CONEY ISLAND was not a place I thought I would ever visit. ``Honky-tonk, tough, gaudy-phony Coney,'' I thought. As a young girl I had spent many a vacation at Cape May, New Jersey, the ultimate in seashore gentility. That was the ideal ocean resort to me: shining-white frame houses with turrets and towers; miles of narrow, clean beach; romance; quiet; beauty; no rowdiness, rides, amusements, or hawkers. But after I moved to New York I decided after all to investigate Coney. My pre-school daughter and I hankered for a change from our Manhattan routine, and Coney was accessible by subway, if you didn't mind the long ride.
Our first experience was discouraging. We lost our shoes and other belongings on the beach after going down to the water to wade around. When we returned we couldn't find our spot in the confusing mass of humanity on that enormous beach, although I thought I had carefully noted its location. As we stood under the piers cooling off and surveying the scene helplessly, I was trying to imagine us walking to the subway in our bare feet on the blistering boardwalk - not to mention appearing in Manhattan shoeless, which in those days wasn't too usual. I had had the foresight to take my money with me, so at least we had carfare. But the prospect was pretty dismal.
Then two ruffians appeared and offered to help us find whatever we looked as though we'd lost. They found our spot suspiciously quickly, and I felt sure they had moved our belongings, then watched and waited for our return. I gave them a tip (not nearly as much as they demanded) and was grateful to see my shoes again; I felt I had never truly appreciated them before. But for Jenny it was simply a fun-filled day, riding the kiddie rides and getting acquainted with the ocean for the first time.
We went often after that, usually on Tuesdays because of the fireworks on Tuesday nights. There was always a magnificent display. Sometimes it would seem as though they were going to fall right in our laps as we sat on the crowded beach. One Tuesday it happened to be the Fourth of July, and they fired off so many extra-spectacular rockets that Jenny finally complained, ``Mama, they're bouncing off my chest!''
One day we were brave enough to try the Wonder Wheel, the gigantic Ferris wheel that dominated the boardwalk. To my surprise, as I had ridden on Ferris wheels many times, I was terrified. But Jenny was not. Feeling secure with her secretly frightened mother, she enjoyed it tremendously as we swung out into space miles above the boardwalk! Neither one of us ever felt brave enough, however, to ride the ``Cyclone,'' that roller-coaster supreme that roared along all day and night, plunging its screaming crew from the heights to the depths. The carousel, with its magnificent lions, made a big hit with Jenny, and the Steeplechase fascinated her as its make-believe horse went thundering by. The awesome parachute jump was constantly in view; wherever you were, you saw it and marveled at the courage of its customers.
Sometimes we went with another mother and daughter. Linda and Jenny enjoyed each other's company, but my friend was apprehensive and always wanted to walk over to Brighton Beach nearby. No doubt it was cleaner, safer, and had better eating places, but by this time we were captivated with the magic of Coney - its bigness, bustle, and brash gaiety. When we went by ourselves we always stayed in Coney, putting up with the seedy restaurants. And we always had cotton candy on the boardwalk for dessert.
Usually we paid a visit to the myna bird, one of the many side-street features. It was kept by a kindly, elderly Asian man. You handed the bird a dime, he took it carefully in his rather formidable beak, muttered something in myna language under his breath, retreated to the back of the little booth, and returned with a piece of paper in his beak. This paper bore your ``fortune'' - usually a flattering message concerning your character. Jenny loved taking the fortune from the bird's beak. She also enjoyed giving him the dime, though that was a bit trickier. I suppose by now the myna bird's descendant, if he is still carrying on the tradition, charges a good deal more than a dime. I am trying to picture him carrying a dollar bill in his beak. It wouldn't be the same.
I remember especially fondly the sleepy, sandy ride back to Manhattan on the screechy BMT - my daughter with her head on my lap, dreaming, I assumed, of her day at Coney: salt air, big waves, sea gulls, myna birds, Wonder Wheels, parachute jumps, cotton candy, and people. People everywhere, enjoying themselves noisily, but sincerely.