Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Coney Island By Jerry Della Femina

Long Island has some of the finest beaches in the world.

What can compare for beauty with Main Beach in East Hampton? Malibu? Cannes? Miami? Those beaches are all thin, puny strips of sand. Incredibly overrated. They could all fit on any Long Island beach at the same time and there would be plenty of shoreline to spare.

I never get tired of looking at our beautiful beach in East Hampton. And when I stare and look at it long enough, I always think back to what used to be. When you grew up in, as they say, "limited circumstances," a trip to the beach was the best celebration of the line "The best things in life are free."

I grew up on West 7th Street in Brooklyn, one subway stop (five minutes) from Coney Island. The Sea Beach train (now called the N) ran behind our tiny house when I was a kid. Every time the train rolled into the station my entire house would shake. At night I would lie in my bed and listen to the train come in. It was a friendly, familiar sound to a little kid: It meant people were coming home.

In the summer my Mom would take me and my little brother to Coney Island just about every day. For me, it was like traveling to Oz.

When you walked off the subway, some incredible smells fought with each other to get into your nose. The first was the smell of raw clams being squirted with lemon. And then there was the smell of ice-cold beer foaming up and out of the glass in the clam bar that was in the promenade of the subway terminal.

As you walked across the street, you smelled the sweetness of cotton candy and two seconds later you smelled the garlic and spices of those sizzling Nathan's hot dogs that made your mouth water. By the time you got to the boardwalk, you were starving and reaching in your bag of homemade sandwiches to sneak a bite.

You could get to the beach by walking onto the boardwalk or under it. (A few years later the Drifters would tell the world about the wonders that could be found "Under the Boardwalk.") Walking under was the faster way to get onto the beach and that's the way you always went. You braved the cold clammy sand that hadn't felt the sunlight in years. You gingerly stepped over (while still managing to sneak a peek at) the teenage couples who were passionately "making out" on the blankets in the dim semi-privacy that could only be found under the boardwalk. They pretended they were invisible. I was very young but I knew enough to go along with the pretense.

The walk on the beach was a joke. There seemed to be millions of people on the beach; consequently, there was no beach. We stepped on one beach blanket after another. Finally, my mom staked out a claim and we parked our blanket, touching four other blankets, and rushed to the water.

To be honest, the water in Coney Island was just slightly cleaner than the Ganges in India. The recent BP oil spill disaster triggered a sense memory that I hadn't thought about in so many years. For years after World War II, the water in Coney Island was filled with oil chunks that blackened our feet. I remember my father telling me that it probably came from one of the ships that had been blown up nearby during the war. I remember wondering if it was one of ours or one of theirs.

But now the smell in the air was suntan oil, and as a kid I remember staying in the water for hours to fight the waves. Invariably, my mother would call me in because "your lips are turning blue." She never came into the water. She just joined all the other mothers who were standing on the shore on "blue lip patrol." When the time came to go home, I always begged for another half-hour. They always gave it to me.

On the one-stop ride home, I would rush to the front of the first car and stand on my toes at the open window. The cool air hitting my sunburned face would feel wonderful.

My favorite line in any movie is from Atlantic City. A very old Burt Lancaster is trying to impress a very young Susan Sarandon. They're looking at the Atlantic Ocean. She says, "It's very beautiful." He says, "Yes." Then he looks at her and says, "But this is nothing. You should have seen it in the old days."

My children have the same ocean I had in the old days. But they don't have the noise of subway trains every night. They've never been to Coney Island. The beach they walk on in East Hampton is spotlessly clean and well maintained. There's always plenty of room. Thanks to the diligence of the village fathers, they will never smell food on the way to Main Beach.

My children seem to have everything, but in some ways I feel sorry for them. With all they have, they will never have the richness of these memories.

If you wish to comment on "Jerry's Ink" please send your message to jerry@dfjp.com or visit indyeastend.com and scroll to the bottom of the column.

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