Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A DAY AT THE BEACH - The 30th Annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade.

Coney Island. Those of you who have been kind enough to follow some of the stories from my youth recognize the importance of this most unique of islands. I have long maintained that, despite the grit, grime, and crime, Coney Island remains one of the most special places on the planet. There are many reasons that I make this claim, not the least of which is its incredible diversity. In walking the length of its historic boardwalk, it is not unusual to hear four or five different languages; English, Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, and, of course, now Russian. It has always been the epicenter of the melting pot and it still is.

While most of my friends would "summer" at the Jersey Shore, my mother would pack up me, my sister, and my brother and load us on the subway for our annual two weeks at The Poor Man's Riviera, Coney Island. Of course, we would protest; but our friends are at the Shore! And Stella always responded: it's the same ocean!! Besides, my cousins were there and, so, we always had a blast. Coney Island played a huge part. We would pack up the beach chairs, umbrellas and coolers and trudge along Coney Island Avenue to the beach and boardwalk at Bay 8th St. Sun up to sun set, you could find me, my siblings, and our cousins at the beach or on the boardwalk. I had more magic moments growing up there than at virtually any other time or place. Our time there has become part of my family's mythology.

My grandmother is gone, as is the house she raised my mother and her siblings in. I believe that it was sold to a Russian-Jewish family who make up the most current wave of immigrants to "the pot". But some of my family remains there providing a current connection. However, I certainly need few excuses to return to a place that remains so special in my life! I can still hear the echoes of the knish and coke cola vendor who incessantly walked the beach, back and forth, forth and back, all summer long. Hey, get your HOT potato knishes, and, after just the briefest of pauses, ice cold cokes, HERE, he would bellow. I see him, in my minds eye: bare, barrel chest, his white chest hair blowing in the ocean breeze. Cut-off jeans and lace less sneakers completed his beach couture. In each hand he carried a sturdy shopping bag. One contained the wrapped, hot potato knishes - the other, kept cold by a lump of dry-ice was the coke cola. As soon as we heard him coming, yards down the beach, my siblings, cousins and I immediately began the process of squealing for money to purchase one of those hot potato knishes to devour and wash it down with an ice cold coke. Certainly, this was on my mind this past weekend when I returned with my dear friend, Cynthia, for The 30th Annual Mermaid Parade.

The Parade celebrities the incredible diversity and creativity that IS Coney Island. For nearly five hours, costumed revelers march down streets with very appropriate names like Mermaid, Surf, and Neptune. Held to celebrate the official arrival of summer, many people are surprised that this is "only" the 30th Anniversary. It seems to conjure images of the by-gone era of Coney's gilded golden age. It was actually organized in 1983 to attract visitors back to the boardwalk and its attractions which had previously fallen on hard times. However, it IS the natural evolution of the famous Coney Island Mardi Gras Parades of the early Twentieth Century. My mother recalls with great fondness sneaking away with her girlfriends to attend the parade and festivities. Her strict, Sicilian father would never have approved of such wanton frivolity!!

So, knowing that the traffic and crowds would be equally insane, we decided to take the "D" train from midtown to Coney. We parked the car on 57th St. and walked to the Subway Station at Columbus Circle to begin our sojourn. And, so it began. Apparently, in gabbing and not paying attention, we got on the "D" in the wrong direction! However, instead of being a "downer", inadvertently taking the train in the wrong direction right from the beginning so that we had a "wonderful tour of the Bronx" just became another part of our great adventure. When we did arrive on a sun-splashed, blazing day, the crowd of tens of thousands already lined the streets and boardwalk. Once again, the incredible diversity that identifies Coney Island was readily on display. This was apparent not only among the marchers but the crowd, as well. There were blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, old, young, gay and straight - all mashed together - in the heat - without incident - all having a blast. And there were mermaids, mermaids, and more mermaids. There were even merdogs! THIS is the beauty of Coney!!

Despite the joy of the afternoon, the crowds, at some point, can become overwhelming. After a few hours soaking up the sun and the flavor, it was time to go. But not before we made a pit stop at the legendary L And B Spumoni Gardens, since 1939 one of Brooklyn's dining gems. We managed to catch the "D" in the right direction this time and in an hour we were back in the "real world".

I present the following photographs in the order in which they were made. I hope that will provide you a timeline of what it is really like to attend the legendary Coney Island Mermaid Parade.


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