September 30, 2012 Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, 1 of 3
I take off on the F Train at Carroll Street and write these first words as we emerge from the tunnel onto the elevated tracks. I look out at Red Hook, Gowanus, Staten Island, New Jersey, the Upper Bay, the continent. The sun shines. The BQE creeps. The Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison, sits in Sunset Park, and I push back thoughts of my clients incarcerated there.
I let time happen.
At Ditmas Avenue a young Jewish man leaves the train and an old Jewish man boards, both dressed in Hasidic black. At Bay Parkway there are parking lots filled with school buses and a crowded cemetery spanning blocks. The stops run ubiquitous and empty to me, named Avenues I, N, P.
We brake and glide into Avenue X.
The Wonder Wheel and Cyclone not far off now, and I recall swinging and climbing on the poles and handrails of an F Train years ago with Dean and Cooley headed out to Coney Island. Doug and Julia were there too. That summer night we rode the Cyclone three times, raced go-carts, crashed bumper cars. And when Julia’s tube-top slipped down on the Polar Express Ride, as we spun and twirled to Jamaican Dancehall, she just pulled it up and laughed.
My desire to do something like this was with me back then, but it was vague, hibernating. And though the pipe that burst at my uncle’s building a few nights ago, dealing with the tenants and soaked floors, has finally set me to this, no single reason explains why I’m here on this train today, writing in this notebook, much less what I hope to accomplish other than the act itself. In part, it’s the culmination of so many experiences, of stress, of one incident too far, but that’s saying too little, almost trivializing my unease, and is certainly incomplete. Because it’s also about admitting that I’m in need of something that must be done now, a rebellion of sorts against myself that starts with me setting out to visit every stop on the F, whatever that means.
I bite my lip, as is my habit, to push my pen further, and look back at Manhattan. It’s barely there in the distance, and I must confess New York City is also driving me. It’s this swell, even conceit, that’s been with me since I was a teenager, formed during times like those nights with my friends in Sheep’s Meadow when we’d sit and talk in that fishbowl. I can still recall the coolness of the grass and the depth of the quiet. In that emptiness the city burned raw power; and my feelings were as palpable. I even tried to put them into words in high school, when I had one of my comic book super villains proclaim, “The city’s magnitude is the progeny of our ambition and its aggressiveness an extension of our will!” Those sentiments were hyperbolic and naïve, but have proven strangely durable, encumbering me with this burden I once felt was a blessing. And though I continue to tell myself, “So what? There are harder, meaner places, that living here is no feat.” I can’t shake my disquiet, and the feeling that New York has me for a loss.
The train settles into Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue. The conductor squawks: “Last stop.” The doors open. I step out into the humidity, walk down stairwells and ramps through the nearly deserted station onto the street. Along the way I pass an Asian family, black MTA workers, a Hispanic man wearing a fedora, a lifeguard chair by a token booth, and stained glass images of old fashion side show attractions, like this mentally disabled man dressed as a jungle monster.
On Stillwell and Surf Avenues, the Welcome To Coney Island sign greats me with its joker grin. I walk to the familiar, West 12th Street, and recline against a fence across the street from the Sideshow By The Seashore Theatre. Its marquee advertises: Blockhead, Snakeology, Sword Swallower, Electra, Weird Women, Strange Men, their likenesses painted in tan, red ochre and turquoise. I’m about to head over to the freak show when an elderly couple turns onto the block. They walk past me to the boardwalk. He gripping his cane. She holding his arm. Her floral perfume pleasing.
I cross the street. A young woman sits at the ticket booth. Her face is suntanned. She wears black lipstick and indigo eyeliner. I hand her a twenty and she hands me back my ticket and change with fingers adorned in rings. She tells me that I’ll have to wait until the next act before going inside. So I browse the murals and banners in the lobby. They’re of more performers painted in sand and sea colors. I’m admiring a painting of a woman pierced all over her body, imagining what it would be like to be her and what my act would be if I was a freak, when I hear clapping and I glance over at the indigo girl who nods that it’s ok to go inside, and I do.
The theater’s small and dark, nearly full. A snake charmer is leaving the stage. The audience is talkative. I find a place among the bleachers. The seats alternate yellow and red. The closest people to me are a father and daughter. The ringmaster, Donny Vomit, walks into the spotlight, vaudevillian, with his handlebar mustache, bowler, tie and vest. He introduces Insectavora Angelica who takes the stage holding unlit torches and a single flame.
We quiet down.
Angelica’s lean but curvaceous, illustrated in tattoos. A blackwork maze covers most of her face and runs down her neck to her bosom. An electric guitar plays minor chords, and a somber voice joins in. Angelica moves seductively, lighting her fingers on fire, then igniting the torches one by one with her touch, before arching her head back and setting her lips alight. She stares effortlessly into the flames, and I wonder where she’s from and how she got here, as I’m reminded how for a long while after returning home from law school, I thought most transplants were here to just get off on the anonymity the city provides. I couldn’t grasp the flip side, couldn’t appreciate how being anonymous could be a way to come to know yourself, unencumbered, able to reset despite the risk and, at times, pretension.
Listen to yourself. Look at what you just wrote.
Who knows if she’s one. And, of course, it doesn’t matter.
Angelica now sinks to her knees before the torches. She swallows gulps of fire, lips smoldering. And the char is taking me back to those first months home after law school, when I used to hike the night, plowing through 30, 40, 50 blocks at a clip, smoking cigarettes, writing in bars, glad to be back in it, back in the shit, wanting to feel, to be, to belong, to be a part of this place, and to create something, something I valued, whatever that was, whatever that could mean. But I didn’t appreciate it though, didn’t realize how fast my time was running out as I whined about how much New York had changed and how fed up I was with bridge and tunnel people having their white bread lives toasted by it all. Before I could get over myself and accept the city that existed as opposed to the one I wanted, I was overtaken by my new life as a litigator. Where one night as I expressed my frustration to my former boss, now mentor and friend, Ed Willard, about the contradictions and politics of the terrorist case we were defending, about how artificial and manipulated it all seemed, he chuckled: “The truth is a malleable concept.”
“The truth is a malleable concept.”
… The music wails and Angelica ends her act spitting bursts of flame. And as I applaud her I’m still in my past, but now a couple of years on, when I lived for trials, especially summations. I’d stay up all night repeating and choreographing my closing arguments, smoking ashtrays full, listening to the same song over and over until I was in this break. The next day I’d go free fall from the podium, steady eyed on the jury, possessed by this clarity, knowing and believing what I had to say, as I tapped what I would, in time, call the Summation Effect. Being that litigator was so dear to me because it filled me with a wholeness that showed me how empty I was. I hadn’t expected that, hadn’t known that about myself, not really, since before that time I’d never cared enough to commit myself to anything or anyone.
Donny Vomit’s back on stage setting up his own act, holding a hammer and long nail, but I don’t stay. I close my notebook, put my pen in my pocket, squeeze past the father and daughter, walk through the lobby, nod to the indigo girl, and I’m outside.
I breathe the salt air. I listen to the rides and excited cries. I feel dredged up, hungry and thirsty. I start towards the Nathan’s on the boardwalk, but notice an older woman working the ticket booth of the Wonder Wheel. She has on a black t-shirt with the word “Sexy” in sparkling silver letters. She’s sun burnt and weather worn, but has a hopeful smile, a smile that persists even when ignored. And I change course and walk to her booth and gaze at the rims, spokes and chairs, spying on her as I work up the nerve to ask her a few questions. But she speaks before I do, and I take down her words in real time.
“The view’s great up there,” she says. “You should head up, you’d see more.” Her voice is a bit hoarse but easygoing. And I stall, off balanced, conscious of the notebook and pen in my hands, not knowing what to do, because it’s about me doing this thing I’m doing, and I don’t know what’s fair, what the rules are, or my role is. And note taking affects people; they gauge their responses. But I don’t want that, not now. So I close my notebook, knowing that when I recount this encounter it will be more susceptible to my point of view, which is why witness testimony is so often flawed; and I reply, “Thanks, maybe another time.” And I start to ask, “How long have you-” but the woman gestures at my notebook and asks, “What are you writing about?”
I hadn’t expected that. How do I describe it? Do I try? Do I know? So I fall back on how I answer judges and instruct clients: Keep it simple, and say, “What I see. People. My thoughts.
There’s laughter and voices passing behind me. The woman looks away and smiles at whoever’s there, and when she looks back, she asks, “Like me?”
My eyes narrow, and I have to stop myself from searching to see if she’s being insincere, since I’m likely to find a false positive given my own skepticism. “There are no stakes at risk,” I tell myself, “or, at least, none I’m used to. See her without sights, not as a potential adversary.” And what I think I see is just curiosity, perhaps boredom, a flirtatious chutzpah. And it’s clear she’s read the answer in my face because she asks, “Can I read it? Read what you wrote?”
I feel a jolt, but no hesitation. I’ve caused this, wanted this opportunity. Now it’s about faith. And I hand her my notebook.
The wind picks up and she holds the pages down. She starts at the top, I think, at the freak show, underlining my writing with her fingers. When she’s done, she hands me back my notebook and says, “You know your handwriting’s god-awful.”
That’s a letdown. But whether she’s gathering her thoughts or avoiding comment, she’s right. My handwriting is a mess of print, cursive and shorthand. And I think about how Ms. Margolin, my second grade teacher, tried mightily to set my penmanship straight, gently admonishing me about how my r’s looked like v’s, reminding me to give my p’s and y’s proper tails, and not let my words sink below the lines. Ms. Margolin was the teacher who first encouraged my interest in art and history. She was funny, compassionate, knew everything a seven-year-old needed to know, and I adored her. And I see myself that first day of school, blown away by how beautiful and welcoming she was, captivated by her brown eyes and chestnut hair, and raising my hand and asking her if she was married, because that’s what I wanted to do, marry her.
“Terrorists?” the woman asks, tripping up my reverie. “You really represent them?”
It’s odd how that word fascinates, sort of like sharks do. I don’t hedge. “Yes, I’ve represented people accused of terrorism, still do.”
The woman gives me a once over, perhaps wondering if my Levi’s and Dr. Martens add up. Finally she asks, “Is it frightening representing them – those types of people?”
My answer comes easy, having said it often enough. “Yes and no,” I explain. “It’s harder defending someone who’s been played by the government, who’s a patsy. They’re lumped in with more dangerous actors, and most people don’t understand that. And it may sound strange but defending true believers isn’t as bad, because they’re stronger. But mostly all we do is make sure the process works.” It all sounds pat, balanced, a near nothing. And I don’t mention how troubled I am over my client Kaleb Mohamed’s (I’ve changed his name and the facts of his case for this project) case, or the anger I felt when the assassin drew the REDACTED on my legal pad and promised REDACTED.
The woman seems satisfied, and I’m relieved to see some guys approaching the ticket booth. I step aside so she can tend to them. They’re talking about their weekend partying, sounding British, gay and hung over. And when the Wonder Wheel carries them off, I say to the woman, “I should keep moving. You have work to do.”
There’s another gust of wind, and we both look at the storm clouds lolling in from the west. And I say, “Take care,” and start on my way, but she calls after me, “You know you’re wrong.
“About what?” I ask.
“About my smile.”
“How? You have a nice smile.”
“I know, but people don’t ignore it. You didn’t. People just don’t smile back.” I get it, getting her. “And you know what else?” And I wait as she winds up. “I’ve still got it.” And she cocks her figure, whipping her “Sexy” at me, and I head on and find a bench on the boardwalk, and write down what’s just happened.
In front of me is a sign that warns: “Beach Closed Danger,” which no one’s paying attention to. Down the way, a band of twenty-somethings in sport jackets and cocktail dresses play Ragtime on a pavilion decorated in balloons. A squirrel scampers near them, while in the background The Zenobio Ride’s giant steel arms cartwheel, in terrific loops, carrying couples five, six stories high. On the beach kids fly kites; my favorite looks like a frog. Out on the breakwater men fish, and out beyond them tankers and cargo ships sail in silhouette. And when the wind rushes again, carrying the odor of the nearby restrooms, I’m reminded I’m still hungry.
I walk to Nathan’s, and along the way I feel the rumble of a bike and the clacking of a skateboard, and notice how much Russian I hear, of which I understand only some: a boy complaining to his mother, teens talking about something to do with school, and a man on his cell phone shouting «Блядь» (blyad) fuck.
On line at Nathan’s, a seagull plops a drop of shit on my shoulder. The girl behind the register covers her mouth both amused and embarrassed for me. Other people look, I guess, Germans by their sunglasses. And I shake my head since this is now the third time I’ve been shit on by a bird. I ask the girl if she can get me something to wipe it off, and she comes back with a wad of dripping napkins. I put my notebook and pen on the counter, next to a streak of mustard, squeeze out the excess water, and wipe off the shit. After the girl takes the napkins from me, she leans in close and says, “You know that’s a good sign, a good omen.”
I was thinking, “Shit happens,” unstressed, but I see she’s trying to be helpful, giving me a wink and nod with that sunlit chocolate face of hers, and I can’t help but appreciate her words for what they are: a token of meaning to something meaningless, and I reply, “I hope you’re right.” And we both stand there not knowing what else to say until we default to routine, with me giving her my order and her bringing me a hotdog and beer, before I thank her again, give her tip, and walk out onto the beach.
I’m sitting in this small empty playground just off the boardwalk. It has incline benches, rails and bars arrayed at odd angles and heights. There’s no padding, save the sand, refreshingly opposite of today’s overprotective play spaces. I finish my hotdog and beer, as a couple comes over: a woman in a bikini with sleeked blonde hair and a bald man in Speedos wearing mirrored sunglasses. I smell their sunscreen. The woman snaps on spandex shorts and begins to stretch in front of me. The man grips a bar and starts doing pull-ups.
I laugh to myself. “This isn’t a playground. It’s a workout area.”
Soon a bare-chested middle-aged man, wearing Russian style military fatigues, joins them and starts doing lifts and handstands. “What’s his story?” I wonder. And I fill in the blanks, giving him a history, so he becomes ex-Soviet military, Russian mafia. He’s ripped, and reminds me of my former client, REDACTED, who’s now in Witness Protection, and the way he would clench his fist and punch his hands when he talked about REDACTED, like he was beating the shit out of his own words, and I realize I’m not far from where he and his boss kidnapped the pool shark and ambushed the snitch.
And there it is. In an instant, I see the pool shark’s immolated body left in a torched car just off the Belt Parkway, and the snitch lying on a sidewalk in Brighton Beach dead from shotgun wounds.
Of course thoughts trigger memory – thought triggers.
I look up from my notebook and something must read in my face because the bald man is staring at me. He speaks to his girlfriend in Russian, and I understand: «что» (chto) (what), «письмо» (pis’mo) (writing), and «какая разница» (kakaya raznitsa) (who cares). They notice me listening, perhaps realizing I understand some of what they’ve said. And I almost say, «Здравствуйте» (zdravstvuyte) (hello), but I’m not in the mood to be cute and move on.
I’ve walked out onto the jetty, passing a Chinese man fishing. I sit cross-legged with the sky and ocean before me, my pen and notebook in my lap, letting the weight of my melancholy press in on me, not resisting.
I look out into all that blue, grey and white, and feel the spray in the air, feel my body against the granite. Part of me wants to disappear, to be obliterated, to fractal. But this isn’t about some escape or erasure or sit ass meditation. It’s about walking this walk, and it doesn’t matter if it makes any sense. It’s only the first day of a long march, and I don’t know what I’ll find. I just have this feeling, no, this belief, I can be helped by, and among, strangers.
I stand and face Brooklyn, pushing that drama I like. More clouds have gathered. Kites are being whipped. A woman in a pink swimming cap backstrokes the waves. A beachcomber meanders the whitecaps, his metal detector pinging him here and there. On the shore, two ballet dancers are being filmed as they arabesque, pirouette and lift.
How did I miss the dancers on the way out here?
I step off the seawall and notice how packed the sand is.
How did I miss that too?
I kneel and push my hands against the sand and think of the millions who’ve come here, doing all the things that we do, from the mundane to the profane. The metaphor is obvious; this isn’t soft vacation sand, inaccessible and bought off.
I look up from my notebook and catch the dancers and the film crew checking me out, and I spot a pattern. I’m affecting people’s behavior by writing so openly when that’s not necessarily what I want. But there’s no avoiding it now. And I watch them watch me until the director claps his hands and shouts, “Again, again, let’s hurry!” and they go back to work as raindrops begin to fall.
I leave the beach and hurry down West 10th Street between The Cyclone and Wild River Ride. The rain’s really coming down. There’s a row of parked sedans and limousines with diplomatic plates; security men in suits and sunglasses are escorting an entourage into the park. Rides are shutting down. I duck out of the rain, under a tent by The Night of Horrors, joining a kid in a hoodie sitting on a bike, and a hippy chick standing with a little boy. A hearse is parked out front in a spreading pool of mud. I catch sight of stragglers, from the entourage, dash inside an arcade just across the way, and I give it a minute before following them inside.
I spot the group straight away, a dozen casually chic young adults, chaperoned by a few older folks, maybe Russian, definitely Eastern European; it’s hard to hear over music and gaming sounds. They’re waiting out the rain and having a good time of it.
I play spy again, walking on the casino carpeting, searching for a spot among in colored lights and screens where I can set up without drawing attention. I come across Galaga, a game I like, place my notebook on the screen, get my pen set, put a dollar in the machine just in case, and try not to be obvious.
The guys are playing shoot ‘em up games, aiming, firing at whatever, tight-lipped, eyes darting in that twitch pattern. One curses. One slaps a machine. Another cheers. Most laugh. And I don’t judge. I’ve been them, felt that brag and virtual accomplishment.
And there’s another trigger.
And I see and hear the teenager whose father was gunned down in front of him by my client as they walked in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “I miss my dad,” he said while I stood beside my client at sentencing. “I don’t know why you killed him. But he’s gone because of you.” The young man spoke through tears as his mother held him. And he wasn’t the only victim to speak. The paralyzed drug dealer recounted being tied, pistol-whipped, shot and left for dead during the home invasion. The bank guard talked about the bullets still in him, the surgeries and bankrupting medical bills. It took on a spoken word quality. And I felt exposed, sorry for their loss, and ultimately ashamed, when, using a trick I’d learned from an old time lawyer, I sampled my empathy for them to make myself tear up, on cue, and convinced the judge not to give my client the life sentence most would say he deserved.
… So that’s my act, my freak show.
But this isn’t some woe is me. I’m not alone, or even close to the worst off. Still, as I write these words, I see I’m struggling over whether I’m simply impaired or if I’ve gained some needed insight from all this shit. Maybe both? Is there difference? I just know – no believe – I have to give meaning to these experiences. If I don’t who will?
Wasn’t that the Nathan’s girl’s point?
Still, meaning mustn’t be rushed. I’ve done that before, jumped ahead of myself with no place to land.
I turn from the guys to see what the girls evoke. Two of them are competing in a dancing game, bouncing, stepping, sashaying, clapping, pumping, posing, while their friends egg them on, and the older folk talk among themselves, half paying attention, checking to see if the rain’s stopped. One girl flops and puts her head in her hands, laughing as the other dances on.
And there’s a new trigger. I’ve danced and partied, a lot.
And I think of those three, almost four years, when Dean, Cooley and I had our run. Whether it was dancing in some dive on Ludlow Street to Cooley’s Hot Box, the first drum and bass band Cooley founded, or those packed hallucinogenic Rubulab parties in Williamsburg, or with the Spanish ladies at Montero Bar & Grill on Atlantic Avenue, the three of us were ready. I loved the release, the charge, the pump-it-up, as we hijacked nights, shirtless, whisky in hand.
And before that there was those times at The Continental, during college in Buffalo, New York, like the summer night when the platinum blonde wrote a poem about me as I danced in my black everything and eyeliner. I found the poem on a napkin, waiting for me, at our party’s table with the blonde playing it coy, but loud, and I sat beside her, copped a drag off her cigarette, and read:
Beginning on this note-
Dancing as you are-
Beyond and outside yourself-
You dance alone.
To begin with the music is for the common…
Energy releases through a moment of observation-
The dancing fills the world with energy-
The balance allows expansion-
Without dance the body collapses,
Awaiting the presence, uncontrollably within the essence of freedom
To be in a field without colors.
I kept the poem not just because I like it, but because that’s the moment I aped the idea of writing in real time, in nature, following her example.
I press start on Galaga and spend a few minutes fighting spaceships before heading back to the subway and home. The rain has passed out over the Atlantic. I walk by a rundown carousel and some beat cats licking themselves, while in the distance The Sling Shot shoots a couple sky high. Near me, a boy kicks a beer can into a vacant lot, and I think of the 1960s’ Space Race, as the Mexican Ranchera playing from a Burrito stand somehow ties it all together.
As I walk, I notice just how poor this neighborhood is, at how many homeless people there are. There’s even more homeless at the station, I guess, in from the rain. I’m struck by their silence and how they watch us, and I wonder if they may see more than most even if crazed.
I go for a piss before catching the F.
In the men’s room there’s a man shaving his shoulders, chest and arms. His backpack lies at his feet. We’re all watching him. He’s staring in the mirror with watery blue eyes, swiping and rinsing his razor again and again. He has my undivided attention until I see the pile of shit lying in the urinal, and I step to another urinal and piss.
The man’s still at it when I walk out, and I head to the train platform, unsure what I’m supposed to do, if anything, with the encounter. My initial thought is: “Anonymity has a red line you shouldn’t cross,” but I stop myself from going too far, from pushing meaning.
The F comes and I try to distract myself from thinking about the shaving man by checking out the kid with a Puerto Rican flag tied around his leg, and the orthodox Jewish girl in a black dress and gray sweater with a suitcase in her lap. The sunlight saturates their clothes and brings out the colors beneath their skin. And before we sink into the tunnel, I distract myself further by watching the train’s shadow streak over the rooftops, then admiring the World Trade Center still under construction, but finally standing tall.
And there’s another trigger.
I want to give meaning to that time and place, to that neighborhood where I started my career, to where I found friends and enemies and lovers, to what happened that day, and to all the things that have happened since. It’s like with the shaving man. It’s seems I’ve popped the cap off something containing me; and it’s compulsive, this need I feel. And I distill the feeling into two words: meaning machines. I think that’s what we are, or need to be. But I can’t rush it, can’t force meaning from this … whatever I’m doing. And I look back at the Puerto Rican kid and Jewish girl, both so different and yet so alike, each looking out the window, hands in repose, in thought, doing what I’m doing, what we all do; and that’s enough meaning for now.