On Mermaids and Cyclones

A few weeks ago when Paul was visiting, I promised him a visit to Coney Island.  He had come from Dublin one summer, a number of years ago, to work on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, and so the idea of a pilgrimage to Luna Park held a certain sort of appeal.  It was as if Luna Park were the motherland of carnival rides.

Since I have always sort-of liked Coney Island, I made good on my promise, not once thinking to check if anything like, say, the Mermaid Parade was taking place that day.  Which, of course, it was.

For the uninitiated, the Mermaid Parade is…a sight to behold.  It bills itself as an “art parade,” but it really has no purpose — social, religious, political — at least, as far as I can tell, except to give the Coney Island natives an excuse to dress up like mermaids, and bring them closer to “mermaid culture.”

(For the record, and because I am the consummate realist, I would like to take this opportunity to direct your attention to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration release on mermaids: Are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.)

(I digress.)

On the Saturday morning of his visit, we went to Coney Island and got caught in a sea of hipsters and locals alike, all of them spackled in body paint and fish scales.  As we emerged from the subway station into the madding crowd of mermaids choking an impassable street, I began to boil over with the heat, and the crowd.  Paul, for his part, managed to keep his affable, Irish rugby player way about him, even while being pawed by sunburnt, topless, body-painted sea-creatures; even as I tried to swallow my mounting rage.

At some point, finally, we managed to reach a pedestrian bridge that took us above Stillwell Avenue, and over to the beach-side of the street.

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Like I said, I have always sort-of liked Coney Island, Mermaid Parade notwithstanding.  It has…character.

And because of that sort-of like, when I was in Australia a year and a half ago, I had purposely gone to Luna Park on the beach at St Kilda to snap some photos of the Coney Island equivalent on the other side of the world.  The Luna Park in Melbourne is the oldest continuously operating Luna Park in the world, having opened in 1912.

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(Luna Park, Melbourne)

I’ve already provided a summary of my thoughts of the shipwreck that was my moment on the beach at St Kilda, but as I found myself sucked into the Mermaid Parade, I was gripped by the fear of again crashing against the rocks on a foreign beach.

So.

While the Coney Island Luna Park had opened in 1903, the original Coney Island park closed down in 1944.  The current attractions are sited on top of the former Astroland Amusement Park, with the only remaining Luna Park attraction being the legendary, rickety Cyclone rollercoaster.  A second iteration of the Coney Island Luna Park formally opened in 2010, though the Cyclone had operated independently, or under the Astroland banner, for a long time prior.

Admittedly, I am not really a rollercoaster person.  But at some point in the early-mid 00’s, I was convinced to ride the Cyclone with my friend Philippe.

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(You can see that it still has the Astroland banner on it, so this is obviously a pre-2010 shot that I’ve snapped)

There is a point to all of these tangents, which is that these places, and rides, and peculiar spots around the world were all the brainchild of one man — a man named Frederick Ingersoll.  Ingersoll was the developer of the modern amusement park; he is credited with inventing the modern rollercoaster and what is now known as the “log ride.”  And I knew that all of these things were connected by the time I got to Melbourne at Christmas 2011, but I did not know them when I was riding the Cyclone in the summer of 2007 — which had once been, but was not at that time, but would eventually again be a part of a Luna Park.

The point, too, is that the things that I did not know would be in any way connected in my life turned out to be very much intertwined.  Much like loops and twists and figure-8s of a modern day rollercoaster.

Anyway, back in the present day, Paul and I finally got through the crowd, and across the street, and through another crowd before I finally lost my mind and said, as waspily as I could muster: I think we should head back; the day is getting on.

So we headed down the boardwalk and tried to find our way out of the mess.

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When we reached the street, we stood for a few minutes admiring the “floats” (are those floats?).

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And then we headed towards the subway.

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And so we left behind the things I had known, and the things I had not known; the things that were familiar and the things that seemed strange.  The broader point, I guess, is that in New York, we are masters of the absurd.  And the absurd serves a wonderful purpose of centering us; anchoring us; reminding us of what is real and what is here; what has been imagined; what has faded away.

Australia existed, but it was a distant memory.  And mermaids were present, but they were fantasy.  One could confidently ignore the siren song. But the sucking cyclone — the one spinning us out of the crowd and on to the subway, and the one towering above the street — that monstrosity was both present and undeniably real.

In New York, and on rollercoasters, one simply cannot ignore the laws of nature, and of physics; the pull of forces greater than ourselves, even in the face of fantasy and the absurd.

(Throughout the month of June, I’ll be writing a series of New York-related posts, and/or inviting some friends to guest post about their New York experiences, to celebrate my eight years in New York City.)

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