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Astroland's Last Summer

A Mermaid’s Tale

Celebrating a quarter-century, Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade is a reminder that for some, changing times should be ignored.

Kate Dale is concerned. The half-finished float, her 10th, is as clever as any of its predecessors, and her costume is particularly glorious. But there is a missing element, one that could cost her crew the prize.

“I’m a little worried about the bribes,” she says for the third time.

Bribing the judges of the Mermaid Parade is a Coney Island tradition as honored as puking after the Cyclone. In years past, desperate mermaid divas have thrown themselves upon the review stand to proffer marine-style panties and elixirs of youth. On at least one occasion, according to the reigning Supreme Justice, the proposed deal included cocaine and sexual favors—neither of which said Justice accepted, but both of which impressed him.

The standard bribe currency has always been beer. But with rumors that this year judges would be libated complimentarily, Dale is in a quandary.

And so the veteran mermaid circles her float—a giant silver quarter to celebrate the parade’s 25th anniversary, the Tilyou funny face for “heads” and Kate’s own metallic half-body as “tails”—and riffs on the legal tender motif.

“Mint juleps…mojitos?” she wonders aloud.

Her collaborator Erika doesn’t respond. Her head is deep in Tilyou’s mechanical jaws, which open to reveal a capacious but now possibly obsolete beer cooler.

 

* * *


Far from the Julliard scene shop where Dale is finishing her float, another group is gathered in the old Childs Restaurant on West 21st Street in Coney Island. Once dubbed the “Rendezvous of the Elite,” the space has been closed to the public since 1947. Its beautiful stucco exterior is marred with graffiti and its interior, after two weeks of power washing and painting, is strewn with detritus, power tools, and loose wiring.

The demolition crew is still at work, just 24 hours before the space is to host a thousand Mermaid Parade revelers. The jackhammers are creating more dust and rubble, but they are also opening up the enormous boardwalk entry arches, letting the sunshine and the seaview stream into Childs for the first time in 60 years.

You will still see bare breasts and lascivious lads among the marchers. But there are also PTA moms dressed as scurvy pirates—a less freakish sight you have never seen.Dana Sterling, organizer of the 2007 Mermaid Parade Ball, scratches her head and starts talking about perimeters. A guy named Erich Loetterle, who calls himself an improvisational technician, is chomping at the bit.

“I can hook a crocodile up to the space station!” he promises, referencing Roald Dahl. In fact, neither crocodile nor space station are planned for the party the next night. But with Erich largely in charge, more functional accessories like lights, projectors, a stage, and a bar materialize.

 

* * *


Saturday dawns a perfect day, though some of less genteel game operators (“here come the freaks, the faggots, and the pimps”) are unenthusiastic.

The Mermaid Parade’s 1983 debut marked the ascension of a new dynamic on Coney Island—one that valued culture over carnival rides and viewed theater as the highest form of entertainment. Early Mermaid Paraders, clearly fish to many of the old-timers’ fowl, were, above all, performers. They came to the beach to express themselves with body paint and toss baubles into the ocean for Calypso. They brought no offerings for the go-kart operators, except maybe unwanted ones.

Twenty-five years later, the stereotype of the Mermaid Parade as hedonistic grandstanding sticks, despite the fact that in its tremendous growth, the event has been tamed. If not entirely mainstream, the Mermaid Parade today has legitimate family-friendly bona fides. You will still see bare breasts and lascivious lads among the marchers and mummers. But there are also PTA moms dressed as scurvy pirates—a less freakish sight you have never seen.

The absence of depravity notwithstanding, the Stillwell Avenue subway stop is an entirely different scene on Mermaid Parade Day than on a typical summer Saturday. It’s the day when Coney’s blue-collar public is overrun by artists, students, bohemians, and yuppies—a latter-day hipster cotillion. Perverts and freaks they mostly are not. They just have more money and less of a tan than the families for whom Coney is a backyard.

 

* * *


If there is a universally unwanted element in this year’s Mermaid Parade, it’s Thor Equities. Thor is the development company that has promised to revamp Coney Island to the tune of $1.5 billion, but has done little more than make enemies of everyone who might have appreciated such an effort.

Flamboyant jellyfish in the lineup carry parasols draped in silk and innovative anemones wield satin pup tents. But Thor Equities has brought something even more novel—a human shield. Under a banner reading “The Future of Coney Island Presents,” is a rousing high-stepping marching band. And since only an asshole boos a talented, inner-city percussionist drill team, nobody does.

Where are the real Thor representatives? “Controlling the weather,” quips a cutie with nice biceps.The marching band moves on, dragging its disingenuous sponsor to safety down the exit ramp and into the vacant lot where Thor has put its on-site headquarters—a trailer, also emblazoned with “The Future of Coney Island.”

As if that’s not sufficiently ironic, it should be added that the Thor marchers are sporting “Summer of Love” T-shirts and waving uber-sized mallets. Also that the bearers of this mixed message, it turns out, are not Thor employees at all, just friends of one of the company’s younger publicists.

Where are the real Thor representatives?

“Controlling the weather,” quips a cutie with nice biceps.

“I thought that was Jesus,” chimes his equally comely female companion.

Meanwhile, the Solid Gold Mermen cruise by. One of them, covered in green body glitter from his flippered Rollerblades to his sparsely combed-over scalp, looks surprisingly like Thor’s president, Joseph Sitt.

 

* * *


Six hours later, at the after-party at Childs, they’ve run out of armbands, but there is still ample space in the cavernous hall. An elderly man declares, “I was here 61 years ago for the real deal,” and cuts a perfect two-step to the strains of “Lust for Life.”

Geisha mermaids, dapper sailors, and Elvis impersonators wander through the magnificent arched entryways as one of the 140 judges tries to point out the contest winners. Kate Dale, the Venus on the quarter-shell, has won, he confirms, and there should be no discussion of bribes. “It was pure theater when that coin turned around,” he says.

Another winner, Cruella DeVille, waves from the boardwalk and promises she’ll be right there. Just as soon as she finds a port-a-potty that will accommodate her Dalmatian-spotted tail.

By 11 p.m., the parade organizers have arrived to announce that the silver anniversary has broken all the records. Five hundred plus registered groups. A million in attendance, they say, guaranteed.

Ten blocks east, all of Coney’s neon is on display. It is as fantastic a concoction as the gown of a Mermaid Queen. And, if the worst-case scenario comes true, as ephemeral. While the Mermaid Parade has just made its strongest showing ever, its habitat fights daily with the widespread belief that this is a Last Summer. This sense of finality is perhaps the most convincing explanation for the huge turnout.

Except, of course, for the weather.

As any Mermaid Parader will tell you, sunshine, breezes, and temperatures in the 70s is a foolproof recipe for success…with or without a silver anniversary, regardless of impending doom, even without bribes.
 

Elizabeth Kiem is collecting Astroland stories. Send some her way.


biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem