Last week I found myself at Coney Island on a rainy Sunday. My Uncle Steve was visiting from Dallas, and a bunch of us were able to snag a few overcast hours of boardwalk, Cyclone, and Nathan's time. When the rain started we spontaneously made our way to the Coney Island Sideshow; five minutes to go before Heather Holiday (or somesuch) would swallow swords and fire, and Vick the Vomiter (or somesuch) would slam nails through his sinus (Sideshow sidenote: There's an X-ray of a nail through a nasal cavity at the bar, perched into a corner of the illuminated Pepsi case, to prove it).
The show came and went; the rain came and didn't let up for a good while. The Sideshow warehouses itself in a large corner space at 1208 Surf Avenue near West 12th Street, and I was glad to find the cafe and bar to wait out the worst of the rain. I should have gone in for the Coney Island Pilsner like my brother did because the coffee was old and bitter, but I digress. A Coney Island-themed pinball machine kept Jamie occupied for a long while. I told Steve that I was pretty sure there was a Coney Island Museum nearby that would be neat to check out; he said, 'It's here. It's at the end of the gift shop.' We'd just passed through the gift shop on our way out of the show, and I'd not seen that for 99 cents you could climb the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor and be thrown back in time a hundred years or more. I found this unsettling.
To me, when I think of the vast history of Coney Island, I think about its loyal protectors like Richard Snow, my dear old boss who pops up all over my site lately, and who wrote a book of poetry, a history, and a beautiful and authoritative documentary about Coney, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who wrote not one, but two beautiful books about his ghosts from the beaches of Brooklyn. One of his poems I love so much that we read it at our wedding (from A Far Rockaway of the Heart). I hadn't considered that the latest wave of history protectors are the tattooed Rockabilly Sailor Jerry types who are employed by, and frequent, the Sideshow and its bar.
The museum itself is smallish and has an old fashioned attic feel. Entering the space I had a sharp memory of being ten years old and holding Cat Club meetings in a similar feeling space. A makeshift theater with metal folding chairs and a large screen TV shows on a loop a campy "Come to Coney Island!" video from the 50s (they'd be far better off showing Richard's documentary, in my humble opinion). There are a few old ride cars hailing back from when they looked like covered wagons, and old bubble-lettered, candy colored signage fills the walls. There is also a room dedicated to an exhibit called "Postcards from Paradise: Writings and Images from Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase Parks", showing through February of next year. Glass display cases frame artfully placed cards with fading ink, their sentiments to relatives and friends hollering out poignantly after all these years. A girl with a pompadour hairstyle sits behind a sturdy wooden desk. She wears an old fashioned navy postal uniform, and explains to me that if I want to buy a reprinted postcard from her, and pay for the postage, she'll be happy to stamp it with This Coney Island Stamper and drop it in the mail for me. I decline, because the relative I'd probably send it to is in the other room looking at the old freakshow photographs.
I'm grateful to those who are working their mightiest to pull together their offbeat lives with the dwindling traces of the old Coney Island. The whole flavor of each distinct element of the franchise, if you will, - the sideshow, the museum, the Mermaid Parade, and other events, share the cohesive thread of being run by a non-profit group called Coney Island USA, which has been around for 30 years. Visiting this diminutive, but lovingly curated, museum was certainly the second best dollar I've spent in a long while (you can read about the first best here, if you like).