My Coney Island Memories

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Mermaid Dreams


        It was simply the best place in the world for a kid to grow up........... Coney Island. The rides, Nathans,  Steeplechase, the beach, the fishing pier,  the Loews Surf ave (line around the block  to see that sci-fi blockbuster The Mysterians.), the RKO Tilyou (I saw the 3 Stooges live onstage),  the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel, Cotton Candy, Jelly Apples, Buttered Corn, Shatzkins Knishes, Fabers, Playland, The Magic Carpet Funhouse, etc etc I could go on for  pages and pages. A block away from all this was the true heart of Coney Island: Mermaid Avenue.
        In the early to mid 60's it was THE place to shop, and hang out. We had Jerry Jeromes Deli  on 24th, Joe Blumes 5 and 10, David Louies parents chinese restaurant Mee Wah, The Huba Huba diner, Mindys lucheonette, Meyersons Bakery (raisin pumpernickle & fresh bagels), Jeffrey Eagles parents dry-cleaners, Nat Sinrods Tuxedos, Al Sinrods Menswear, Blanche Sinrods Tots to Teens baby clothes, Becky Sinrods bridal gowns,  Sam Horowitz's (later to be Congresman) great old Mermaid Theater.  We had 2 synagogues on our end of Coney, one on 23rd and the other on 25th.  Our Lady of Solice church  (if you were a Jew and went in you would get instantly killed by lightning...... really!), and the library on 19th.  Other than Tortonno's,  I seem to remember only one pizza place, Johnny's on about 23rd st. It started out at .15 a slice, can you imagine $1.00 for a whole pie? It quickly went to .25 a slice and $2.00 a pie.... a big  difference back then. I remember 3 good Italian Restaurants.  Carolina's was a family style place.  Gargiulos (which we all pronounced Gar-jewl-ios), was the fancy schmancy Lundy's type  place. If you asked the waiter, he would bring you a bunch of the wine grapes growing on the back trellis.  Recently at a boomers reunion, 10 of us met there. They refused to seat me because I was wearing shorts at lunchtime,  even though it was August & 90 degrees!  I told the matre'd ... "I wasn't good enough for this place 40 years ago, and I still can't get in".  He didn't crack a smile.  The other Italian restauant was crazy Stellas.  Not only could you bring your own wine, but you could also bring your own food to be cooked by them, and walk into the kitchen to watch the waiters fight with the cooks.  Never will there be another place like it.
        On oir block we had the older white trash  teens up the block who called me a "Christ killer", beat us up & terrified us on a semi-regular basis,  just becasue they could.  We also had the much older guys, who seemed to be the guys from West Side Story, only without the dancing. They would work their little part time  jobs by day,  play Johnny-on-the-pony, love up the girls on the beach and then sing real good  doo-wop accapella to put us to sleep on the street corners at night.  I remember a small  smattering of Puerto Ricans down the block that were pretty much openly accepted as long as they could speak some English,  but not too many black faces till the middle 60's.  Going down to the Iitalian blocks close to Stillwell  Ave was like entering a different world.  Pastry shops, Pizza and Italian Ice.  Those guys wore "hitter" white tee shirts with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the  short sleeve, black pointed shoes, and a big Vitalis ladden comb in the belt. The girls had big  black lacquered hair that could give you an Indian burn.  Careful because if she put out too much, she got a "reputation" and was branded a  HOO-ER  (whore).  Braving all that was worth it for Tortonnos pizza. I'd stand up to the counter and Jerry would wink, and give me a piece of fresh mozzerella.
         Every block had a huge empty lot in the middle of it where the trolleys ran years before. It was a natural place to playball, catch crickets and get in trouble. It was a  shortcut  through to the next block.... which could start  turf wars.  Each block had their own group of kids with their own talents and reputations.   We would ride our bikes down to the bakery on 27th for  a charlotte russe.... 5 cents extra for sprinkles. Then on to Seagate to try to sneak in, and see what the "other half" lived like? I would ride the bus for a nickel with my bus pass down to the train station. At 12 we were riding the trains all over the city.  We'd jump the turnstiles and go to Manhattan on a whim. Now we don't let out kids cross the street alone in the suburbs.
The beach was our private playground. I preferred a game of against the wall stickball on any hot day in the park on 27th street. If you really got a hold of one, you would do your own Mel Allen play by play.... going, going.... gone.... into the CYO!  In fact we were convinced that Under  the Boardwalk was written  just for us. For that matter Up On The Roof as well. In fact most of the songs played on our transistor radios were. Weren't they? Remember  sneaking the radio under the covers? We couldn't go to sleep until "that special song" was played?  

          Lining up for a Saturday/Sunday matineee at the Mermaid. Sometimes 4 movies plus cartoons, and cliff-hanger serial. All for .25 cents! We would sneak in a paper bag lunch, or sneak out and go home for lunch and sneak back in again!  We had a lookout posted for the burly and mean Matron, who weilded a very powerful flashlight, and was constantly interrupting the movie with threats to anyone caught talking or eating. The lookout would say "OK the coast is clear", and at once a row of 10 kids would take out their brown bag from inside their shirts, and put their sandwich to their mouths for a quick bite, before she came walking back.  The neighborhood was just so warm and friendly.   Stoop sitting was a cutural artform. Anyones mom was everyones mom when it came to a kid that needed help.  My mom would send me down with money to Paul the butcher, David the fruit and veggie man, and Sams toyland who were all on a first name basis.  "A little short this week? No problem, pay me when you can." There was never any thought or worry about crime, kidnapping, or getting ripped off.   We would live in the streets all day and night. I can still hear the mothers  screaming out the windows for their kids to COME HOME. I'd give anything to hear it one more time.


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Steeplechase Pool



Mermaid Nightmares

The downfall of  Coney, may have been caused by the plight of the landlords. They needed  to rent out all the summer bungalows, and apartments year round to pay the tax burden and still  make money. As the buildings fell into disrepair, the only ones who would live there were the poor, welfare collectors, and trash. The buildings continued to get worse, but there was always a new population of immigrants to move in.
        I can remember it seemed like it was all of a sudden in 1963, that the place was unsafe. We started locking the doors for the first time. Gangs of poor kids would shake us down for our  change. All my white friends moved away or to the projects.  We were the  last family to go. We moved into a Seagate apartment for $200/month rent.... We were paying $65/month in Coney Island. It was a real burden for my dad to pay that rent. Stores were getting robbed regularly.  Gangs of toughs  would come into my dads store and harrass him. Mom and Pop shops were  threatened. First they put up metal storefront gates, then started to close down and move away. My dad got an SBA  loan, and was forced to move his little shop, then our home to Long Island in 1968. The new groups of  immigrants and trash had no experience or aspiration to become store owners, so Mermaid Ave. became a  ghost town. No stores....... no jobs.......DRUGS naturally followed.
         Now (1965) people were afraid to come to Coney for the beach or the attractions. Steeplechase went down, the bowery games dried up. The town died. I still have nightmares about being mugged and chased through the streets. Funny though, I have always  been  a free spirit and totally non-prejudiced to this day, and have tried to teach that to my kids. You notice that I don't call these gangs blacks, though thats what they were  at the time. They were poor  kids with a gigantic chip on their shoulders put there by the parents.
         1968; The drugs and prostitution were everywhere. My uncle's store on Mermaid and now on 24th, was regularly robbed. Once they used a battering ram to  break down the adjacent wall in a building next door and the same neighborhood he staunchly defended all those years walked through a 4 foot hole to steal him blind. The police thought  it was funny. It broke his heart and he finally closed up shop for good too.
What a horrible taste in my mouth it leaves me with.


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The Bowling Chimp:  

   I'm sure some of you know about the Surf Lanes chimp. I'm guessing it was 1964 or so. Sit back and enjoy this true tale. Here's a bit of the back story. The baby chimp was being professionally trained to bowl, and they were all set to get tons of publicity. TV and radio stations, newspapers, etc. My dad was asked to fit the chimp for a tuxedo. So Nathan Sinrod, who never had more than the $50 monthly rent to his name, or any ambition to get rich, decided this was a great business idea. He took an old child's black tux, shortened the pants legs, lengthened the sleeves, added a sleeveless white dickey shirt and bow tie. The chimp looked like a little hairy Fred Astaire. My dad used white paint to crudely spell SINRODíS TUXEDOíS across the back. just in case anyone would need a chimp tuxedo in the future, they'd know where to go. The animal looked strangely like something the Little Rascals would dream up. They worked hard with the chimp every day for hours to get him to take the ball, amble up and roll it. Even a gutter ball would be OK, of course any pins hit are a big bonus. The big day arrives and weíre all there in the audience. Not only didnít the chimp roll the ball, but he refused to even take it and pick it up. He got frustrated and had a fit, ripped off the tux jacket in anger, and then squatted and took a dump in the tuxedo pants. A real Coney Island success story!






            Where did it go? The days, weeks and years. Weren't we best buds walking arm in arm down the Bowery and riding the Wonderwheel together. Did it change when your boobs became bigger than mine? Was it when you ran home crying with a bloody nose, ashamed to show that you were just a squealing girl? Maybe it was when I started sneaking those Playboys under the covers, and noticing the changes in both of us. You were cold and confused to my touch. I guess that's natural at 13. Later, on a hot summer night when we felt the cool sand between our toes at 16, man that was electric. We grappled for dear life in a death grip of sweat and the shakes. I swear that at one point we melted together, and then passed through each other. Is that what they mean by soul mates? Neither of us said a word about it at school that week. The longer the silence went, the more distant we became. I think back now at how much a part of me you were. We were too young to know it, but yet we somehow did, and at the same time. For me I didnít want to make it into just one of those sex things you hear about. That was plain Jane. This was as spiritual as a shallow street kid like me could ever get.
             Too much has happened over the next 40 years to even consider talking about. Jobs for making money. Loves, one after the other. Battles with ghosts both won and lost. I heard you married and divorced a couple of times, and was saddened by the news. Mostly because I wasnít there. Selfish I am when it concerns you. Did you expect more? I thought I saw you a few times in waking dreams around the city and even in storefront reflections. Once in a glass of seltzer! Funny but although I knew damn well you werenít 16 anymore, thatís what you always looked like. I have a recurring dream where Iím riding down the Magic Carpet Ride on the Bowery in Coney Island and I see you across the steet. You turn to look at me with a Mona Lisa smile. I canít get off the ride quickly enough to go to you. By the time I get out, you turn into the Coppertone billboard kid with her sunburned bottom sticking out of her suit. I dare Freud to figure that one out.
              Itís 6 oíclock now and Iím nervously looking in the mirror at myself. Not bad for an old timer, but not anywhere near 16. Maybe weíre all way too vain? Maybe when we die we return to that era that we loved best. Can it be any better then 16? No conscience. No wrinkles. No pain. No fear. Itís so wonderful, but it only lasts until we finally recognize it, then itís gone forever. Iím amazed that we found each other again. On the internet of all places. I was ďGooglingĒ for some red paint, and you were the fuller brush gal. Well not really, but just as improbable. Weíll meet up again tonight after 40 years. Have you been thinking of me much, I wonder? Maybe not at all. Iím nervous as hell thinking about seeing you again. How will we handle all those scars plastered over our bodies and souls. How do I get rid of these silly expectations? What do I want anyway? Warmth for a night or companionship for a lifetime? Maybe just the feel of sand between my toes.
The old hotdog slinger at Nathans is looking at the clock and thinking about his miserable wife waiting to lace into him at home. He gets off in 15 minutes. His apron is wet with mustard and grease, and he hates his life. Gee how many hotdogs have I put in buns? Probably a million he thinks. These damn customers curse in my face, and demand service with a smile. Maybe Iíll go home and finally tell my wife off. What a shrew she is. When did it all change for us he wonders? We used to be the best together. I wish things were different he tells himself. Yeah it all went downhill after 16 he chuckles to himself. Suddenly he looks up and sees them. I wish we could be in love again he pines. Just like that old timer with that good lookiní broad walking arm in arm down the street. The men make eye contact and nod. Yeah they got it made.




          The End of Steeplechase, Feb 20th, 1966                                         

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I cannot believe I left some holes unpunched!!!!




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