Monday July 16. 2001

welcome to the freak show

If you had told me on Friday that before the weekend was out I would be witness to a real live Coney Island freak show, I would've never believed you. Honestly, I thought these sort of things went the way of the Dodo bird. But that's the weird thing about Coney Island - you step off the F train and if you ignore the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, you could easily imagine yourself back in 1940s or 50s. It looks just the same as it did then, from the garish, poorly painted signs to the rickety Cyclone rollercoaster to the bald men with fat, bare bellies lounging at the clam bars, ogling at whatever juicy young lady walked by.


I had originally wanted to meet up with Riley and her Australian boyfriend Chris on Wednesday here in Philadelphia and show them around my dear hometown, but due to a misunderstanding, it never happened. But I was going to be in New York City this weekend and so were they, so that worked out well. On Friday night, Koba, Riley, Chris and I went out to dinner (and I stuffed myself silly with $26 worth of sushi), and on Saturday, Riley, Chris and I decided to go to Coney Island.

Now, Riley and Chris are both photographers (as evidenced by their respective websites). We all went there to take pictures, but once Chris and Riley pulled out their insanely huge and complicated cameras with various lenses and films and such, I felt considerably dwarfed with my little Nikon digital in hand. Chris let me look through the fish eye lens, which warps and curves everything into the frame. The colors seemed more intense through the lens. Riley also had a Holga, which is a cheap camera that takes larger format film. I might have to get one of those, because I want to try experimenting with something other than just 35mm.

We ate dinner at a rather dodgy looking Pizza Hut, and then wandered up and down the boardwalk for a while, passing kiddie rides, temporary tattoo stands and so many families from around the city who came down here on a beautiful day to cool off in the water. The noise is almost constant. In front of each booth was a loudspeaker proclaiming whatever was contained within - whether it be the smallest woman in the world, alien bodies, or the bearded lady. We were passing a freak show where a man was standing on a podium and, auctioneer style, extolling the virtues of the show inside. We stopped for a moment to look, and just as I was about to turn away, Chris asked, "Do you want to go in?"

Well, what the heck. It was only 3 bucks.

Inside was a small stage with worn wooden bleachers in front of it. The master of ceremonies (whose name I've already forgotten), was the first act, and he did the usual magic tricks - the disappearing water, pounding nails into his nose, eating fire. The next act was a little more bizarre - a midget with Kiss-like face makeup with the unforgettable moniker "Koko the Killer Clown". His only talent seemed to be telling his sorry life story, which included getting kicked out of a circus and being in prison. Then there was the tattooed man, who seemed to have some giant chip in his shoulder. Then there was Serpentina, who danced briefly with what seemed to be a very large very drugged yellow python, Delilah the rubber woman and Seal Boy, who didn't have forearms, only hands attached to his elbows.

It was odd. I sat there with a mix of horror and amusement. I couldn't quite believe I was here, sitting on dirty, smelly bleachers watching a real live Coney Island freak show.

After that we wandered around some more and I got some cotton candy, which I hadn't had in years. I'd forgotten how it clings to your fingers and mouth and makes your whole hand feel sticky.

When we got back to Riley and Chris' hotel room, I bid them goodbye, but not before Chris pressed on me five rolls of extremely expensive and extremely nice slide film ("I get them free from work!" he said). I can't wait to use them, I just have to figure out for what. But they're definitely going to be saved for a special occasion.

I spent the rest of the weekend with John. On Saturday night, we drove up to Westchester County to a little town called Croton-on-Hudson to see an acoustic performance of Dave Schramm (which is one of John's favorite local musicians) and another guy I'd never heard of named Peter Blegvad. It was held in some sort of Masonic clubhouse, in a small space with folding chairs set in the semicircle that reminded me of the setup of MTV Unplugged. It was very low-key and very intimate, with various small children and dogs wandering about. There was homemade vichyoisse soup and fresh baked gingerbread for refreshments. And the music was great. Dave Schramm opened, and it was just him and his guitar. Solo there's a certain reverence and calmness to his songs.

Peter Blegvad, in constrast, was more gregarious and charmingly self-deprecating. His band, which consisted of two guys on the keyboard and bass, and Dave Schramm adding little guitar accents here and there, just gelled perfectly. I'm always so impressed, watching live music, how three or four or fifty musicians and instruments can just come together and produce the most tuneful and amazing things.

I rounded out this very exciting weekend with a picnic in Central Park for John's friends who are all on a BBS called Double Helix. I joined it recently, and it's been a bit hard adjusting to character mode and not using the mouse when the web is all you've ever known. The picnic was held in Sheep Meadow, which by the afternoon was crowded with sun bathers, frisbee players and people picnicking like us. It was weird seeing all the tall buildings on Central Park West poking up among the trees and clouds. I've said it once, and I'll say it again: New York City really is another world. Like no other place on earth.

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One Year Ago:
"I would have had a nice time, if my body hadn't suddenly decided to self-destruct on me."