Coney Island. Coney Island. The sand was dirty and the ocean dirtier, but it was a paradise to me at twelve-years-old. It was the home of the Cyclone, the Steeplechase, the Parachute Jump and Nathan's frankfurters--what more could anyone want? And it was mine for the whole summer!
Our rented bungalow on Surf Avenue was narrow and dark, and the screens on the tiny porch had been torn for years. But it was in the center of everything.
Dad complained about the condition of the bungalow and the rising cost to rent it. "We could get a phone instead," he insisted. "President Truman says..."
"Richie'll be there again," I interjected. "Please, can't we go?"
"So it ain't a palace," mom said. "This is?" She gestured at our railroad apartment on West Fifteenth Street. "He'll be away from the hot city, and those street hooligans."
She winked at me. She wanted to go too, and dad could come down on weekends. The subway cost a nickel, all the way to the far reaches of Brooklyn.
Dad didn't stand a chance.
"I'm gonna see if Richie's here," I called when we arrived, and dashed out the door.
Richie lived in the Bronx, way up in the Williamsbridge section. "Like near Alaska?" I'd asked, when I first heard it.
That had been six years earlier, just before we started school. Richie was a stocky, dark-haired Italian kid, contrasting with my blond, blue-eyed Irish look. We were friends, but our parents hardly knew each other.
The June weather was beautiful and we best friends were beginning a new summer adventure. We'd swim, roam the Boardwalk, watch people bet on fixed wheels of fortune, whistle at couples at the Tunnel Of Love and scare little kids outside the Cave of Horrors. Every night there were bright lights, loud music and the smell of cotton candy.
But Richie wasn't at the bungalow. A stranger answered the door. "You must be Jackie," the man said. "Richie's parents said you'd be by. They didn't know your address, or they'd have let you knowÖRichie got polio."
Richie in a wheelchair! It was like he'd died! Everything had changed. Coney Island wasn't the same. I hung around with some other kids for a while, but mostly roamed the streets alone that summer. The days were long, the weeks and months endless. The lights seemed too bright, the music too loud and the laughter phony.
I got a job retrieving baseballs tossed at weighted bottles by people trying to win kewpie dolls.
"Six balls for a dime," my boss called to the crowd. "Everybody wins."
I thought about Richie.