For a seven-year-old boy, Saturday was a long time in coming, but finally, it arrived. Some of James’ schoolmates were jealous that he was going to Coney Island, lamenting the fact that their own fathers would not take them until later in the season, if at all. Although James was not usually a braggart, on this occasion, he bragged to anyone who would listen to him. James had gone to bed earlier than usual on Friday evening, reading from The Arabian Nights to keep his mind distracted until the book fell from his hands and landed with a thud on the wooden floor as his eyelids closed at last.
When he awoke Saturday morning, James immediately jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs to see what time it was. To his surprise, neither his mother nor father were in the kitchen and when he looked outside, James discovered that light was only just starting to creep over the horizon with the promise of a sunny day. When he saw the time on the clock on the mantle, he was horrified to discover in was not quite six in the morning and his parents would not be up for at least another hour.
Knowing he would be unable to fall back asleep, James decided to go into the living room and keep his mind occupied with the previous days’ newspaper - the sports section at least - until his parents came downstairs. He read up on the Yankees, but found himself skimming over the article. Maybe it was because they were losing this year or that Babe Ruth hitting the long ball wasn’t quite as thrilling to him, but whatever the reason, James found himself moving from the Yankees articles to a brief article on horse racing. When there was nothing else of note in the paper, James put it down next to him and waited for the time to pass by.
Feet descended down the stairs a while later and Helen appeared, dressed in the pink bathrobe she had worn to bed. Helen said good morning to her son before going into the kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee before she started on breakfast. James acknowledged his mother, looking out the window and seeing that the light had finally won its daily battle with the darkness.
William came down while James was still staring out the window and looked curiously at his son. “What are you doing up so early? You usually sleep late on Saturdays. I hope you haven’t made any other plans,” he teased.
“I was too excited to sleep. I’ve been up for over an hour.”
William laughed. “I thought we only went through this on Christmas morning.”
James’ cheeks reddened a little. “One more day in the year can’t hurt. So when can we go?” he asked excitedly.
Stretching out his stiff muscles, William answered, “Can you let me wake up and have my breakfast first?” He realized his tone sounded grumpier than he had meant, so he spread his mouth into a wide, tooth-baring smile as he said, “We’ll go soon, I promise. We need to have breakfast and get ready first.” He ran his hand through his son’s hair and went into the kitchen.
James had to force the overcooked breakfast down that morning; his stomach was not quite cooperating with him due to his anticipation, however. He hated how long his father took to finish breakfast while seeming to read every article in the morning paper he had gone out and bought while Helen had cooked breakfast. A look of disappointment arose on William’s face when he read that the Yankees lost the previous afternoon, although the loss came as little surprise. Instead of simply sitting in the kitchen watching his father waste time with the paper, James trotted upstairs to dress and prepare for the day. He washed up, changed into a pair of blue shorts, and put on a plain white shirt. As James slid a sock over his left foot, William appeared in the doorway, awake and relaxed. “I’ll get ready so we can go,” he told his son. Looking out the window, William remarked, “It sure is a nice day to go to Coney Island isn’t it?”
The weather outside was as good as any New Yorker could hope for on a May morning. The sun was out, shining down on the street and what little grass there was in the yard, while birds fluttered about in search for food. The sky was a light baby blue, with no clouds in sight to ruin the day with a possible rain. “Yes! It’s a perfect day to go!” James cried, unable to hold back his enthusiasm.
“Well, I better get ready to go than, shouldn’t I?” James nodded his head in response and descended downstairs while his father went into his room to dress for the day.
“Now James, don’t you be any trouble to your father,” Helen cautioned her son as he came back into the kitchen.
“I won’t be, I promise.”
“Good. I’m sure you’ll have a great time. I always loved going down to Coney Island with your father before you were born,” she said as she thought back to those days, almost sad that she would not be going. Despite all the rush in the house on a Saturday morning, Helen was in a great mood, caused by the fact that she would have the entire day to herself. Saturday’s were typically hard for Helen because she went about doing the usual housework, but had William around eating all the food and trying to fix up some broken things around the house while James was running around with his friends, making a mess just after she had cleaned one up. It was going to be refreshing to have no worries about what trouble James was getting into in the neighborhood. In short, Helen despised Saturday’s, even though it was the favorite day of the week for both men in her life.
Eager to get going, James went outside to wait for William, bringing a baseball with him to toss to himself. William remained in the house for a moment and said to Helen, “I hope you enjoy your day by yourself. Do you have any plans?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I plan to relax today and I might go over to Peggy’s for some drinks later on,” she answered, obviously annoyed that he was cheating her of even another minute of peace and quiet that she felt entitled to. William could tell by looking into his wife’s face that she was done with the conversation ‒ if it could be called that ‒ and he said goodbye, leaving the house without waiting for her to reply, knowing she would not have one.
The young boy and his father walked excitedly down the street to the subway station on Atlantic Avenue, a short distance from their home. When the subway arrived - after a chorus of screeching brakes caused James to cover his ears - they waited their turn patiently in line. William handed over two nickels and boarded the crowded subway car with James following closely behind. James looked through the small window next to him the whole way, admiring the mosaic tiling along the walls as he envisioned the sights and smells he was soon to encounter. The ride was a short one as Coney Island was in the Southwestern tip of Brooklyn. The short trip suited James, who was crowded on all sides by the mass of humanity in the car.
When the subway car stopped, a struggle ensued as everyone in the car tried to get out at once, eager to be the first one to let themselves loose on Coney Island. William held his son’s hand and told him to wait for everyone else to get out, not wanting to risk getting James trampled in the mayhem. As soon as William and James walked off the subway at Stillwell Avenue into the crowded street, James’ eyes lit up as he saw the nearby Giant Racer, the screams of passengers ringing in his ears. The enticing smell of Totonno’s pizza, along with Nathan’s Famous five cent hotdogs and fried clams entered their noses and caused their stomachs to ache with pangs of hunger as they started to walk with the crowd who had gotten off the subway. Although they had eaten Helen’s breakfast, the smell in their kitchen that morning was nothing compared to the succulent smells they were now breathing in, mixed with the salty aroma of the ocean.
“Let’s just walk around for a while and see what we find,” William instructed, taking James’ hand in his own and heading straight ahead.
They had been walking for over twenty minutes when a talker was heard in front of the Dreamland Circus Sideshow. William guided James away from the man standing on a platform and toward the opposite side of the street where the Eden Musee stood. There were dozens of customers in front of the building reading the posters that listed the wax attractions within or staring in the two display windows. “What’s The World in Wax mean?” James asked, reading the words off the billboard over the display windows.
“It means that this is a wax museum. All the displays inside are of famous people or scenes done in wax.”
“How do they do that?”
“I’m not sure to be honest.”
“Can we go inside?”
William was about to say yes to his son and even had a hand in his pocket in search of the twenty cents it would cost the two of them for admittance when his eyes rested on the posters on the building, which proclaimed attractions such as: Rulers of the world, Death of an innocent victim, The eve of an execution, Assassination of Pres. McKinley, and Martyred Christians. “Um, I think we better not.” Seeing the disappointment written across James’ face, William quickly offered, “Why don’t we look around a bit more and see what else is here. Maybe we can come back later.”
This last statement cheered James up and he quickly followed his father down the street until they were in front of the Barrel of Fun, which was a long spinning tube made of wood in which people entered through one end and slowly made their way to the other end while the barrel spun around, making navigation rather difficult. James slowed down as they passed, watching some children and their parents laughing inside as they were thrown about the spinning barrel. William and James joined the group of onlookers who were laughing with mirth at the people trying to exit the ride.
“I think we’ll have to go on that later,” William said as more people climbed in the entrance of the ride. James nodded his head and the two continued on taking in all the sights of the various amusement rides and games that could be played as the sun started beating its mild-May rays on their shoulders. James was afraid to blink, afraid he would miss something spectacular in the seemingly endless park.
“Do you want to go back to Nathan’s and grab a couple of hot dogs?” William asked James, whose hand he was holding so as not to lose his son amongst the crowd. Coney Island was always busy, but ever since the five cent subway rides, it was a booming tourist attraction because more people could now afford to go. Even though it was May, there were more people than James had ever seen in his life.
“Sure!” James declared as they turned back toward Nathan’s Famous stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenue.
“They make what many consider the best hot dog in the world,” William informed his son. “I’d have to agree,” he added, feeling a distinct pull as James started to walk faster. It was not long before the sign above the open stand could be seen, proclaiming: The Original Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters with green writing and a lowercase “N” in front of Nathan’s. To the left was painted a wooden barrel with 5¢ in the middle and to the right was listed: Frankfurter, Roast Beef, Hamburger with a large five and small cent sign right next to the offerings. As William led James closer, a white banner underneath the main sign read from left to right: Potato Chips 10¢, Malted Milk Milk shake 6¢, Soda 5¢, Ice Cream Soda 10¢, Pineapple - Orange - Grape - Lemon 5¢. People were flocking to Nathan’s from the subway and coming from the long boardwalk on the other side of the stand with William and James. When the line had moved up enough, William and James reached the stand, they could see about a dozen workers busy taking and filling the orders. There was no distinguishable line, just a mass of bodies pushing their way toward the front so they could get their cheap hot dogs and root beer.
William made sure he had a good grip on James’ hand before pushing toward the front of the line with everyone else. Considering how many people were trying to get hot dogs for themselves and their children, it was a surprisingly quick wait before William ordered four hot dogs, a hamburger, and two root beers - all for just thirty-five cents. He had no more than spoken the order and within forty-five seconds, the food was in front of him, steaming hot.
Food in hand, William and James pushed back through the throng of humanity and went walking back along the wooden boardwalk, which stretched two and a half miles from W. 37th Street to Ocean Parkway. The boardwalk was as mobbed as Nathan’s had been, for William could see nothing but a sea of people in front of him as he searched for a place to sit down and eat. While he was scanning the nearby area, a small commotion occurred when two policemen went chasing after a man without a shirt on in order to give him a warning that he must not have his chest exposed. The shirtless man ignored them, however, running into several people as he tried to get away. Several females looked disgustedly after the man as he ran by, followed by the policemen. After the disturbance was over, William finally found a little pavilion with a few spots to sit down a short distance away.
“Why are you looking at me like that, Dad?” James asked, seeing his father staring at him after they had sat down.
“Well, this is a special moment in your life, son.” William replied as he took one of the hot dogs out of the small box their order came in.
“What’s special about it?”
“This is your very first Nathan’s hot dog,” William told his son, handing him the hot treat.
James was about to take his very first bite then paused. “Dad, do you remember your first Nathan’s hot dog?”
“Yes, I do. The very first time I took your mother out was when I first experienced a Nathan’s hot dog. I remember closing my eyes and biting down and just letting the flavor enter my mouth.”
James held the oversized dog in front of his mouth and closed his eyes, biting off a small chunk of the hot dog and letting it rest in his mouth for a few seconds; he could even feel the steam hitting the roof of his mouth as some of the juice ran out onto his tongue. Before the saliva in his mouth increased any more than it already had, James started to slowly chew up and down, enjoying the feel of his teeth puncturing the skin of the hot dog after getting through the bun. When he swallowed the bite, his stomach craved more.
William waited for his son’s eyes to open again before asking, “So, what do you think?”
“It’s delicious! You have to eat yours now, just like when you were here with Mom.”
William nodded, closed his eyes, and started to think back to when he and Helen came here to sit down on the beach and eat sweets and go on some of the rides, but those thoughts turned as bitter as their relationship had for William, who thought of how much the girl he had married had changed. He opened his eyes and looked down at his son, who had given up watching his father and was eagerly devouring the rest of his first Nathan’s hot dog. When William closed his eyes again, he pictured that very moment - he and his son eating hot dogs on the boardwalk at Coney Island on James’ first visit - and he put the treat into his mouth and ate that first bite as he always ate them: slowly.
When their bellies were full, William decided they would spend some time laying on the beach and perhaps walking into the shallow ocean to let their food settle before going on any rides. Finding a place to sit on the beach was not an enviable task; people sat towel to towel and if you looked from above, you wouldn’t see a beach there at all, just a huge mass of people. William managed to find a spot just big enough for the two of them to lie down. From where they were, they could not even see where the ocean began.
“Hey, dad, what’s that?” James asked, looking behind them and pointing up past the boardwalk to a giant metal circular structure in the distance.
William sat up and saw what his son was pointing to. “That, James, is the Wonder Wheel!”
“What’s a Wonder Wheel?”
“Well, it’s a wheel of wonder of course,” he stammered, unable to find the words to describe the ride. “You see those little baskets hanging off of it?”
“Yes,” James answered, looking skyward at the mountainous contraption.
“Well, people get into those and when they are all full, the wheel spins around slowly in the air so when you get to the top, you can see the ocean and all of the park. You go around several times until it‘s time to get everyone out,” William explained.
James’ eyes grew wide as he tried to comprehend being able to see all of New York. “Can we ride it?” the boy asked excitedly.
“Sure, we’ll ride it later on this evening - that’s the best time because all the lights will be on in the city. It’ll be a long wait in line though.”
“It looks gigantic from here!” James declared as he marveled at the enormous ride.
“It is, just wait until you see it up close”
“How tall do you think it is?” James wondered aloud, more to himself than to his father.
“Oh, I’d say at least a hundred feet, maybe more. Bigger than I am, that’s for sure.” William lay back down on the sand and tried to rest his eyes for a few minutes and let his meal settle, but James would have none of that. He persisted in asking when they could go on the rides. Apparently, his stomach had taken the Coney Island food better than William’s had. Unable to resist his son’s constant persistence, William decided to get up to lead his son to more fun.
Walking through the giant mass of people, William and James heard an assortment of American accents and the languages of all sorts of foreign countries. There was a Chinese couple taking pictures of the ocean, while no more than ten feet away, a group of people speaking French were enjoying the wind blowing through their hair as they contentedly ate clams. While William led James through the crowd, they could not travel for more than twenty feet without hearing a talker trying to get customers to ride a ride, play a game, or see sights of the unusual variety.
William and James worked their way through the crowd toward their destination: The Giant Racer on Surf Avenue and West 10th street. The Giant Racer was a nine hundred foot long two-track roller coaster and had been one of the main attractions of the Dreamland Amusement park before a fire in 1911 burned the park down; but due to its steel structure, the Giant Racer survived the fire and continued operation.
“Wow, look at how fast the cars go!” James exclaimed as the Racer came into view. His pace picked up so that he was leading his father instead of the other way around.
William looked up at the mammoth sight before him. If nothing else, the attractions at Coney Island had the ability to make a man feel small. “They are fast,” he replied. “I hope the line isn’t too long though.”
They got in the back of the line for the coaster, which, as William feared, was substantially long. As they slowly inched their way forward, William could not help but overhear an elderly couple in front of him. “I was really hoping to ride the new roller coaster, but I‘m not waiting all afternoon,” the man said to his wife in an Irish-accented tone.
The woman shook her head and replied, “That line was hardly any longer than this one.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think this one’s too bad and it’s a fun ride. They just keep building new coasters for more money; the old ones are just fine.”
“I’m sure the new one is fun too. Maybe we should go back later and see if the line is any shorter.”
“It won’t be, but we can check,” the man retorted.
James tugged on his father’s arm and when William looked down at him, James asked, “Will it really take all afternoon to ride the Thunderbolt?”
“I don’t know, son. I suppose it might, but let’s just worry about this line for the time being.”
It was twenty-five minutes before the two found themselves at the front of the line and they were seated behind the elderly couple. As the coaster started to grind its way up the first ascent, William looked over at his son, who had a wide grin on his face as the cool ocean breeze blew his soft, dirty blond hair about. When they reached the top of the ascent, the car paused for a brief moment, letting everyone marvel at the beautiful view of the beach from such a height, forgetting they were on a roller coaster for just the briefest of moments, until suddenly the car plunged down the track. Everyone - the elderly couple included - screamed as their hair flew back away from their exulted faces. James somehow managed to yell and giggle at the same time as they went along the metal track, the wheels of the coaster the only sound besides the yells of the passengers. When the car reached a sharp curve, more yells were elicited from all aboard, for they were not sure if the car was going to turn as it should or if it was just going to careen right off the tracks. Unbeknownst to anyone currently riding on the Giant Racer, this had actually happened once in 1911, killing two women who plunged fifty feet down to the ground. That was not the fate for this group of passengers, however. They whipped around the turn, William holding on tight so he would not press all his weight into his son, as they continued along the path of the track to its inevitable end.
As soon as the ride was over and he was on solid ground once again, James realized he had fallen in love. Coney Island was better than anywhere he had ever been in his life and he had only been there a little more than an hour and a half. There were people as far as one could possibly see and they were all there for the same reasons: to be entertained by the unique sights and smells; to get away from their lives for a few hours; and most importantly, to enjoy themselves and act like children, no matter what age they really were. The sounds of people screaming on the rides, the voices of the talkers promising the chance of winning great prizes in games of luck, and the feel of the wind blowing in his face intoxicated the young boy.
And he wanted more.
Right outside the Giant Racer was a little cart selling Coca-Colas and that was where William and James headed next. The man selling the drinks looked to be in his mid-twenties, with bright red hair and matching freckles. It was obvious by his tan that he spent the entire day outside selling his soda, drinking a few himself when the heat got to him and the line was small. After William ordered the drinks, the man looked down at James and smiled, asking, “Did you ride the Giant Racer?” as he opened the Coca-Colas with a bottle opener.
“I sure did! It was fantastic!” the boy exclaimed, taking one of the sodas the man held out.
“Well, there’s plenty of rides here that are even better, my boy!” the vendor told him. “Make sure you try as many as you can!”
“I will!” James replied as William led him away from the cart so other people could order their drinks. They stood on the grass looking up at the people now on the roller coaster, taking small sips of the cold, sweet drink. When his bottle of Coca-Cola was nearly exhausted, James asked, “Can we go on the Giant Racer again?”
“We just rode that, son. Don’t you want to try something else? Besides, it took us half an hour before we got to ride it, and I’m not sure I want to wait that long to go on it again when there are so many other things to do and see,” William answered.
“Please, Dad. I really liked it, especially going around that last sharp turn. Can’t we ride it one more time and then we’ll check out the other rides?” the little boy pleaded.
Knowing there was no way to refuse his son anything, William nodded and the two finished their colas and walked back to the end of the line so they could ride the Giant Racer again.