In 1608, while Henry Hudson tried to find a northern route to the East Indies, two of his crewmembers reported sighting a mermaid. Hudson’s log read, “From the navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a womans… her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.” In 1842, PT Barnum took over New York’s American Museum and made his first exhibit the Fiji (or FeeJee) Mermaid, an embalmed human head attached to a fish body. Today, one can still sight mermaids from Coney Island’s shore during the annual Mermaid Parade, which occurs on the first Saturday after summer solstice. The parade circles Astroland and the Stillwell Avenue station, culminating on the boardwalk. According to parade propoganda, the event hosts “hundreds of mermaids, mer-men, mer-babies, mer-animals, and thousands of spectators,” all of whom on this particular day clamor for faux pearls, clamshell bras, flippers, and long, iridescent green tails.
Coney Island chose its two icons wisely. The mermaid and the smiling, freckled face of a young man, commonly associated with Nathan Handwerker, founder of Nathan’s Hot Dog Stand, adorn most of its storefronts, hotels, and casinos. These icons have seeped into the area’s cultural philosophy, establishing a status quo of leering males and dazzling, but miserable sirens. Indeed, Coney Island girls shine with hair gel and slick lip gloss; they wear too-short skirts and too-tight tops. They mainly live for melodrama and they drip attitude as they saunter down the street, be it Surf, Mermaid, or Neptune Avenue, all of which evoke the seaside atmosphere. Most of them move away to “better” places, places where even mediocre living is better, somehow more wholesome and green. Only the true mermaids stay by their sea. At night, the fishermen off the 17th Street Pier dream of their siren songs.
Coney Island’s main spectacle occurs at its shore, where, on an average summer day, one observes a remarkable and elaborate exhibit of human pleasure-seeking. Flesh abounds in a wide, glorious spectrum, from the palest pale to the richest, deepest brown; and it peeks from elastic waistbands and bikini bottoms. Straps slip, strings dangle. These spectacular creatures shine with suntan oil and wriggle to the tunes. Children run amok, kicking sand behind them and splashing uproariously into the water. Entrepreneurs lug about with coolers and sell ice-cold soda to parched sunbathers at a premium, while hot dog vendors wheel silver kiosks close to the beach and people meet them halfway, forming a sweaty, coiling line down to the sand. A peculiar air of coconut oil and beer wafts toward onlookers promenading Riegelmann’s boardwalk.
When my friend Susan and I went to the beach together, we felt like anything but ordinary girls. My mother dazzled in her red bikini, as did Susan and I in our seashell suits. We girls had curves in places hardly suitable for 12-year-olds, and we giggled when men walked by gawking. We rushed into the water over and over, shrieking at its cold shock, flinging ourselves onto warm towels in between and digging our toes in the hot sand. We fancied ourselves mermaids or sirens or selkies, and lamented our impractical bodies: legs that couldn’t kick fast enough to torpedo ourselves past the buoys, eyes too sensitive for underwater viewing, hands without webbing to keep water in our palms, and birthmarked skin that held neither beautiful green scales nor dark brown fur, skin that couldn’t withstand our late bouts with chickenpox. We longed to glow blue like moon jellyfish.
As Susan and I bobbed in the sea, her biggest fear was being stung by a jellyfish, though most varieties of sting are harmless to humans. We gazed at the far-away sand, then at each other: Susan’s eyelashes glimmered with droplets of water, her skin dewy. Seagulls floated past us. “Oh my God!” she suddenly shrieked. “A jellyfish!” And we squealed, dashing back to the shore and falling on our towels, howling with laughter.
A child living in the urban jungle can not be expected to start life with a large lexicon of terms for nature beyond bird, mouse, tree, flower, and dirt, but probably comes to know more words as natural situations arise. Coney Island had small treasures, little doses of nature: the ladybugs at Seagate, the spring’s first honeysuckle, and the long worms that emerged after heavy rain. A trip to Luna Park or Asser Levy Park involved grass, dogs, and maybe robins, taking the visit out of the “normal” realm of Brooklyn’s natural environment.
Those are the moments easiest to forget: when my hands smelled of metal from the swings, when my knees turned brown and green from an impromptu picnic of hot Brighton pieroshki. Little white moths weaved through the air, stopping briefly on dandelions and then darting back into the air and fluttering away. Samaras propelled down from the maple trees along the walkway, begging for someone to feel the two even, ridged wings, the symmetrical seeds in the center. Fattened squirrels dawdled by, frenetic yet zen, tails fluffed in seemingly endless activity. Birds twittered and sang.
Maybe if I’d taken the time to dig deeper in the soil, I might have learned the treasures that Coney Island buried beneath its grass. I think I never saw a thing, or if I did, it was the wrong thing, the superficial thing. Did I ever see a glorious blue dragonfly hiding amidst the tall grass and daisies?
The opulence that built Coney Island in the late 1800s remains, if plastered over with dirt. One need only to peruse Coney Island’s other fine wares: the Tilyou/Culver gambling houses and hotels, the remains of which sit blacked by fire and weathered by salty air. One still feels the ghosts of 1895’s Sea Lion Park, Coney Island’s first amusement park, and its 1904 predecessor Dreamland, both of which suffered dubious arson accidents. One also feels the excitement that must have prevailed when the Wonder Wheel didn’t break or burn to the ground, or when the Boardwalk was built, or when the Cyclone moved to the neighborhood to set the scene for quick adrenaline for the generations that followed. The parachute jump remains, a World’s Fair skeleton, standing in Steeplechase Park to peer down on empty racetracks where the wealthy once bet on the area’s renowned horses.
In a The New Yorker piece, Adam Gopnik speculates on the nature of New York landmarks: “If they do have a symbolic meaning, it is not about the meaning of a symbol but about the right to symbolize, to think expansively and metaphorically in a city given to thinking economically about nearly everything.” This resounds especially in Coney Island, whose glory days have passed. Today, the neighborhood is just a symbol: a picture of mermaids bobbing in the sea, a metaphor of marine pleasures and thrills that have all but evacuated the surrounding slum. One feels this strongly in Coney Island – the air of decay that forces nature to one-up itself constantly, where even nature must glimmer with drama that requires being greater, bigger, sexier, better. And yet, Coney Island will never forsake its mermaid iconography, perhaps silently suspecting that without it, some essential part of New York might disappear.
Most folklore indicates that merfolk, though astoundingly beautiful, are usually detrimental to humanity. Perhaps they offer too much temptation for escape; perhaps through their extraordinarily long lives they act as omens to the painfully mortal. Perhaps they are a constant reminder of things that elude humans: existence in two equally wonderful realms, unearthly passion for music and love of song. Whatever their function, they hold an essential place in the human imagination, an admonition of the exploitation of the unusual or bizzare, and an evocation of life’s possibilities.
I suspect Coney Island aspires to be a mermaid, but I am not sure which half of the body it resembles more. Like the mermaid, Coney Island’s history is as much legend as it is real, the visibly human corpus hints something green and spectacular below the surface. The neighborhood alone is hard and human, but that waterline encircles the peninsula on which the neighborhood rests, softening its hard edges, reminding those who live there of nature’s occasional triumphs. Sometimes, though, the human half battles with its long, unfurling tail, swatting at it and seemingly unsure of how to react to its shimmering, scaly beauty. I fear that one day the two halves might succeed in breaking apart completely, causing both of them to die.
Thinking of Coney Island now, my brain tries to focus on the happy things: watermelon juice dripping down my chin as my mother lathered Noxzema on my sunburned back; morning cereal and toasted bagels after sleeping over at Susan’s house, which bustled with Italo-Judaic life; the armies of superhero balloon figures that vendors sold on sticks along the boardwalk. But the sad things creep in: I remember the ocean, its luscious salty breeze blowing through my bedroom window, when suddenly the image of a gyrating man on the subway, stroking a hard-on and leering at me, rises up in my head. I envision the Cyclone, and suddenly think of a dead jellyfish, washed up on the shore after high tide.
Coney Island’s natural world exists in this way: it is looked at, ogled, fondled, smelled, pinched, and chewed, but remains a mystery to most of its inhabitants. I didn’t learn soon enough that the washed up jellyfish that I had poked with a stick carried inside a mass of algae that it used to feed itself, like a perpetual evolutionary juice pack, squeezing and sucking and consuming just enough for its bursts of high energy. I didn’t learn soon enough how I’d belittled and tortured the corpse of a seaqueen who once glowed blue in her acquatic kingdom. I’d rhapsodized the ocean that I once called my world and hadn’t known a single critical thing about its habitat and biodiversity beyond the fact that many bags of hospital syringes once contaminated it.
In the early morning hours, the sun peeks over the Atlantic to the Coney Island shore and paints the clouds in shapes of roaring animals and laughing faces. A soft breeze blows. In the summer, it seems, the humid wind blows soft and moist as the breath of a sleeping giant. The ocean, still at low tide, mumbles along the sand. Sandpipers waddle by, leaving a double-Y shaped trail. Seagulls lunge and soar over the water, calling out sea sea sea. Tire tracks mark the cool, packed sand; somewhere, a car horn blares. The pinkening sky casts shadows over the water, hinting of the porpoises that once migrated along the shore. If one stares long enough, the slip of a tail or fin might come into view. Momentarily, a sliver breaks the surface, leaving a circular ripple that smoothes to nothing.
There are perhaps nicer beaches in the world: shores lined with palms, coconut, bougainvillea, and freesia; where the water is clear and blue, and the sand blanches under a hot Equatorial sun. My mother blissfully recalled the white Tanzanian shores and the warm Indian Ocean, whose tide washed up crab, conch, and urchin shells. She and my sister retreated there often, turning dark as ginger cookies. By contrast, I imagine my mother looked at New York’s bleak grey sea and grimaced. My sister has not yet acclimated to northern waters; each year, she makes long pilgrimages to tropical countries, habitats familiar to her spicy, clove-scented soul, where she swims until the salt webs her skin. But I was too young to remember our Africa days, when my mother and sister dunked me in shallow tidal pools and minnows encircled my chunky, crab-baby legs, so I recall Coney Island as my watery salve. In our respective sea environments, you can find us lounging in the early morning water, breaking the surface only to breathe. A mermaid strain trickles down our family tree.
Dutch settlers must have founded Coney Island to address their need for indulgence and abandon. They pushed out the Konoh Indians, then the konjin hares, and eventually they pushed themselves out. They encroached, razed, developed, built, and then abandoned the land, leaving it abundantly infested with only nature’s renegades: cockroaches, rats, and pigeons. And then they pushed their poor onto the land. The place remains a relic of its own optimism. That’s the nature of Coney Island: it exists to make a spectacle out of itself. But can anyone who sees it and experiences it daily begin to know what the place is really about?
Dutch settlers built Coney Island as an elegy to its own self-image, but they forgot one thing when they left the land for dead: in it lingered the battered, still-breathing spirit of the sea and, somewhere almost forgotten, love.