July 4, Coney Island, New York.
It’s a muggy 90 degrees near Rockaway beach when I finally made it to the front of Nathan’s Famous on Surf Avenue. I had just missed the annual hot dog eating contest ( defending champion Joey Chestnut won in overtime) and there was a huge wad purple chewing gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe.
Looking around at the throngs of people, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff all going on at once in such a seemingly crammed space. Not that Coney Island is small, but the crowds on this July 4 Friday seem to engulf everything in its path. The rickety rides, the ticket booths, the boardwalk and even the beach itself are awash with New Yorkers, New Jerseyers and what appears to be their entire extended families. A bluish haze hangs over the crowd right down to the beach where thousands of umbrellas are clustered together, growing thicker in density as I walk towards to water.
Children of all ages squeal and tear left and right, sometimes falling (or diving) into the massive water-filled holes in the wet grey sand that have been escavated with plastic shovels, styrofoam cups and shorn Pepsi bottles. They remind me a little of pictures I’ve seen of bomb craters.
At the shoreline, people thrash about in the murky water as a helicopter thumps low overhead, sending ripples across the water and breaking up the haze for a few moments as it moves to the west, searching for adventurous swimmers or perhaps another shark like the 200-pound Maco that two fishermen reeled in here last September.
Back on the boardwalk, a heavy Brooklyn accent hurls insults at a crowd gathered in front of a dreary-looking pit under a banner that reads ‘Shoot the Freak.’
“Yeah you in the blue hat and the yellow pants. Ya reject, yeah I’m talking to you. I like yo’ skanky little girlfriend there you little freakin’ midget. Yeah baby, lick ya fingas. I like the way you lick yah fingas like that you little freak. Ya…what a rush.”
Off to the right a loud dispute erupts between a ice-drink vendor and a scalded red Jerseyite. He has been waiting too long. She doesn’t give a f***.
The argument escalates as the ice-vendor, a stout Latina with orange hair, lets loose a proper fourth of July burst of insults that sends the man walking away, threatening to come back before bumping into a couple of fat cops who tell him to keep moving.
“What a wuss,” says the voice from the nearby freakshow, “what a rush”.