Brooklyn’s Brilliant: an Appreciation

Last Summer at Astroland

It has been scientifically proven that the Cyclone is the most awesome roller coaster in America. The last time they tried to measure the awesomeness of the Cyclone, the awesometer broke on the way down the first drop (85 feet straight down into the steaming heart of Brooklyn! — sorry, all that barker stuff gets stuck in my head after a while).

We’re inside the ride, waiting to board the next train. On the far wall there’s a big warning sign, five or six bullet points long, which basically says “this ride goes up and down fast.” I’m standing next to a sinuous girl with dirty blonde hair and a boyfriend.

Sinuous Girl: Look, it says the Cyclone is a “high impact ride.” Kind of like sleeping with me, right?
Startled Boyfriend:

It’s last Friday, and Laura is in town (graciously excusing my Very Bad Habit of never answering emails) with her sister. Either I’ve never met the sister or I last saw her at Storyville in Kenmore Square up in Boston, which would make it roughly 1982. We pile into the car in Brooklyn Heights, zip onto the BQE, miss the turnoff to the Belt Parkway, and promptly get lost somewhere in Bay Ridge, and soon enough we’re in Coney Island for a last-gasp visit — the bulk of Coney Island as we know it closes after Labor Day, to be replaced by high-rise condos and a beachfront resort. Or something. They’re still trying to figure out what will suck most. Because what’s the point of developing if you can’t wreck people’s lives along the way?

It ends up being a glorious day of Brooklyn Celebration. August serves up a hot humid plate, deliciously spiced with sea breeze off the harbor. We avoid running over the parking lot attendant with some fancy wheelwork and head to the Boardwalk, meandering down to the Steeplechase Pier with its earnest fishermen, marveling that the long-abandoned Childs Restaurant building is at last being restored. Up the way is a portable yellow beach stadium for pro amateur teen beach volleyball or somesuch, which apparently exists largely as an excuse to put up signs for Snapple and Crocs.

For lunch it’s Totonno’s, one of the city’s legendary pizza joints (established 1924, and you have to love a place which claims that only God makes better pizza). This is my first time here, and the pie is mighty good. I’ll have to come back to see if it’s legendary — that’s a big word in pizza circles — but it’s very good indeed, thin-crusted and fully-loaded without getting drippy and gooey. I love that one of the crafters at this traditional foodie shrine wears a lip ring. The rebel daughter or niece, presumably. Halfway through the meal we realize that we’re sitting at the George Bush table, the wall above us adorned with pictures of Senior and Junior. We manage not to fling anchovies, but it’s a close thing.

The Coney Island Museum costs 99¢ at the door and has bathrooms, which makes it a mandatory stop after beer with lunch. “Uh, I’ve got this one.” “No no, my treat.” We probably have much more fun in there than we’re supposed to; it’s a small collection, but we’re the perfect age for it. There’s a Whirl-a-Gig (or something) car in there which I’m sure I rode in as a child, because it’s one of the few favored cars that has a gun mounted in the front and in the back, and I was always looking for that one.

Can it be that I never rode the Wonder Wheel before? I don’t remember ever going, so maybe this is the first. We ride a swinging car, like everyone else, which means as soon as we get toward the top our car rolls forward down a track toward the center, where it swings back and forth in what is, to be honest, a kind of irritating way. Where’s the brake on this thing? From up here we can see how much of Astroland is a dense frolicking buffer against the kind of empty lots that just can’t stay vacant forever in New York.

Then the Cyclone, bless it, my second or third time this summer and it gets me every ride. There’s just enough hang time at the top for the brain to flash a Wait! Wait! Bad idea! alert before the thing crashes pell-mell (pell-mell = 60 m.p.h.) down toward certain death and then twists up and away, and does it again and again and again. The judder of the cars along the steel-braced wooden track and the roaring clatter of the bucking wood go a long way toward making this the King of the Coasters. It’s just under two minutes of twists and turns and yanks and jolts, and in the din you can’t ever quite get your bearings. Once upon a time I’d ride the Cyclone over and over. These days, not so much. We wobble to the exit. Ride again for only four dollars! the attendants cry out. You two, you two, just five dollars for both! Okay, three for six! You can choose your seat when you go again, so if you want the front car this is how to get there. With a flash of tempted regret, we choose the exit.

I need to cajole a bit to get everyone into Sideshows by the Seashore, the last traditional independent sideshow in the States. A couple of people I know are working today. You’ll probably have to take my word for this, but it’s a great inner thrill to be recognized at the Sideshow. Some people know fancy maîtres-d’ and A-list actors, and some people know really good sword-swallowers. Makes a guy preen a bit. I make sure everyone has tipping money handy so we don’t look like tourists. Laura hides her eyes when Diamond Donny V. sticks a nail up his nose, and curls into a ball when he shoves a live drill armed with a masonry bit in there. You might as well watch, he advises. You paid for it. Heather Holiday coaxes her up on stage for the next act — settling the score, no doubt — and Laura gets to pull a huge serpentine sword out of Heather’s mouth in the finale. Everyone is thrilled and envious and a little glad it wasn’t them up there.

A day like this can only properly end at The Waterfront, one of the best fine-cuisine home-style restaurant bars I’ve ever found (conveniently located about 30 seconds from my door). We wait for a table over a couple of glasses of Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale and a Spaten Pilsner, and chow down on flank steak, a Kobe Beef burger, and the Waterfront’s amazing home-smoked ribs. Bread pudding closes the day, and half a block later the sisters are bound for exurbia and I’m already halfway down in visions of the shower and nap ahead.

New York drives me crazy a lot. And then some days I remember why I live here and have so much trouble moving away. It’s no end of hassle, but where else in the world?

Prints of the photo above are available for purchase from the ImageKind online photo service. Buy a print, and support your local Peppers (me)!

About Linus

The man behind the curtain. But couldn't we get a nicer curtain?
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