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A Quiet Afternoon in Coney Island

Coney Island

I'm not what one would call an adventurer. Ok, fine, I'm a punk. My idea of danger is standing on the yellow strip on the subway platform. In the late nineties, I joked that a black man in New York City didn't need to bungee jump to feel genuine fear when the NYPD was only ever a few blocks away. In truth, I avoid fear, doing as much as possible to sidestep opportunities to scream like a little girl. So, when I suggested a trip to Coney Island one bright Sunday afternoon, I had not planned on testing my bladder control before the day was over.

My only intentions were to sit out on the boardwalk and read the paper, periodically pausing to people-watch and to stuff my face with Nathan's hot dogs. My girlfriend, Tammi, had an entirely different idea of what an afternoon in Coney Island meant. As soon as we finished ogling newly renovated Stillwell Avenue station, she began talking about the rides we should go on. I was immediately confused. Rides were typically something I thought of in an abstract sense. I passed them as I headed to the beach or the aquarium, occasionally I'd even stop and watch as participants flew by screaming. Friends would tell me knowingly how much fun they were. I took their word for it, but never really considered verifying these claims.

I have only been to amusement parks a couple of times. As a kid, everything about them was novel. The whole spectacle: the lights, the people, the foods all excited me. I didn't require threats to my life to enjoy myself. As such, I never built up the resistance to self-preservation my peers have developed so extensively as to need a new, more perilous danger each year.

Humoring her, I suggested we walk down the boardwalk for a while. My hope was to find some incredibly exciting distraction that would at the very least afford me some time to conjure up an excuse for avoiding the rides other than sheer cowardice. It didn't work. Regardless of how far away we were down the boardwalk, Tammi's eyes lit up when she saw the cyclone in the distance.

A different tactic seemed necessary: start small. Coming in she'd pointed out the Go-karts. I don't drive and have always missed the appeal of driving games. From bumper cars to Grand Theft Auto, I usually ended up crashing and burning not long after getting behind the wheel. But a non-driving friend had gone on and on about how much fun they were, so I decided to start out there.

Before entering the "International Speedway", the last time I had been behind the wheel of a vehicle was over 10 years ago. A gruff, accented driver's ed instructor tried to explain the intricacies of the broken U-turn as oncoming traffic sped past us on one of Brooklyn's busiest street. I was relieved to see that the 'speedway' was all one way, nearly ensuring that at the very least there wouldn't be any head-on collisions. Rollovers, I wasn't so sure about.

"Oh, a big guy. You get a two-seater." I was told as I entered. I was led to the front-most car. The roomy coupe, emblazoned with the Cuban flag, had ample space for my broad shoulders. As I slid into my bright red speed demon, I came to the realization that this was actually happening. I looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who knew what they were doing. Tammi sat a few cars behind me in the England car. The announcer rambled on unintelligibly over the PA. I had no idea what he was saying but worried desperately that it was somehow relevant to the undertaking I had been charged with as the lead driver.

I sat there, breathing in the fumes of a few dozen lawnmower engines, wondering who, exactly would work in that environment and what effects the fumes have had on them. Shortly afterwards, I was approached by one of the 'crew.' He gestured at me, demanding that I move my cart up to the starting line. It was only then that I realized that I had no idea how to work the contraption. I had hoped to watch others and follow their lead, no such luck. I froze up momentarily, my expression was one usually saved for people speaking another language. Finally, I noticed the red and green arrows on the steering wheel pointing towards the brake and accelerator pedals respectively. I gingerly stepped on the gas, my car jerked forward. Gratified, I did it again, but I forgot to steer and ran into the divider.

After a few minutes, more drivers joined in and we were ready to start. The crewmembers signaled and I took off with a shot. At the first turn the drivers behind me edged into my peripheral vision. I swerved into the turn, scraping against the divider and narrowly missing a collision with my neighboring car. Other flag-adorned cars zoomed by. I steadied out and sped up, racing around the track maybe a dozen times. I sped faster in order to avoid being passed and bumped by other cars. When taking corners, I hit the brake with my left foot even as my right sat on the accelerator.

At each lap, I expected the next to be more relaxed, yet each time I found myself anxiously trying to balance my attention between the turns, the cars around me and the speed. I eventually managed to take the turns faster, but still managed to run into a wall on my last lap. As I climbed out of my Cuban roadster, I was too shaken to realize that my strategy wasn't working to my advantage. Tammi was all the more excited. I was already shell-shocked and further convinced that I should never drive.

We walked through the various amusements, passing water rides and games offering prizes of stuffed animals and such. After wandering around, we ended up at the Wonder Wheel. I had never been on a Ferris wheel. It had only been that afternoon that I discovered that some of the cars actually swung around on and inner circle of the wheel.

As we approached the entrance, Tammi was bouncing like a little girl. She tugged on my arm and asked if we could take a swinging car instead of a stationary car. I hesitated but decided that if I was suddenly going to ditch my common sense, I might as well go all the way. We walked to one of the colored swinging cars. It looked old and clunky but with a fresh coat of blue paint. The attendant pried open the wire-mesh door and beckoned us in. The car had two benches inside, clearly designed for a different time. We had the car to ourselves. Thankfully, I only had to worry about embarrassing myself in the eyes of the woman I love, not total strangers. The attendant shimmied the wire mesh sliding door closed, leaving a gap open near my foot when the door just couldn't reach any longer.

We had gotten about a quarter of the way up when the swinging started. I had just begun to convince myself that the height wasn't so big a deal. I like heights actually. I enjoy the views and the feeling of towering over the world. When flying, I love the sensation of floating above the clouds. Sure, I prefer to appreciate heights from within the relative safety of solid railings, bars, or windows, but maybe this rickety metal box could be just as secure. Maybe I should look around and enjoy the view of everything around us. This comforted me briefly until the little blue tin can suddenly jolted forward and downward.

Swinging is far too benign for the sudden jerking spasms that overtook our car. We faced the inside of the wheel and all I could see were lines upon lines of old metal beams and bars and wires. We swung forward and back and my sight was filled with the machinery of ages past. The rusty innards of this century old beast, a relic from a time before child endangerment laws, failed to inspire confidence. My heart pounded, my stomach turned and the imagery of dozens of action movies and comic books flashed through my mind in the first person. I gripped my bench and tried to look away. The first thing I rested my eyes on was the gap in the door. I imagined myself dangling from the side of the ever-rising car, having leaned on the door the wrong way. Finally, I closed my eyes. I held on to my seat and Tammi with equal force and hoped for a quick end either to my life or the ride, I'm not sure which.

On our second revolution, I calmed. I knew what to expect and that comforted me. I even glanced around once or twice between swings. Tammi had been pointing out various sites to be seen by those with their eyes open the whole time, but I only began to hear her near the end. When we disembarked, I watched briefly as one of the attendants pulled a large crank-like mechanism that is involved somehow in the functioning of the Wonder Wheel. I stood in awe for a moment of the utter foolishness of the entire experience. I turned to leave but stumbled. The intense weight of the emotions rushing through me was overwhelming. I leaned on one of the columns holding up the Wonder Wheel. I couldn't go any further. I stopped and breathed and waiting for my heart to slow to a normal rate.

Once my paralysis wore off, we walked further, I in a daze, she with definite direction: The Cyclone. After successfully surviving the swinging monstrosity, I fervently refused to take part in any other such activities that day. With confidence and pride, I held her purse as she zipped up and down and around the world famous rollercoaster. I watched with no sense of envy as she and her fellow lunatics screamed and waved while being hurled every which way.

When she was done it was my turn to choose the activity. I bee-lined for the nearest stand on the boardwalk and ordered a couple cold beers and some fried shrimp. We found a bench and I pulled out the paper. I grabbed my sections and she took hers. We read and drank our beers. I took in the sun and the sights, watching the people go by. Young children ran and played in the sand while their parents called out to them in thick West Indian accents. Music played and performers danced. Later, I stood outside the ladies room, waiting and watched photographers take pictures of a model while listening to pleas over a loudspeaker to shoot the freak.

We got more beer and walked down the boardwalk. There was a Reggae festival in the Brooklyn Cyclones' stadium. We stood outside and enjoyed the music from afar. On the way out we had hot dogs from Nathan's. I topped mine with chili and cheese followed by an old style fried apple pie from Popeye's. Now, this is what Coney Island is means to me. The most dangerous part of my Sunday on Coney Island is an overindulgence in fried foods.

Most people think of rides and games when imagining New York's great amusement park. The rush of excitement, the thrill of the speed, the heights, the noise, and the lights are all parts of the spectacle that is Coney Island. Just as spectacular are the people, the food, the sites and the events that have accumulated there. Recent new attractions like burlesque shows and weekly fireworks join the New York Aquarium, the boardwalk and baseball games on the list of things to do in Coney Island. With all that going on, there's never any reason to be afraid to have a good time.

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