Where fun and some flimflam still amuse

Email|Print| Text size + By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2005

NEW YORK -- Stepping from the train here, one hour from downtown Manhattan, is a bit disorienting, like Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole and emerging into a parallel universe of carnies and sideshows, brightly painted signs and rides, air redolent with fried food and the salty scent of Lower New York Bay, which, on a sunny day, dazzles on the horizon. It all seems too shiny and hyper-real. One wants to speak in exclamations, to mirror the environment: Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs! The Cyclone! The Wonder Wheel!

A visit to this outpost of Brooklyn is a step back in time, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly which era you are entering. The newly renovated Stillwell Avenue subway station -- end of the line for the D, F, N, and Q trains -- is very 21st century, with an elegant, European-style glass and steel canopy over four platforms with eight tracks. (It is one of the largest rapid transit terminals in the world.) On the ground level, artist Robert Wilson's ''My Coney Island Baby" features silk-screened images of historic Coney Island on a 370-foot-long glass-brick wall.

Cross the street, and everything high-tech disappears.

Nathan's Famous, at Surf and Stillwell avenues, began selling hot dogs for a nickel in 1916. By 1955, Nathan Handwerker, who counted Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor among his friends, had sold his one-millionth dog.

Now part of a corporate entity with outlets all over the country, this location retains the hustle and pizzazz of earlier times. In addition to two sizes of hot dogs -- served plain or with sauerkraut, cheese, or chili -- there are crinkly fries, burgers, pizzas, hot dog nuggets, and mini-corn dogs.

Nathan's Famous is also where, on weekends year round, rain or shine, you'll find Captain Bob, tour guide and Coney Island character of the first degree. Over 6 feet tall, with gray-blue eyes and a captain's hat tilted jauntily atop shaggy white hair, Captain Bob has a mile-wide smile, a folder of vintage postcards under his arm, and an encyclopedia of tales to tell about Coney Island's golden age.

Captain Bob (he won't reveal his real name, which we later learn is Robert McCoy) has been offering tours for seven years.

''I came as a little kid in the 1940s and 1950s, when it was really crowded," he says.

It's busy on a hot Saturday afternoon. People buy hot dogs and Cokes, or carry their coolers, chairs, and umbrellas. They meander past a flea market, bumper cars, and shoot-'em-up games before heading up the ramp to the boardwalk and the beach.

Captain Bob says he recently moved here to pursue his Coney Island passion year round. Much of what he has to say about Coney Island is of a time long past.

In 1865, Peter Tilyou moved here from the city and opened the Surf House, a hotel and restaurant. He rented bathing suits and built wooden bathhouses nearby.

''People didn't go to the beach then like we do now," Bob says. ''They got all dressed up."

In 1884, the first US roller coaster opened at Coney Island, and in 1895, Paul Boyton opened Sea Lion Park amusement park.

Over the next nine years, three more parks opened: Steeplechase (1897), Luna Park (1903), and Dreamland Park (1904). People came to see the remarkable sights, one more fantastic than the next. Luna Park, for example, was a modern fairyland, with minarets, towers, and castles sprawled across 92 acres. People rode elephants and camels through the park. In Dreamland, which had a million electric lights, all the buildings were white, and the Beacon Tower stood 375 feet high. It burned in 1911 and is now the site of the New York Aquarium.

We stroll to the boardwalk, past rows of fast-food joints offering knishes, cotton candy, fried shrimp, sausages and burgers, corn dogs, funnel cakes, ice cream, and beer -- sometimes all at one venue. Other places hawk beach balls, towels, T-shirts, suntan lotion, hats, and beach chair and umbrella rentals. A barker calls to come ''shoot the freak," a paintball game with a ''live human target."

At Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, Sideshows by the Seashore keeps alive a Coney Island tradition with 10 live acts and attractions, including Eak the Geek (bed of nails sandwich), and Scott Baker (glass-eater, magician, human blockhead). Above the theater entrance, their brightly painted portraits hang on canvas banners.

Around the bend and up a flight of worn tile stairs, we find the Coney Island Museum. Coincidentally, the woman taking our 99-cent entry fee painted those portraits. Marie Roberts, a professor of drawing and painting at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has Coney Island in her blood.

''My Uncle Lester was a talker at the sideshow at Dreamland before he became a snake oil salesman in the 1920s," she says. ''I grew up speaking carny."

Roberts says carny is a real language used among the carnival and sideshow community, not just slang or banter. When asked to demonstrate, she reels off sounds reminiscent of some Eastern European dialect mixed with Gaelic and pure gibberish.

Back outside, Captain Bob continues spinning tales of the past while the present jolts the senses with contrasting colors, smells, and activity. A five-piece band plays salsa music, competing with the clatter of the roller coaster and the shouts of children playing in the freshwater spray from an artificial palm tree on the beach.

''In 1934, there were 28 roller coasters in Coney Island," says Captain Bob. ''The Cyclone is the only one left."

The Cyclone was built in 1927 and achieved National Historic Landmark status in 1991. It is part of Astroland Amusement Park, which sits next to Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Its old-fashioned Ferris wheel has 16 swinging cars and eight stationary cars, and rises 150 feet. (Over 30 million riders! Not a single accident in 85 years!)

Farther down the boardwalk, we see the bright red skeleton of the Parachute Jump, a 262-foot-high structure known as Brooklyn's Eiffel Tower. Built for the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, it was later moved to Steeplechase Park. Although no longer operating, the structure was declared a landmark in 1977. It stands beside a spiffy new baseball stadium, KeySpan Park, home to the New York Mets' Class A affiliate Brooklyn Cyclones.

Captain Bob pauses at a gap in the boardwalk.

''See the small dunes, and the low foliage?" he says. ''Just erase all the garbage, and try to see this the way it was when Henry Hudson first arrived" in 1609. ''There were lots of wild rabbits here. Coney is the Dutch word for rabbit. Hudson looked at these dunes and said. 'Look at all the conies here.' " Captain Bob turns and smiles, pleased with his tale.

We learn later that there are several conflicting versions of how the island got its name, none of which include Hudson uttering this line. But for a moment, as we look at the dunes with their scrubby growth -- ignoring the rides and the corn dogs and the garbage -- we see for a moment the rabbits and the pure wildness of the place. We see, and we believe it all.

Believing in things that may or may not be true, blurring fantasy and reality through illusion, and celebrating creativity and alternative visions -- while making a buck -- that's what Coney Island has been, and still is, all about.

Excitement! Thrills! Coney Island! Right this way!

Contact Necee Regis, a freelance writer in Boston, at

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