Marvelous Coney Island

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Marvelous Coney Island  (1901) 
by Guy Wetmore Carryl
This article was published in Munsey's magazine in September 1901.

Marvelous Coney Island[edit]

By Guy Wetmore Carryl

THE MOST FAMOUS AND MOST DELIRIOUS OF ALL POPULAR SEASIDE RESORTS; WHERE VISITORS ARE ENGULFED IN A TUMULTUOUS MAELSTROM OF ACROBATIC RECREATIONS.

      They used to talk of Bedlam and they used to talk of Babel
            In allusion to confusion of exaggerated style;
      But in all fact and fable, since the days of Cain and Abel,
            No metaphor is better for the same than is an isle
            That I wot of, that I got of late so generous a lot of,
      That I recollect the style and charivari of that island
            With a smile, and still shall do so for a while!

The foregoing may not be poetry, but at least is truth. Coney Island is not a resort of the kind which is said to grow upon the visitor. Rather she plunges at him, and, before he has time for reflection, proceeds to engulf him in a veritable maelstrom of tumultuous recreation. Hers are not the soothing methods of the nerve cure specialist, but the heroic measure of the life saver who administers a knock out blow between the eyes of a drowning man, and either rescues him thereby or puts a finishing touch to the mischief Father Ocean has begun.

The Americans have been called a nervous people. A final refutation of the charge would seem to lie in the fact that a proportion of them, ranging anywhere from one thousand to a hundred and fifty thousand, pass daily, during the season, through the mill of this most famous of popular resorts, and achieve the apparent impossibility of emerging therefrom clothed and in their right mind. Nowhere on earth, perhaps, is to be found a more eloquent illustration of the doctrine that when we regard as martyrdom when it come to us as an enforced duty, we hail hilariously as a privilege when it is no longer a question of anything but free will. How lugubriously should we bemoan our fate had we to undergo, as a matter of necessity, the physical discomforts which, elevated to the dignity of recreations, Coney Island put within our eager reach at a trifling sum per jolt! And at this point we emerge from the secluded bypath of philosophic reflection into the glaring highway of actuality.

Coney Island, then, leaps with a shout upon the casual visitor as he steps from a five cent trolley car direct into the seething heart of her ten cent chaos, and pours out, as it were, the whole contents of her horn of plenty in a trice before his astounded eyes. Immediately recreation becomes less a question of search than of selection. One has simply to decide in what manner he prefers to be made uncomfortable, for it is Coney Island’s claim to celebrity that she is prepared to make you so in a variety of ways approaching infinity, and, if you are of the majority, you are there for that express purpose. If you are not of the majority, your wisest course is to return without delay by the way you came, and leave to more appreciative mortals your place on the Scenic Railway, and the Sliding Staircase, and the Loops, and the Chutes, and the Camel.

THE CAMEL ON CONEY’S SANDS.

Oh, that camel! Once ship of the desert, decked in gaudy trappings and bearing his Arab master at breakneck speed across a sea of sand: what a derelict for any one to mount upon he is now become! The long, laborious course from Wara to Mourzouk has dwindled to a bare half hundred yards, but these he traverses as many time a day, rising and crouching again with protesting snorts, a sneer on his long lower limp, and a resentful gleam in his formerly patient eyes. He knows, though we do not, the proper way in which to mount and to descend, and he has yet to see it exemplified at Coney Island.

I have spoken of Wara and Mourzouk with an air of knowledge, and my duplicity lies heavy on my conscience. Off with it then! Let me say that I found their names not five minutes since in a pocket atlas. I know them not, and neither do I know how a camel should properly be ridden. At Coney Island it is done by means of a tight grasp on one’s headgear and generous exercise of the vocal organs. Perhaps that is the correct fashion, but I do not think so, and I am as sure as one can reasonably be on the face of circumstantial evidence that Coney’s camel agrees with me.

But for the novice the saddle horse is as profound a proposition as is the oriental steed. There are saddle horses in plenty to be found on the Island of Hilarity, and people in plenty fly in the face of Providence by mounting them. They are clustered in tanbark rings, around which they career at intervals, bearing a dozen convulsed cavaliers upon their patient backs. Here again there is holding of hats and here again screams of surpassing shrillness. Speak not of Sleepy Hollow, for the multiplication table has been at work upon the headless horseman, and Coney Island’s Bowery boasts the beautiful result. But—

      You plunge into the entrance of the Screaming Scenic Railway,
            Newly joisted, and are hoisted in a car up the incline;
      And surveying all that frail way in a palpitating, pale way,
            Go lunging down and plunging down each giddier incline,
            Shrilly squealing, with a feeling like a fly upon a ceiling.
      You are grateful when you’re through it, and you’re wiser if you do it
           (That’s unless you want to rue it) half an hour before you dine.

That, above all, is Coney Island’s specialty; to toss, tumble, flop, jerk, jounce, jolt, and jostle you by means of a variety of mechanical contrivances, until your digestion is where your reason ought to be, and your reason has gone none knows wither. For the privilege you pay the appreciable sum of ten cents. If the same thing happened to you the next day on a trolley car, you would in all probability sue the company for a thousand dollars. But that is where human inconsistency comes in, and where human inconsistency is the issue none of us can afford to be hypercritical, because here, as in love, money making, and the desire to get ahead of our neighbors, we are all in the same class.

CONEY ISLAND’S CODE OF ETIQUETTE.

Therefore let us “loop the loop,” “shoot the chutes,” and do whatever other alliterative and acrobatic things the Isle of Idiocy provides—if there be no interference on the part of the police, those vigilant custodians of New York’s health and morals, who have of late demonstrated an unaccountable interest in some of the island’s most popular amusements. If there be girls on the front seats of our convulsively careering car, so much the better for them. They have something to fall back upon. We ascend the dizzy slope and plunge downward through tunnels, describe complete somersaults, car and all, spin around curves, leap madly over a succession of what resemble New England “thankyouma’ams” in an advanced stage of cultivation, and so draw up at last at the starting point, proud and panting, and proceed prodigiously to annoy the waiting throng by retaining our hard won seats, and investing further sums in a repetition of the exhilarating experience.

Whether one patronizes the Scenic Railway or any of those cousins of hers which resemble her so closely, or prefers the water chute, which is dignified by greater age, it seems to be absolutely necessary to scream loudly and continuously from start to finish, and to embrace one’s nearest neighbor with such varying degrees of ardor as the particular circumstances of age, sex, and length of acquaintanceship may dictate. These are conditions sine qibus non. Why, there is no knowing. Coney Island has a code of conduct which is all her own, and it is not only proper, but essential, to conform thereto, as it is proper to have one’s tintype taken, and to eat crimson sausages, green corn on the ear, and retrospective soft shell crabs.

THE DUBIOUS REFECTIONS OF CONEY ISLAND.

They are ubiquitous, those sausages and crabs. They are ranged side by side with rows of thick glasses two thirds full of salmon and chrome colored beverages, which at some state of their evolution have been on terms of bowing acquaintance with oranges and lemons. And, what is more, these are not merely ornamental things, for I who speak to you did on one occasion count ten such crabs and eight such sausages and six such impressionistic drinks upon a single stand. Passing again, half an hour later, what was my surprise to find the ten shrunk to nine, the eight to seven, the six to two. Some one had eaten that vanished crab, some one had absorbed that absent sausage, some one made away with those four missing drinks. And somewhere a fond family was waiting, waiting in vain for the unhappy craft that had rushed to ruin on that strictly temperance bar!

      There are wooden horses prancing, there’s the switchback’s clang and clatter;
            Executing sudden shooting, boats are plunging in a pool;
      Every step a nerve you shatter, but it really doesn’t matter,
            It eases one and pleases one like getting out of school.
            So, approving stairways moving in a novel kind of grooving,
      And each moment of your leisure searching out a wilder pleasure,
            You will find the place a treasure for the periodic fool!

The name of these pleasures—let the word pass—is legion. And even in the act of philosophizing upon the folly of one’s kind, amazement at the infinite ingenuity displayed in their construction forces one into an attitude nearly akin to admiration. A veritable multitude of mechanical devices is grouped in one great inclosure where on a holiday more money is made in twelve hours than Homer ever dreamed of or Shakespere ever saw. Here you may ride, an you will, a quarter mile steeplechase on wooden horses of such shapes and colors as never were since the days of the equine Adam, and you may win, too, and ride again “free, gratis, for nothing,” as the eloquent attendant exhaustively explains, if you are of weight sufficiently heavy, and urge your steed forward with enthusiasm, and scream. Also, you may ride behind a locomotive three feet long and perfect in every detail; you may slide down an inclining plane—screaming always—and lose yourself in a maze; and, best of all, be packed in a monster barrel and rolled incontinently down a hill. For all these you pay. There are milder things than that barrel shown in European museums in execration of the Spanish Inquisition.

The supremest contrivance of them all, the Moving Stairway, is found within this same inclosure. It moves, in its entirety and continuously, up and down with the regularity of a trip hammer; and by calculating how you go up on the stair, and the stair comes down on you, and you and the stair go up, and the stair and you come down, you may go up the stair. There is no assurance of this; but it is possible.

CONEY ISLAND AT NIGHT.

Night appears to fall almost instantaneously at Coney Island, where the noise and turmoil so distract attention that one has no opportunity to note the passage of time. A moment since, it was mid afternoon and insufferably hot; already the sun is gone, the establishments on the Bowery are framing themselves in electric lamps, and there is a perceptible thinning of the throng, with a corresponding lapse in the energies of the fakirs. The world is eating.

Now, if ever, is the time to see the sea. It lies but a few steps away, and yet how small a part it plays in all the clamor and bustle of this modern Babel so incongruously called “the shore.” One finds it murmuring to itself at the foot of some shabby little street, and curiously fingering the piles upon which the whole flimsy fair is constructed, as a drowsy tiger might touch a handful of trinkets tossed into his cage. “I might, if I had the will,” it seems to say, “but, for the moment, let it be!” There is something supremely striking in this elbow touching of man’s cheapest and tawdriest, and nature’s most majestic features; in front, that unknowable Atlantic, sphinx of the ages, sleeping, gray green, under an opalescent sky wherein the new moon is hung like a pendant on strings of young stars; behind, this Vanity Fair, of all America the most blatant and the most brutal corner!

For Coney Island, unlike other resorts of its type, loses rather than gains by the fall of night. The pace has been so swift, the excitement of the long hot day so intense, that a more than mortal energy would be required to maintain the original level of enthusiasm. The brazen voice of the island begins to beat upon the ear drums like the pulse of fever, the leaping horses and the flying cars are metamorphosed into the agile demons of delirium. And through the doorways of endless concert halls and drinking places one gets glimpses of faces that follow and haunt like the unspeakable phantoms of a dream.

It is time to go, before the breath of the awakening dragons falls foul across the memory of the cheap but cheerful gaiety of the day. Better yet could we have gone earlier, before that last impression, the breath in our nostrils, and the voice in our ears, of the musing ocean, prying with curious fingers around the foundations of Vanity Fair! For, after all, here is no place for reflection. We have been fools with the best of them, and as for Coney Island, if we are tired of the jade and disposed to sneer, that is less her fault than ours. It was a frank bargain, my leisure for your laughter, and we had no right to lift masks and look behind the scenes. And in whatever coin this amazon of the cap and bells chooses to repay you, take it at its face value, and ask no questions.

      Oh, the voice of Coney Island, as, alighting from the trolley,
            You find her, and remind her that your deed should be excused!
      With what bombilation jolly she replies to this, your folly!
            She reckons you, then beckons you! Your suit is not refused!
            She’s a siren that a Byron might have lavished all his fire on,
      She’s a sorceress that spells you, that attracts you, that repels you,
            And ah, me! What things she tells you when you want to be amused!

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.