By Ed Staskus
Vicki, Bettina, and Dottie plunked down their fifteen cents apiece at a NYCTA booth and walked down the stairs. Dottie stopped to look at a yellow sign trimmed in red on the wall at the entrance to the tunnel.
“Please cooperate. When in doubt, ask any employee. Help keep the subways clean. Use receptacles for paper. Do not rush. Let ‘em off first. Move away from doors. Keep to the right on stairways. Try to shop between 10 and 4. Always be courteous.”
“Run!” she suddenly shouted, running up the platform. “It’s one of those air-conditioned cars!”
Two months earlier the transit system had rolled out the first experimental air-conditioned cars on the East Side IRT line. They were fitted with deodorizers and filters and piped-in soft music. The temperature was maintained in the mid-70s. Signs on every third window said, “Air-Conditioned Car. Please Keep Windows Closed.”
They were taking the IND line across the river to Brooklyn, across Gravesend, to the end of the line. When they got off the train they walked, crossed Mermaid Avenue, and hoofed it to Coney Island Beach and the Boardwalk.
Dottie felt light as lemonade.
They stopped at the Sodamat on West 15th Street as they strolled on the Boardwalk. “Good Drinks Served Right. Skee Ball 5 cents.” There were prize games, hammer games, rifle ranges, freak shows, and fortune-tellers up and down Coney Island.
“Look, they have waffles,” said Dottie, pointing to a sign on the front of a counter behind which a man in a white jacket and soda jerk cap was making waffles.
“I thought you wanted a Nathan’s,” said Vicki.
“I do, but later,” said Dottie.
“Did you know hot dogs were invented right here on Coney Island, almost one hundred years ago?” asked Bettina.
“Not so fast, how could Nathan have done that?” asked Dottie.
“It wasn’t Nathan, it was Charley Feltman, who used to boil sausages on a small charcoal stove inside his wagon and then slip them into a roll. He called them red hots at first, but later changed it to hot dogs.”
“How about some ball hop before we eat?” asked Vicki, pointing into the arcade behind the food counter.
“My game is stickball,” said Dottie. “Skee ball is for jellyfish. They don’t even play stickball here. They play coop-ball. That’s for jellyfish, too.”
“Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki.
“Oh, no, we play ringolevio and skelly, too, although some kids call it scummy top. Skelly is fun, but all you’ve got are your chalk and the squares and your caps. Ringolevio is way more fun, we run all over, and there’s a jail, and jailbreaks, and everything. Chain, chain, double chain, no break away!”
“Let’s break the chain and go eat,” said Betty. They ordered waffles.
“That was the best waffle I ever had,” Dottie said afterwards
“You had two of them,” said Vicki.
“She’s a growing girl,” said Betty.
“Those were the best two waffles I ever had,” said Dottie.
“Where to now?” asked Betty.
“I want to jump off the Eiffel Tower!” exclaimed Dottie.
The Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and later moved to Coney Island. It stood 250 feet high, was open-frame, and everyone called it the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. Twelve cantilevered steel arms sprouted from the top of the tower, eleven of them supporting two-person canvas seats and parachutes. The riders were belted down, hoisted to the top, then released into freefall, caught by the parachute, and floated to the ground. Shock absorbers were built into the seats, just in case.
“I’m not going up on that thing,” said Betty.
“Do you remember the parachute wedding?” Vicki asked her.
“No, I never heard of it.”
“A couple got married up there. The minister was in the seat next to them and the whole wedding party was on the rest of the seats. When the ceremony was over the married couple parachuted down first, and everyone else followed them, except for the minister. The cables on his seat got tangled and he was up there for more than five hours before firemen could get him down. The tower is right on the ocean, and it was windy, and he got sick as a dog, puking on the wedding party.”
“That cinches it,” said Betty.
“You and me both, sister,” said Vicki. “Time to plow back through the crowd.”
“Why do they call it Coney Island?” asked Dottie, taking a last longing look up at the parachute ride she wasn’t going to ride.
“It’s because of the Dutch,” said Bettina. “When they were here, maybe three hundred years ago, there were lots of rabbits in the dunes, so they called it Konijnen Eiland, which means Rabbit Island, which became Coney Island after the English took over.”
“How did they take over?”
“Somebody always takes over,” said Betty.
“Why does somebody always take over?”
“It’s the way of the world, child,” said Betty.
“I want to go on the Wonder Wheel,” said Dottie.
“I think we’re up for that,” said Vicki.
The Wonder Wheel at Luna Park was a Ferris wheel and a Chute-the Chutes and a slow-moving roller coaster all in one. It was once called Dip-the-Dip. Some of the cars were stationary, but more than less of them moved back and forth along tracks between a big outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel as all of it rotated.
They walked past an eight-foot high neon sign spelling out “Wonder Wheel.” Through the middle of the sign was an arrow blinking and pointing to the ride. “Thrills!” it said.
Dottie sat between Vicki and Betty in one of the sliding cars.
“You can see Manhattan,” said Vicki when it was their turn at the top of the 150-foot-tall big wheel and it stopped for a few seconds.
“Look, you can see the Rockaway,” said Betty.
“It takes you low and it takes you high,” said Vicki.
“When you reach the top it’s like you can touch the sky,” said Dottie. “You can see the whole world.”
“One minute you’re on top, the next minute down you go,” said Betty. “I say, stay in your seat, it’s going to get bumpy, enjoy the ride.”
“Top of the world, ma, top of the world,” said Vicki like a crazy person, bulging her eyeballs and throwing her arms up.
“One day he’s a mama’s boy mad dog killer and the next day, older and wiser, he’s Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Dottie wondered, what are they talking about?
The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.
“Can we go fast now?” Dottie asked when they were on the ground.
The Cyclone was in Astroland at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 10th Street, almost 2700 feet long, with six fan turns and twelve drops. The lift hill was 85 feet high. Six years earlier a man who hadn’t spoken in fourteen years, riding a roller coaster for the first time, screamed while going down the first drop.
“I feel sick,” he muttered when the train returned to the station. He dropped to the ground in a dead faint after realizing he had spoken.
Dottie peeked over the front edge of the front car down at the track of the Cyclone as the train creaked to the top of the lift hill, where it was going to curve over the rails and hurtle down. Vicki and Betty were in the car behind her, after she had pleaded with them to go on the coaster, and she was with her new friend, Ronald, a boy her age whose parents had stayed behind on the platform.
“I have a friend who counts the seconds until the ride is over,” said Ronnie.
“Why does he do that?”
“He can’t stand it.”
“What’s the point of riding it in the first place?”
“I dunno,” said Ronnie. “Every time I ask if he wants to go with me, he says, sure, as soon as I’ve lost my mind, but he always goes anyway.”
“The Cyclone is for when you want to be scared and thrilled all at the same time. Maybe he should stick to the merry-go-round.”
“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “You don’t want to ride the roller coaster when you’ve got diarrhea.”
“No way,” said Dottie, making sure their buzz bar was locked in place.
“Did you hear about that girl who got hit in the face by a pigeon and broke her nose going down this hill?” asked Ronnie.
“No!” said Dottie.
“It was alright,” he said. “She had some Kleenex and stuffed it up her nose nostrils to keep the blood out of her eyes.”
“Yikes!” said Dottie, as the Cyclone shimmied shook roared down the other side of the lift hill. “If that happens, I don’t have any Kleenex.”
They laughed up and down the trick hill, leaned into the banked turns that twisted and tipped the train, ducked beneath the head-choppers, and inside of two minutes pulled back into the station where everybody clambered off.
“My legs feel like fried bacon,” said Ronnie.
“Yeah, that was the mostest fun,” said Dottie.
“Bye to you, too.”
“That was sketchy,” said Vicki.
“Shoot low, they’re sending Shetlands,” said Betty. “Did you feel that tower sway when we got to the top?”
“You bet I did.”
“I’m hungry,” said Dottie.
“You’re always hungry,” said Bettina. “Doesn’t Stan feed you? Do you have a hollow leg, or what?”
“So am I, hungry, I mean,” said Vicki.
“How about a red hot at Nathan’s?” Betty suggested.
“Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.
Excerpted from the crime thriller “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”