The Coney Island Tower
By Romy Ashby
THE CONEY ISLAND TOWER
It was the magic hour and everything was rosy at the beach and the ocean was dark blue. I was sitting with Foxy at one of the picnic tables in front of Ruby’s bar on the boardwalk. They were playing songs from the 50s and a big happy Brooklyn lady in shorts and a sunburn was dancing her heart out with a big smile on her face and everyone laughed and clapped for her at the end of each song.
Foxy went to get French fries and onion rings from a big fat boy behind the steam table and we had beer in plastic cups. The boardwalk was crowded with people and it was a good crowd. There was not a businessman to be seen.
A short black-haired man in a suit muscled his way to the bar holding what looked like a stuffed possum with a split tail and duck feet, and said, “This is my pet.” He had a way of making the whiskers quiver all around the creature’s nose. He lifted a little camera and snapped a picture of the dancing lady.
An old girl with one big leg and one little leg came clumping out of the bar as a lady with no teeth wearing a purple dress and big sunglasses limped in. I had Pilar the dog with me, in her bag with her head sticking out on the table. Through the music and all the hilarity behind me I could hear her grumbling for beer. Pilar loves beer. It makes her sneeze and it makes her tail wag, but she isn’t allowed to have much more than a taste.
Behind us, a big hulk of a man with scars on his face and not much of neck leaned on the bar and ordered a beer and a tall, thin Jack Sprat of a fellow in a straw hat leaned over to look at Pilar. “She likes beer?” He asked. “She loves it,” I said and he reached for his wallet. “What she drinkin’?” he asked, and he would have bought her one, too.
It was my dad, Seaweed, who first let her have a taste of his beer right on that very boardwalk some years ago when he sat on a bench and talked about going on the parachute jump back in 1942.
We went out to walk on the boardwalk in the last of the evening sun. It was all but gone, leaving nothing but a slim stripe of pink down at the waters’ edge. There were still plenty of people on the beach, whole families down there who had been there for the whole beautiful day.
We saw a guy who makes his money stacking a big yellow python on people who pay him to take a Polaroid of them that way. He had a long yellow snake with his gob taped closed, and he also had a big, intelligent green lizard and two huffy macaws. We stood in a little crowd of people to watch him load the snake onto a little boy. A lady with a very small girl barely walking on her own pointed at the snake and said, “Look, baby, that’s a real snake. You want a snake on you? Do you?” The little girl stood staring while the man with the camera took a picture of the little boy and the snake.
Then girl of about twenty in a bright yellow dress stepped forward and said, “Mista, could I take a pitcha wichoo?” He said, “Ya mean just standin’ next to me?” and she said, “Yeah, wit’ my friend’s camera.” The Polaroid man told her it would cost her five bucks and she made a sound like a tire deflating and waved him off like a fly. I felt sorry for the snake with his snout taped shut, but the big macaws seemed pleased with themselves, and so did the lizard. It looked like the man was charging $15 for a picture in a little cardboard souvenir frame, and it looked like he was raking in the money.
It was just twilight as we walked toward Surf Avenue and the train. We looked up at the Astroland Tower, which in the wintertime makes the most forlorn moaning sound that floats over the empty boardwalk. Now it was lighted up and its donut-shaped, revolving gondola was slowly descending. Foxy said, “Do you think it feels like it’s coming down much faster when you’re in it?” Neither one of us had ever tried it, so we decided to get on.
It cost $3.00 each and we sat on wooden benches in the round, glassed-in car. Soon we heard the old gears grind to life and we rode up 272 feet to the top. Pilar stayed in her bag but she could see out through the mesh. The view was breathtaking. We looked down on the terrible dragon of the Cyclone as it dove straight down to hell with its tail full of screaming people. Foxy said she had never imagined looking down on the Wonderwheel, because for both of us the Wonderwheel had always been the top of the world out there over the ocean. The whole thing lasted about 3 minutes and it was one of the most pleasant dollar-a-minute times I’ve ever had.
As we walked to the subway station, I tried not to think about what I had read in the Post about the Astroland Tower not being there after the end of this summer. I read that Carol Hill Albert, who owned Astroland until she sold it not long ago, had offered to make a gift of the tower to the city. The city was thinking about it, the article said, and meanwhile, an amusement park somewhere down south had said they would take it. We got on the F Train at Surf Avenue, and as it pulled away from Coney Island, the Wonderwheel and the pageant of Astroland were dazzling against the evening sky.
September 5th 2007