Astroland's Last Summer

Waiting for the Sirens’ Call

Coney Island’s annual Siren Festival is billed as the largest free outdoor indie music festival in New York. This year’s lineup included 14 bands—all of which were free, outdoor, and apparently, indie.

“Do you know the etymology of the word siren?”

It’s not a question that Ben, standing behind his game counter on Jones Walk, necessarily expects an answer to. He’s only asked because his brother-in-law Wally is under the mistaken impression that the Siren Festival is “when they all come down on their motorcycles.” Also because the young lady before him has already raised her eyebrows in respect for his best recitation of Middle English. Then again, it was she who brought up Socrates, so Ben is not really surprised when she recounts in dramatic tones the mythic sweetness of certain songs from the deep, mimics the physical constraints of arms bound against all enchantment, and concludes with grave (but non-contextual) warnings of the perils of Charybdis.

“I’m not sure that counts as etymology,” she adds. But Ben, who has been called the “wizard” of the Walk in deference to his mechanical talents and quirky erudition, is satisfied.

Ben works the only one-of-a-kind game on Coney Island. It is a game he designed himself—a task of hand-eye coordination he calls “Skin the Wire.” It’s a seductive game, as far as they go, requiring serpentine dexterity and an eye not easily fooled. The winners are rare, but they are rewarded with prizes as unique as the wire itself—oddities worthy of the flea markets that once lined Surf Avenue. The Skin the Wire counter is lit not with fluorescents, but with the red penumbra of a lamp disguised as a Can Can dancer. Among the water balloon races and ball tosses of Coney Island’s warren of amusements, Ben’s booth of spirals in motion has the assertive low profile of a head shop in a strip mall.

There is another, equally unique attraction two booths down from the Skin the Wire game: a life-size mannequin in a glass case. She’s a brunette with downcast eyes who will dance for a quarter. She’s a modest dresser, this private dancer—long peasant skirt and a white blouse knotted demurely at her waist. Though she looks vaguely like the owner of a vegetarian restaurant, she also has a creepy Karen Carpenter sort of conventionality, explained best, perhaps, by the fact that Ben picked her up at the Danbury State Fair circa 1988.

When you put a quarter in the slot, she dances awkwardly to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” She will drive no one into the sea with mad longing—tonight or any other night.


* * *

One of the Siren’s stages is set up on West 10th at the foot of the Cyclone; the other is on Stillwell Avenue. With over 100,000 people making their way between the two it is easy, while milling about Astroland or Deno’s or the boardwalk, to hear nothing but Coney Island crowd. Even standing at the Coney Island History Project, located just a hundred feet from the main stage, all you can hear is the squeal of the subway across Surf Avenue, the roar of the Cyclone directly above, and the hollered cell phone conversation of whoever has reached that point in the line for the Cyclone that puts them directly in front of the booth.

People who linger before the History Project are enticed by information. Sometimes they want it: “Is it true they’re building condos here?” they ask. Or, “Where is the guy who used to walk around in a peanut suit?”

“This is where I got my balls,” is what she means, and so, it’s what she says. If Stan Fox is manning the booth, he will answer these questions readily: “Over my dead body,” and “In Atlantic City.”

Almost as often, they want to share information: about their parents who got engaged on the Parachute Jump; about their grandmothers who sold tickets at Luna Park; about their grandfathers who ran the Loews Theater when it still showed five cartoons and two features for 25 cents; or, on this day, about their uncle who fell off the Cyclone and broke his arm because “he stood up like an idiot.”

To these people Fox nods his recognition and will sometimes encourage them to submit to a formal interview for the project’s audio archive.

Samantha Berkley is one of the History Project’s oral historians. She works in the booth weekends and collects interviews when her day job allows. She’s recorded her fair share of old-timer nostalgia—recollections that have entered the collective memory of generations, heedless of their personal impact (“I remember we used to ride the Steeplechase.” “I remember the Good Humor Man and his jingle went like this…”), and she’s itching for an update.

“The projects, man,” she says jerking her head west, “that’s where you gotta go to get the stories that I know. We should be talking to every teenager out here today.”

Berkley is fourth-generation Coney. She was raised in an apartment across the street from Astroland and watched her grade-school teachers march in the Mermaid Parade. She’s 27 and still living in the neighborhood, but she’s planning on leaving soon—ahead of the radical changes about to overtake the Coney Island landscape. Like Charlie Denson, the Coney native who runs the History Project and whose account of growing up in the neighborhood 40 years ago is widely considered the definitive history of post-war Coney Island, Berkeley regards her community with introspection, acutely aware of its formative powers.

“This is where I cut my teeth,” she says, but that is too mundane, too much an invocation of photo albums and home movies. “This is where I got my balls,” is what she means, and so, it’s what she says.


* * *

If you haven’t seen the ladies’ bathroom at Cha Cha’s on the Boardwalk in the hours between the last Siren band and the last ride on the Cyclone, you haven’t seen TRASHED.

“Mama—you don’t wanna take your babies in there,” says an exiting patron to the next in line—a woman waiting with her two little ones.

He announces to his companions that “all the Siren Festivals I’ve gone to are cooler than the Siren Festivals you’ve been to.” It’s 11 p.m. and there are kids all over Coney Island. They’re doing laps at Deno’s on Wally the Whale and smearing cotton candy on the handlebars of Astroland’s minibikes; they’re digging up the beach in the dark spots between streetlamps, a plastic beer cup for a shovel; they’re running wild on the boardwalk and falling asleep in their mothers’ laps; and when they have to pee, there’s nowhere to go but into the dank humanity of Cha Cha’s, where entire rolls of paper towels reside in the toilets.

Older kids have packed the Bowery. They’re from the projects and their conversations would make Samantha Berkley itch for her recorder. They haven’t come for the indie bands, but it seems that the unusual numbers descending from Williamsburg, the West Village, and Astoria have strengthened the park’s local pull as well. Coney’s many constituencies are all in record attendance. Astroland will stay open until 2 a.m.

Along Surf Avenue, the music lovers are passing judgment. There are complaints about the lineup, multiple proclamations that it was “lame.” There is stumbling, laughing, and many outfits holding tight to the 1980s. There is a fellow in short gym shorts, knee-high socks, and a boater holding tight to his peroxide-blonde girlfriend. He is tired of opinions and complaints and so announces to his companions that “all the Siren Festivals I’ve gone to are cooler than the Siren Festivals you’ve been to.”

A group of teenage quasi-Goths smokes cigarettes on the boardwalk. They’ve come from Philly without means to get back.

West of the vacant lot across from El Dorado, where bulldozers have begun clearing the land for Thor Equities’ as-yet-undecided construction, the teenagers melt into the night. Stilwell and its abandoned stage and port-a-johns are left a dark and forbidding avenue. Somewhere in the night a crazy red moon is lurking low on the horizon, like a mean, poisonous half-peach. Or maybe like the bloodshot eye of a Cyclops, peeking out from under the Verrazano Bridge. Suddenly Coney Island is neither Siren nor Charybdis—only detritus and revelry, soon to be trespassing.

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