Photograph ©2006 MalNino.
This photo of Coney Island at sunset (courtesy Erica) reminded me of a week-long Summer Vacation of sorts, spent with my grandparents in the sweaty heart of Brooklyn back in my Snot-Nose Days.
I should preface this by saying that the Coney Island skyline was a familiar sight to me, growing up. Every few weeks, we would drive into the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn to spend a Sunday with my grandparents - the ’Rents d’Eli - at their fourth-floor walkup on Bay 26th Street, hard by the corner of Bath and Cropsey Avenues. As we would approach our destination, cruising on the Belt Parkway, I would look for all the familiar landmarks.
There was the Mill Basin Bridge, an old-style drawbridge. Instead of the usual automatic railroad crossing-style gates, the attendant would get out of his booth and pull a steel gate across the lanes of traffic when the bridge was to be raised.
There was the gigantic railyard just north of Coney Island...and there, off in the distance, we could see the familiar skyline. The Wonder Wheel. The Parachute Jump. The Cyclone. That meant we were nearing our destination.
Later, after my grandfather suffered a heart attack, the Grand-’Rents moved to 21st Avenue, where they found a building with an elevator: Stair-climbing was no longer a possibility for him. But my early memories are of that place on Bay 26th Street, the apartment in which my father grew up. On warm evenings, I would look out over the fire escape at the Sinclair station on the corner, watching the comings and goings of daily commerce. The building had its own unique aroma, the mingled smells of ethnic cooking that I can conjure up simply by closing my eyes.
It was the summer of 1960 when my folks, no doubt in need of their own Summer Vacation, arranged for my brother and me to spend a week in Brooklyn with the Grand-’Rents.
A summer week in Brooklyn? You may chortle at the thought, but to a suburban kid like me - not quite eight years old - it was like a Mysterious Sojourn in an Exotic Land. Every day, we would go somewhere different, taking the subway for what was then the modest fare of fifteen cents.
Most days, we would go to Coney Island. There was a beach there, with real sand - but for Grandpa Jack, the main attraction was the Ravenhall Baths, where he would go for a long schvitz in the steam room. Now, that was an experience for a seven-year-old kid - gasping while trying to breathe the hot, steamy air, looking at all the Old Guys with their sagging chests and pendulous scrota. It was a glimpse at Future Present in a way, for those Old Guys were, at the time, not much older than I am today. But it was also a real Grandpa-Grandson bonding moment.
We would stroll along the Boardwalk, me gazing up at the horrifyingly precipitous Parachute Jump from underneath, hearing the screams of the passengers as they reached the top and then free-fell in their chairs about ten feet before the ’chute would kick in. I vowed then and there that I would never ride that thing - a vow that I am pleased to say I have kept.
We would eat hot dogs from the original Nathan’s - none finer - and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes. I can still taste ’em. Hell, I’m probably still digesting ’em.
There was the last Great Amusement Park there, George C. Tilyou’s famous Steeplechase, named for a ride that involved metal horses that ran on an outdoor track. Indoors, there were carnival-style rides, along with gigantic wooden slides. You sat on a blanket to use the slide, and the penalty for touching its surface while you were in motion was a painful burn.
One day, we went in to Manhattan to go to Radio City. I remember nothing about the movie we saw there except for its title - Fanny - but the rest of the experience, which included seeing the Rockettes and hearing the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, was indelibly engraved on my little-kid mind.
After a week, I was ready to go home, back to the familiar landscape of the ’Burbs...but my week in Brooklyn still sits in the cobwebby Memory Banks of my younger days, filed under “Seven Days of Magic.” Walt Disney, with all his Disneyland charm and wiles, could never compete.