going to look forward to once the race was finally over. I genuinely worried my overzealous training and fundraising would leave me purpose-less or without direction immediately after. So I was completely tickled to already be on the go again with the only friend who gets as excited about simple things as I do.)
On the hour-long train ride through Brooklyn Josh and I gave our homesickness a chance to fester with reminiscing about the once seemingly insignificant things we miss. We laughed over our mutual longing for Chick-fil-A, and the likelihood that if we had one close we’d probably only crave those chicken biscuits on Sundays when they’re closed. It was with this familiar recurrence–frustrating loops around impenetrable Chick-fil-A’s on Sundays–that we recalled Coney Island is seasonal. After every movie portrayal of the park as a grey, gloomy, abandoned ghost town with remnants from the previous season tumbling across the boardwalk we still managed to blindly embark on this endeavor. We questioned how anyone could witness Dakota Fanning’s crushing return to the desolate tea cup ride and fail to check the park schedule before a visit. Is there anything else to do at Coney Island? Do people even live there?
I quickly accessed the park’s website and inevitably read that the 2010 season would open on May 29, to which Josh responded, “Is that today?” …Not even close. We feeble hope getter-upper’s kept our chins up and discussed alternatives almost as excitingly. The confirmation that neither of us eat hot dogs, brought bathing suits, or were prepared for utter disappointment transformed our anxiety into dread, especially when we departed our train to find it was freezing outside. Fortunately, there was nothing to distract us from our original intent. The streets of Coney Island were covered in filth and trash, and the majority of the buildings were boarded up or falling apart. The safest steps seemed to be solely toward the water, and we couldn’t help but want to see the park regardless of it’s idleness.
The area was deserted; a deserted wasteland. We unanimously concluded either the maintenance crew was on strike, we missed an overwhelming rave the night before, or the island (peninsula, really) had been hit by a natural disaster within the last hour. Despite the void of visitors and street-wide spread of garbage, Nathan’s hot dog stand was packed with customers. Every line inside was backed up by the dozens clearly desiring to rival the National Hot Dog Eating Contest winners whose records were displayed proudly. Where were these hot dog fanatics coming from when every other facet of the area practically had tumbleweed bouncing by? My parents were right–if I ever wanted to try a hot dog again, this was the place. But I didn’t.
We crept in between the rides fenced in with barbed wire and guarded by life-threatening, panic-inducing guard dogs. Perhaps Coney Island should consider designating a portion of the heightened security budget for a grounds crew…I tripped over a rock hard pretzel. Had that really been on the ground since September? Despite the eeriness of the situation we followed a mother with two small children who seemed confident about where she was going, still holding onto hope. The entire park was deathly still and silent, but the ferris wheel was turning ever so slowly, and I woke up at an ungodly hour to have my spin.
When we saw an old, unkempt man in worn out clothing at the ride’s entrance we hesitantly questioned if we could ride anything. “You can do whatever you want, sweetie,” he responded. We turned a corner and gave each other the same response: “Ok, what does that mean?” Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take that answer any day, but did he mean in general or that the ride was legitimately open and safe for customers? In a second inquiry for more clear answers, a ticket booth worker informed us everything was open. This was clearly not the case, unless someone leisurely brought their monster-sized Rottweiler’s in for a day of fun, but we were overjoyed to know we could ride the giant Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone roller coaster.
All I have to say about both is that the Wonder Wheel, although unique in that the cage’s swing along the way (a nice distinctive feature), is alarmingly rusty and aged. We had no confidence in our own safety, especially as the only riders, and the complete lack of identification or mere sign of affiliation with the park on any workers whatsoever isn’t remotely reassuring. We began to agree it was more likely that the park was closed and these were random workers scoring six bucks for two snail speed loops around the ancient structure. As Josh put it, “We wonder why we’re on this wheel.” Likewise the Cyclone was not only the most painful ride I’ve ever ridden with a constant neck-injuring vibration, it was a legitimate challenge for the two of us to squeeze into the seat, and we are small people.
Despite our doubts, I remained fascinated with the sheer relief that we could ride anything and take full advantage of the trip. We’re still going to return on May 29 to enjoy the renovations and inevitable improvements, but mostly just to have company on the bumper cars. If you’re planning a visit to the area know that you’re going to be eating Subway in the train station if you don’t like hot dogs, unless it’s not a Monday…then other restaurants will be open consistent with the dysfunction of the park.
Following our fill of risky, ancient joy rides we wandered down the boardwalk and onto the beach. As could only be expected, the sand was littered with foreign objects and discolored by pollution. We discovered an aquarium offered potential for future trips and enjoyed an artsy wall accessorized by NYC facts (like the evident diversity in over 200 languages spoken here!). We admittedly devoted at least 20 minutes to capturing the beach photo we desired and ventured back through the seemingly haunted streets in search of food. I repeat, if you don’t eat hot dogs you are out of luck. Pack snacks.
I’ll admit we could’ve benefited from additional (more than none) research prior to boarding the train blindly, talking to anyone who had ever been for example, but I’m one for surprises and ultimately self discovery. A friend commented that Coney Island has a certain “gritty magic” to it. Josh prefers “busted” as a more realistic description, but I’d say gritty magic is quite an accurate evaluation of the place. Despite the unmanageable abundance of trash and lack of clarity on scheduling, I spent the entire day laughing and loved venturing beyond the Upper East Side to discover more of what my new home has to offer. I’m eager for the adventures to come with more and more beautiful days ahead.