For those of you reading this who are not from NY, our illustrious Mayor (who is not from NY either) and several other fat cats have decided to destroy yet another New York neighborhood via gentrification. Gentrification is a horrible, horrible thing. Do NOT let it happen to your neighborhood. It seems nice at first. I mean, who doesn’t want to see a burned out crackhouse become bakery, right? But it doesn’t end there and like a horrible disease it ravages everything in its path. It doesn’t discriminate between race, gender or age. It just destroys. Trust me. The only cure is money, either yours or your daddy’s. Most of us don’t have either so watch your ass.
Rather than bore you with details about corporate greed, I’d rather bore you with a story of how to go about getting an Italian ice or maybe a soda at Ruby’s in Coney Island when you’re all of maybe five or six years old.
This story is most likely a mish-mosh of lots of other times that my parents took my sister and me to Coney Island, but it doesn’t really matter. I know that many people who read this will be able to relate to it. So here goes.
We lived in Greenpoint in the 70’s and didn’t have a car. If you had a car, you might be a fancy pants and go to Rockaway or Jones Beach, but if not, you took the train to Coney Island. You get the GG at Nassau and Manhattan Ave’s and transfer to the double R at Queens Plaza or maybe the F. I was 5 or 6 so I don’t remember too well. Anyway, at some point we got on the F train.
The F was pretty much a mobile oven in the summer and I always got sick on it. There I would sit, turning green I suppose. As it climbed out of the tunnel onto the el, I would hope that I would feel better, but no. Mom would give me a Certs or a Saltine, but in the end I would throw up anyway. As I stood at the open door on the platform, mom hanging me out the doors, hoping it would all go outside the train, I remember ignoring my father’s obvious annoyance because I thought it was cool that the Frankenberry from this morning, lying next to my Wonder Woman flip flops from Fabco, was still kinda pink. The marshmallows were gone though.
When we get to Coney Island, I’m super happy to finally be off the train. The shadows from the low buildings on Stillwell feel awesome after being in that metal box for so long. We trudge up the block with all of our stuff, past Nathan’s (the original one on Surf) and eventually hit the wooden boardwalk. The fact that it’s made of wood is important, as it is soon to be replaced by concrete. Whatdya want me to tell ya? I don’t make these decisions. Anyhow, the entire walk goes like this:
“Can we go on rides?” from the five and six year olds.
“No. We’re going to the beach,” says mom.
“Because I said so.”
At some point one of the parents probably threatened to spank us or we got the “goon arm in public” for acting up when it’s 98 degrees out and we’ve been on a train for a million years. Whatever, because there it was – the beach!
We get our spot – not to close to the water but not too far and not too close to anyone else, which won’t matter soon anyway. Out come the towels – one has a picture of a “sexy lady” with a coy smile who got caught in a fishing net. The other is the Ho Ho Ho Green Giant towel with the Giant’s big green footprint on it. I think mom sent for it with labels from cans of veggies or something. We don’t have it anymore. We put one shoe on each corner of our towel, the entire time getting reminded very sternly not to get sand on the towels. Mom asks if we’re hungry and of course we are, so out come the PB&Js with sand on Wonder Bread and the red plaid Thermos full of Country Time lemonade or maybe grape Kool-Aid. Oh, and don’t forget the transistor radio! Our station was WABC – they call that AM Gold now.
Eventually, after doing the usual beachy stuff, my sister and I would scrub about 50 cents out of our parents so would could get something all by ourselves up at the boardwalk. If we were lucky we could get a whole dollar to split between us. I mostly liked the boardwalk because it was like a whole other world to me. I knew somehow that the people on the beach were guests and the people on the boardwalk were the residents. This was their home and they were letting us hang out with them. I thought this was very nice of them to do and Ruby’s was their living room. I didn’t know it was called Ruby’s, I just knew that it was the place I had to get to.
Ruby’s is hard to describe from the point of view of a six year old. See, it’s kind of like a bar inside of a soda place next to a candy store. As a kid, I never actually went inside unless I had to because to tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was allowed since I was Greenpoint kid. I thought I was only permitted to be at the counter on the boardwalk and that the inside was like a private club or something. It was full of adults, mostly all native Coney Islanders who looked like they were in there every single day. They all obviously knew each other and always seemed happy. And of course you had at least two “old-timers” who always wore either Navy or Coast Guard uniforms, cap and all, no matter how hot it was out. Whether or not they were ever actually in the armed services, I couldn’t tell you, but there they were. Mingled with them would be the ladies, still rocking that same red lipstick and sexy bathing suits they rocked thirty years earlier. One day I would be old enough to go all the way inside and it would be awesome. Maybe I would even be one of those ladies?
I would get my ice, or possibly one of those sundae cups that you could eat with the little wooden spoon. If I was super lucky I would get a hot dog – even as a child I felt like the boardwalk Nathans’s was for tourists and I was NOT tourist. I may not have been from Coney, but I was born in Brooklyn, so there. But, like a tourist, I would turn around to find my parents and I would be lost in a sea of sunbathers. I knew I had walked in a perfectly straight line from the towels to the boardwalk, what the heck happened? I would panic for a sec over what seemed like miles of crowded beach, but would press on and would find them before my ice cream melted even a little. Soon after that, all sunburned and tired, it was time to make the long trek back home. As we would change out of our bathing suits behind the towel mom shielded us with, we would ask if we could go on the rides next time. “We’ll see,” she would say.
In 1981, my parents got a car and we became one of the fancy pants families that went to Rockaway. It wasn’t the same at all. There was no Astroland, or Wonder Wheel or anything. It was boring. Maybe it was cleaner or quieter? I dunno. Even as a teenager after we moved to Queens and I’d go to Rockaway with my friends, I’d always tell people that Coney Island was better, cause it was, damnit!
I will miss Coney Island. It sucks that my daughter will never get to experience it. I am mostly heartbroken for the people who actually live in Coney Island though. Thank you all for letting me hang out with you when I was a kid, I will never forget you. Every store on that boardwalk and on the surrounding streets, not just Ruby’s, will be missed by so many people. You are all awesome.
Oh, and I did eventually get to walk all the way inside Ruby’s when I was an adult. I got a beer instead of a soda and I think one of those same old guys in the uniforms was still there. It wasn’t scary at all!