A Coney Island of the Mind, 2000

In the late ‘90s there were numerous occasions on which exhibition curators decided for reasons not entirely clear, to fill very large spaces with very small things by many many artists. Democratizing impulse? Lack of ideas? Lack of funds? Audience outreach strategies? These shows were an easy resumé item for those early in their careers. It was the kind of show you never saw because it was far away. You wouldn’t take the trouble to travel there and neither would anyone else you knew. Should you bother to participate? Well, all they want is a snapshot. How hard is that?

I know I have been to City Lights Bookstore. I can’t imagine having gone to San Francisco and not having gone there. On the other hand I have no concrete memory of the place. But the phrase, “A Coney Island of the Mind”, got tangled up in the neurons in my head and popped up in consciousness from time to time unbidden. It was not unlike some advertising jingles or the songs attached to television shows that entered and never vacated.

My first trip to Berkeley was more vivid. It was in 1969. I was traveling with my cousin and his parents. It was impossible to linger on the streets. Berkeley was a war zone, replete with boarded up windows, torn posters and endless bits of paper in motion at ones feet and National Guard troops patrolling the streets. No one was out. We must have arrived in Berkeley just after “Bloody Thursday” (15 May 1969). The riots in Berkeley were precipitated by then Governor Reagan’s decision to get tough on demonstrators over the uses of People’s Park, a property that legally belonged to the University of California. I don’t know if my cousin’s parents, both immigrants, ever heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti or City Lights Bookstore, so I don’t know if I went there then. We stayed in a motel. I was reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

There is a strong tradition in my family of reading such books. My mother and sister will pass them along to each other. Truman Capote’s was an exceptionally well written exemplar — most could hardly qualify as literature. They run the gamut from Helter Skelter to books on Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Of course, I want to make the argument that the insatiable desire to read these books has something to do with the Holocaust, I just don’t know what argument to make. I don’t share this urge, for the most part, so I’m not sure why it was that at fifteen I was terrorizing myself with this book. It wasn’t so bad in the daytime but at night every sound was suspect. At the motel, my cousin shared a room with his parents and I had a room to myself although there was a connecting door inside my room that led to theirs. The book had fully commandeered my imagination by then and the threatening appearance of the Berkeley streets didn’t help. I showered with my eyes resolutely open, listening for the outer motel door to creak or for footsteps outside the bathroom door. When I emerged from the shower there was a message dripping from the steam covered mirror. Actual writing. I was sure that I hadn’t even blinked. How could someone be in my motel room? I let out an ear piercing shriek.

This wasn’t my first encounter with two depraved murderers. When I was younger, 10 or so, I stumbled upon Meyer Levin’s Compulsion in my parents’ library. This story was all the more scandalous because the perpetrators were young, educated and Jewish. They weren’t ex-cons like Capote’s Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. The book Compulsion was the fictionalized version of the murder of Bobby Franks in 1920 by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Leopold was a student at the University of Chicago and Loeb was a graduate at the University of Michigan. Their quest had been the commission of the perfect crime, undertaken after and presumably inspired by the serious study of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. I don’t think Hickock and Perry were big readers.

Anyway, after the ear-piercing shriek, my sheepish cousin and his mother and father appeared in my room as I tried to describe the by now invisible writing on my mirror and they were forced to look under the bed and search the closet for intruders. My cousin’s mother, a psychiatrist, gently suggested a change in bedtime reading material.

When the curator from the show of many snapshots contacted me I had no thought about what to send to this exhibition. I had been out to Coney Island only a few weeks before. I had taken some photographs. Coney Island was another site of contested real estate. The new Coney Island of the rapacious developers slowly encroaching on the old Coney Island and threatening to swallow it whole, freak shows and all. The old Thunderbolt roller coaster built in 1925 and situated not far from the Parachute Jump, was slated for demolition. Hardly surprising given its condition. It had been out of use since 1983. I doubt that it ever had the iconic significance of the Parachute Jump, visible from miles away, or of the roller coaster at Palisades Amusement Park — the park that “swings all day and after dark.” The roller coaster at Palisades Amusement Park (The Cyclone) was another victim of development, though it surely would have succumbed to something eventually. The roller coaster could easily be seen from the across the river in Manhattan, its curvaceous body rising and falling, a string of nucleotides perched on a bluff above the city, emanating the same self-induced terrorized shrieks day and night that I produced in that motel room.

I rode that roller coaster once. As part of a high school summer job at Rockland State Hospital, I escorted a group of teenaged mental patients to Palisades Amusement Park. A small group of kids wanted desperately to go on that ride. None of the attendants from the hospital were willing to go and without adult accompaniment the patients would not be permitted on. Overcome by a moment of pity, I, who am afraid of heights and get sea sick on the Staten Island Ferry, volunteered. The Park went out of business shortly afterward and in 1971 the roller coaster was demolished. By comparison, the roller coaster at Coney Island was child’s play. Anyway, by the year 2000, it too was doomed, as condos selling for 1/2 million dollars began to appear on the beach front and Keyspan Park was underway. Soon there will only be “A Coney Island of the Mind.”

I sent a snapshot of the aging Thunderbolt, sitting behind a protective chain link fence with weeds growing gracefully through it. The next time I went out there it was gone.