Astroland's Last Summer

Independence Day

Coney Island celebrated the Fourth by crowning the first American hot-dog eating champion in seven years.

The crowd gathers at Stillwell and Surf, maneuvering through news trucks, fire engines, and overflowing trash cans for a glimpse at the contestants: a 63-year-old from Henderson, Nev.; a 105-pound girl who once ate 65 hardboiled eggs; a physical therapist from Birmingham, Ala.; and another hopeful whose forte runs toward Italian desserts. But the real race is between the reigning champ Kobayashi—the morose Japanese 29-year-old who labors under the recent death of his mother and chronic jaw pain—and the upstart contender: Joey Chestnut from California.

The annual Nathan’s hot-dog eating championship is a grueling 12 minutes. Past champions have won by downing just 20 dogs; in 2007, however, it will take five-dozen wieners and buns to seize the title.

The announcer is elated, calling the showdown “nothing short of the triumph of the human spirit,” and when, five minutes in, Joey Chestnut sprints ahead by four dogs, the announcer declares he may have to resort to dance to express his emotions.

On the perimeters, spectators hold their cameras aloft. Barney the purple dinosaur, Dora the Explorer, and a marine character from Nickelodeon sidle out of a souvenir store. Chestnut and Kobayashi spend the final three minutes in a dead heat.

“I thought Joey Chestnut was going to blow him away,” the announcer emotes when time runs out. “But it appears too close to call. We’re turning it over to Hungry Charles Hearty, the commissioner. We’re going to have to count plates and, um, the stuff on the table.”

As the officials reassemble half-masticated orts to deduct from Kobayashi’s final tally, a group of Russians elbow forward. “Did the Chinese win?’” one asks.

He did not, nor did the Japanese. Kobayashi, the reigning champ of six years, cedes his title to Joey Chestnut, who has demolished the record with 66 hot dogs and buns.


* * *

It is a cold Fourth, dipped into the 60s. Dark clouds hunker over the Atlantic and grow darker toward Manhattan. There’s a strong breeze as well, though not strong enough to dispel the smell that permeates West 12th Street—garbage, or maybe just the parmesan cheese sprinkled on roasted corncobs at the vendor next to the Sideshow.

But the unseasonable weather hasn’t dampened the turnout, and the entire amusement zone from the Cyclone to Keyspan Park is packed. There are lines 20 deep at Nathan’s—a bewildering fact considering the spectacle just witnessed in its name. Surf Avenue is overrun with pedestrians, every game counter is up and running on the Bowery and Jones Walk, and from the offices of Astroland Park the midway resembles photos from Coney Island’s heyday: Rorschach blobs of humanity against the small white spaces of asphalt.

“It rains and it stops and then it rains. It’s a pretty good crowd, but if it had been a sunny day there would have been many more.” The cops say no one is counting today, because it’s not a protest and it’s not Manhattan. But they seem to agree that there are more people at Coney today than there were for the Mermaid Parade, when the skies were pellucid and the temperature divine.

Out on the pier opposite Keyspan Park, all the constituencies of Coney Island are strolling south over the water. Spanish is the lingua of the pier. It’s shouted from the pica pica boards where heavy metal rings hold bills down long enough to be grabbed by the roller rather than the wind. It’s spoken closer to the boardwalk where women are frying fritters in cardboard boxes, trading Sterno, and ladling mysterious batter from Igloo coolers. Indians and Koreans inspect the refreshments, and also the uncooked meats serving as bait for crabbers and fishermen. Russians in cardigans sit on the benches and, as they do the world over, observe how wrongly dressed everyone else is.

Further West, Coney Island is suddenly vacant. Only rain-slickered guards man the beaches. In the community gardens and Parks Dept. playgrounds lining Surf Avenue from 22nd to 30th Streets, American flags are abundant—and outnumbered by Puerto Rican flags.


* * *

The Cyclone is still running two trains at once when Stan Fox and Andy Badalamenti shut up the History Project booth located beneath the coaster. Fox, a Coney Island luminary of some decades, is recapping the day in his marvelously understated way.

“It rains and it stops and then it rains,” he notes. “It’s a pretty good crowd, but if it had been a sunny day there would have been many more.” He’s looking at the sky, at the elevated subway lines, at the livery car stopping to pick up a family with three kids and an inflatable raft. “See, usually you’d be getting the second wave. People coming for the night, but they don’t want to bring their kids out in the rain.”

“Free refills!” she reminds anyone who isn’t familiar with Coney Island libations. Stan Fox has a way of speaking words directed everywhere, so he doesn’t need to focus on his interlocutor when he says, “No fireworks tonight. Only fireworks on Fridays. That’s a good thing, though. One year when the Fourth was a Friday you couldn’t start until 11:00. You have to clear the beach for a three-block radius, and if it’s a beautiful day you can’t get them off the beach.”

Thirty feet up, the Cyclone train has halted halfway up the first ascent. Two ride handlers scramble up and check the tracks and traces, and the train continues toward the crest.

Fox does the play-by-play. “OK, they checked it out. Everything’s all right. And off they go.”


* * *

Cha Cha’s is not as crowded as Ruby’s next door, so a buxom barback is flouncing on the boardwalk, brandishing two bottomless Piña Colada glasses and massive breasts. “Free refills!” she reminds anyone who isn’t familiar with Coney Island libations.

Inside, a musician named Baby is taking a break. He usually sings at the bar, but today he’s helping out the owner for the holiday. He is remembering a friend of his who died days ago, and who was memorialized last night on the beach, and in the bar.

“Last time I saw him he was on the roof watching the Mermaid Parade. He was 80 years old, surrounded by women, smoking a j,” he says. “Man lived a good life.”

Outside the window Baby is leaning against is a 40-foot water slide, Coney Island’s newest attraction. A boy slaloms the length of it standing. A squadron of six helicopters powers overhead, keeping the rain at bay another hour. A cop riding one of Andy Badalamenti’s horses passes under the window down the boardwalk ramp. He’s followed by Joey Chestnut’s retinue, brandishing a trophy.

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


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