Sunday, October 22, 2006

Coney Island Story

As I was walking through the Stillwell Avenue subway station this afternoon, I saw a sign reading "Tell us your Coney Island story."

There was a photo of Luna Park, the name I took for this blog, and the idea is to preserve Coney Island's rich and rather bizarre history by getting people to share their memories of the place.

I've got plenty of Coney Island stories and on this day I added a new one.

My father is being treated at Saints Joachim and Anne Residences , a rehab facility on Surf Avenue, a few blocks up from the Cyclone, the parachute jump, Nathan's and all those other spots that make Coney Island the unique place it is.

He suffered a stroke last week and after seven days in the hospital we had him moved to this spot just off the boardwalk.

There's a hospital in our neighborhood, but this place has a better reputation and we thinking of putting my dad in there long-term. So it's a longer haul for us, but his health is more important than our commute.

It's depressing, especially when you realize that the Stillwell Avenue station is the end of the line, literally, for several trains. Walking into this facility, it's hard not to think of the word "terminal."

I walked down the hall to my father's room and found his bed was empty. Mr. Panic Button almost went nuts, worried that my father might have died or been taken ill, but when I went back to the day room I found him sitting there at one of the tables in a wheelchair.

"You walked by me," he said.

He was frail and a little confused, but at least he knew me and so I sat down to keep him company for a few hours. The TV was on, blaring the movie Dazed and Confused, (I know, I know) and there were several other patients in the room. Most were sleeping, a few seemed catatonic, and it was all depressing as hell being here with my father.

From the seventh floor you can look out the window and see the ocean, the boardwalk, and Astroland, but no one seemed interested except me.

I never thought I'd have to push my father around in a wheelchair, but that's what I did today. We made several orbits around the seventh floor, until on of the aide's suggested we go to the cafeteria and get some coffee. Maybe we were making her dizzy.

We met a woman on the elevator who turned out to be a nun stationed at a parish in Bay Ridge. Sister Pauline is a native of the neighborhood and she was there visiting her mother, who will turn 100 years old in February.

When I told Sister Pauline my father is a mere 85, she looked over to her mother and shook her head.

"He's too young for you," she said.

Along the Boardwalk

I asked my father if he remembered taking us out to Nathan's when we were kids. He looked puzzled, apparently unable to recall those times, but I'll never forget them. Summer, winter, it didn't matter, my parents would load us up in the car and we'd go down there and load up hamburgers and those sinfully delicious french fries.

This was back before I had ever heard of cholestrol, obesity, or fat content. I just ate like a wild animal. There was something about those fries, I think it was the salt air, but I couldn't get enough of them.

We used to drive over a bridge some place and there was a fruit stand selling watermelons. Every time we drove by, my father would shout in this mock Italian accent, "water-melony!"and I would laugh hysterically every time.

I remember one night this young man came up to our car as we were munching away and said to my dad, "you've got a nice family, I'd love to see mine again someday, can you spare some change?"

I was a child and assumed everybody was honest, so I said, "c'mon, Dad, give him some money." I think he gave the guy a couple of bucks and probably shot me a dirty look.

I didn't realize until years later that the guy was probably running a scam, that there was no family, just a con game that he pulled on the suckers. But he seemed really nice.

One winter afternoon we were walking back to our car and as my father was putting away his change, I saw a 20 dollar bill fly out of his wallet and sail down the street, a captive of the fierce January winds. I shouted to him, we got the money back, and I was a hero for about a minute.

"Yeah," I said, not thinking in the least. "If it had been a dollar, I wouldn't have said anything, but 20 dollars, that's a lot of money."

"What do you mean you wouldn't have said anything about a dollar?" my parents cried in unison, and proceded to give me a lecture about learning the value of a...dollar. God, why didn't I keep my mouth shut?

One of the dimest memories in my mind goes to the night we went to Steeplechase on a family outing. I was too small for most of the rides, but I had a great time nevertheless. I recall watching my father come sailing down this big metal slide on a little throw rug, like a luge contestant, and it was strange seeing my father at play.

It was like I was the parent and he was the child. And now we're doing that all over again.

At one point in the evening I apparently banged my head on some kind of countertop that had been left in the down position and my parents raised hell with the management. But it didn't ruin the evening for us.

My dad used to tell me about an Indian who used to stand outside one of the arcades, and how my brother, Peter, was terrified of this guy. We have a photo someplace of my brother actually shaking hands with the Indian, but he is stretching his arm so far out, he looks ready to turn around and run away.

Years later, we would go to an Italian restaurant off Surf Avenue, Gargiulio's, where they used to have a giant plaster octopus hanging from the ceiling. It looked like something from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I found out last summer that they had taken it down years ago. Maybe Captain Nemo got him.

My mother used to tell us about how she was at Coney Island the night Luna Park burned down. The park was tremendously popular for many years and I love looking at the old photos of the place, with all the men in straw hats and women in long dresses, walking around this fantasy land.

You could almost believe it was a more innocent time and I guess that's why I chose the name for my blog. It makes me think of this carefree world where it's always summer and the only thing you're required to do is have fun.

The park had closed down by the mid-1940's. My mom remembered standing on the subway platform and watching the place burn to the ground.

Years later I met a friend of my uncle's who, as a young reporter, covered the Luna Park fire for the old Brooklyn Eagle, calling his story in from a pay phone on the boardwalk.

I once took a walking tour of Coney Island and the guide told us that the Native Americans who used to live around there had a name for this spot that meant "Land With No Shadows." I think they were on to something.

And Today's Word is...Weltschmerz

I took my father back to the day room so he could have his supper. There was a lady sitting at the table and she called out to me.

"Young man," she said, "can you help me get my sweater off?"

I helped her, very carefully, of course, and I figured this was about the only place on earth where I would be considered a young man. She squeezed my hand.

"Thank you," she said. "I appreciate it."

It was time to go. Between my father's poor hearing and confused state, we just didn't have much to say to one another. Plus I was a little shaky about the neighbor and wanted to walk back to the train station before it got back.

I saw my father eating some kind of pudding and I thought he could use a tissue. I saw a little tissue box by the woman I had just helped with her sweater, the woman who now had her head on the table, apparently asleep. So I took a few tissues.

"What are you doing?" she snarled, lifting her head. "Those are mine!"

I apologized profusely and she roughly shoved the tissues back into the box. I supposed shouting, "take a pill, bitch!" would have been inappropriate but I was sorely tempted. I guess the mood swings are put of the aging process.

I kissed my father on the head and he told me he was sorry to see my go. I felt guilty, but I would have felt that way if I had stayed there all night. Sooner or later I would have to leave him.

I went back to the train station along the boardwalk, looking at the ocean and the refurbished parachute jump. It seems smaller than I remembered, but isn't that always the way?

I thought of the people in that day room, all of them, just like my father, were once young and vibrant. They weren't born old and helpless, needing wheelchairs. nurses, and medicine; it just happened to them as the years went by.

I realized you really do have to live life to its fullest. The time goes by so quickly that one day maybe someone will be pushing me around in a wheelchair. I want to have something more than regrets and broken dreams.

I'm not sure when my father is coming home. I'm not sure he should come home, but, honestly, I don't like seeing him in that place. That facility is for...old people, not my dad. But then everyone must feel that way about their parents.

So my father would living in the land with no shadows for a little while longer. I'm going to keep trying to get him to remember the good times we had there. Maybe he'll do the "water-melony!" shout for me one last time.

Wouldn't that be a Coney Island story to remember?


DesertPeace said...

That was great Rob..
I have a few Coney Island stories myself... I was born and bred there.... actually next door in Brighton Beach... but spent lots of time in Coney... it was great...
Look at the positive side to it all.... Dad is where he belongs. He will get th proper care there and you will get a chance to breath again. Think of yourself for a change.
Be well and Bless you!

Rob K said...

Thanks so much, Peace. There is a positive here, even though things look bad. As you say, he is getting the proper care and that's all that matters.

Bless you and yours, my brother.

Anne said...

Thanks for this post, Rob. Glad to see you are keeping your sense of humor. This is really strong writing.

Is your Dad feeling reflective, or is it mostly you? Maybe having the view of Coney Island will be good for the spirit too...could be a blessing, even though the commute is longer for you guys.

Rob K said...

Oh, thanks so much, Anne. I appreciate your kind thouhgts.

I find I'm the refletive one, as my dad seems unwilling or unable to recall the past. And Coney Island isn't just the end of the line, it's also the beginning...

Calamity Jen said...

It's so hard to find a seniors' home that isn't depressing, but part of the problem is what we project into the atmosphere. Our fear of our own aging and mortality can add an unnecessary level of bleakness. If you have ensured that your father is comfortable and well cared for, you've done your job. Now take the lesson you've already described: live life to the fullest.

P.S. I've been going through your blog from the beginning and leaving comments here and there. Your posts are really well crafted and many are moving.

Rob K said...

Excellent point, Jen. We can make things so much worse--or better--just by the way we look at things.

And thank you so much your comments regarding this blog. It's good therapy for me (along with the Prozac!!) and if people find them even remotely readable I'm very happy.

Take care of yourself.

Brenda from Flatbush said...

Rob, what a deep and beautiful post. My uncle was in Sephardic Home last year, another "terminal" outpost in Brooklyn with a strangely distant-seeming view of the ocean, and so many of these same thoughts swept over me...but the Coney karma makes this an indescribably rich and touching piece of writing, and a tribute to your parents and the family life they created. Good luck with the "home" thing (if it's any consolation, Sts. J&A is the place most diocesan priests go, or so I'm told) I've often said, "ah, yes, nursing home...not much nursing, not much home"...but sometimes there are simply no other reasonable options. Your being there with your Dad will make it as good, or as not-bad, as it can get; take care of yourself, too, to the degree possible. Whenever I see a watermelon vendor, I will think of your dad and his holler!