Friday, 27 June 2014

New York - Coney Island

There's something I forgot to mention about our first Monday in New York. I was idly trundling around reading something about shit-eating insects when Emma, who had no doubt been equally idly wandering around somewhere close by, returned and told me that Rik Mayall had died.

Rik Mayall was a comedy legend. He was undoubtedly my favourite comedy actor when I was growing up. Only Rowan Atkinson comes close. For a long time I knew virtually every word of every episode of The Young Ones in which Mayall played Rik, a quite ridiculous would-be anarchist student of sociology or some such. I could still recite a lot of those scenes now if called upon to do so but back then I couldn't get through a day without making some sort of Young Ones reference. I'm now trying to imagine a set of circumstances in which I would be called upon to recite scenes from classic early 80's alternative situation comedy. No, can't think of a single reason. After The Young Ones there was Mayall's lesser known but no less dizzyingly brilliant turn as Richie Rich, a failed actor and television personality in Filthy, Rich and Catflap. Then the gloriousy sleazy and obnoxious Tory MP Alan B'Stard in The New Statesman. Not forgetting his all too brief roles in the Blackadder series' as Lord/Captain Flashheart. If you liked things kept a little simpler he delivered that too with yet another incarnation of Richard Rich in Bottom, a slapstick farce that you had to love just because it had a character in it called Spudgun. At 56 Mayall has been taken far too early and the world will be a slightly less amusing place for his loss.

The weather is a little better on Tuesday, which is good news because we are off to Coney Island. It's about an hour south-east of Manhattan on the subway train. We have done our research (well, Emma has if truth be told) and we know that the subway is mostly accessible. Mostly. In the way that Luis Suarez is mostly well behaved. Yet much like the antics of the Uruguayan munch-meister, if and when it goes wrong the results could be ruinous. Certain stations are inaccessible completely, or are rendered inaccessible because the platforms in use do not allow you to gain access to a lift. I wouldn't go so far as to call travelling on the subway train a lottery, but arriving at your destination without major incident has to be regarded as a touch short of a certainty.

The subway station is on 42nd Street. As soon as we enter I'm confused. The signage is bewildering. At first arrows seem to point everywhere except to anything resembling wheelchair access or Coney Island. The trains are numbered and lettered. The B, C, D, the 4, the 5 and the 7. There's a booth manned by one person, but most people aren't buying tickets from her. They're using ticket machines. You buy a card from the booth which you can then top up at the machines or at the booth. But if you choose the booth then don't expect service with a smile. The people manning these things always look affronted when you approach, and downright insulted if you ask any questions. You get the feeling they hate tourists because we ask the most questions by far. We're reluctantly told that we need the D train. It's fortunate that there are lots of D trains and that they arrive at the platform pretty regularly because it takes a while to get your bearings in a New York subway station. Even more fortunately Coney Island is the last stop for the D train so its name is written on what platform signs there are. Things could have become more complicated if we had needed any stop in between 42nd and Coney Island.

The journey takes around an hour. There seem to be in infinite number of subway stations in New York which is good in one way because you are never too far from one if you need one, but not so good if you are already on the train and would just like to get to where you are going as quickly as possible. This being our first New York subway journey there's a slight nervousness which is exacerbated with each stop. You hear stories and, if you're like me, you watch too much television which teaches you that the New York underground is rife with gun-point robberies and terrorist atrocities. In reality it's more like the boneshaker that takes you from Thatto Heath to Lime Street. Only much, much longer. The front of this train may already be in Coney Island. We manage to disembark without incident, at least until we try to exit the station at Coney Island.

Since passengers buy cards and not tickets there is a swipe system in place to exit the station. Swipe through the turnsytle barriers and leave. You're ahead of me if you are wondering how you might get through a turnsytle using a wheelchair. You don't. There's a large gate to the side of the turnstyles which is the disabled exit. It also has a swipe system. Only the card we have will not swipe. We try it several times and nothing happens to the gate. It stays rigidly locked. Then we take a risk and leave the ticket inside the machine, thinking that it might spit it back out like a cash machine spits your cashcard back at you.

The machine swallows the card.

Now, not only do we have no way of getting through the gate but nor do we have a way of proving that we have paid for the return journey when we leave. We are advised by a staff member that we will have to go all the way around and back outside to get to where we got off the train, still the wrong side of the exit gate. When we do we approach another booth, again manned by another woman who doesn't want to be disturbed. Emma begins explaining what has happened to the card but before she can even finish the story the woman is just slowly, arrogantly shaking her head at her. The look on her face screams 'what do you want me to do about it, I only work here'. When she has had enough of the headshake she finally advises us that we will have to call 511, a different department which deals with refunds. But we're not asking for a refund. We're asking for a replacement ticket. Nothing, no response. There's a phone a few feet away just inside the station. Emma and I both try calling 511 but after endless automated instructions we are both cut off in the way that I cut off anyone who rings my house asking for Mr Kelly or Mrs Caddick. Mr Kelly has been dead more than a decade and Mrs Caddick remains Miss Caddick. If you don't know that then you don't know her and you're not speaking to her. It's ok to put the phone down on someone who has cold called you to try to sell you something. It's not good form to do it to tourists stranded in a Coney Island subway station when you work for MTA. That's the underground rail and bus company of whom we are currently at the mercy. Perhaps it stands for Manhattan Transport Agony.

Then something surprising happens. The rude headshaker emerges from the sanctuary of her booth and strolls over to us. She asks us what we need and we explain again about the swallowed ticket. We don't want a refund, we say again, just a way of getting through to the platform when we need to get back on the train later. She wants to let us through now but we have only just got here. We're not going back now. The penny drops and she asks what time we want to go back to Manhattan. It's around 11.00 now so we agree on something around 2.00 in the afternoon. Coney Island isn't that big and we have only come for a little stroll along the famous boardwalk and along the pier. Maybe an ice cream or two and a walk around the fairground. Three hours should be enough. She says she will still be here at the booth then and that if we get back then she will let us through. We won't need anything to get through on the other side once we have got on to the train, she says. It's a win of sorts but I still can't help feeling like we now have a curfew due to the user-unfriendly disabled exit gate.

There isn't time to contemplate the subway lady's transformation from rude, obstructive headshaker to customer service heroine and curfew maker. We head towards the fairground and the prom, enjoying a drink at one of the boardwalk cafes until tribes of children descend on us. There must be hundreds. It's predictable that we choose to take this trip on the same day as every school in the state of New York. They're noisy but after a while I've shut them out. We go for a walk along the prom and up the length of the pier. It's an overcast if dry day so the views are probably not at their best. Still, you can see quite a distance out to sea. At the end of the pier are the fishermen. I'm reminded of the shark-gutter we met at Venice Beach in Los Angeles in 2011 and as we approach we are subjected to a similarly harrowing incident. The men have already caught a few fish and they are not throwing them back. One lies presumably dead on the surface of the pier behind the fishermen, while another flaps around as it takes what will be its last breaths. I try to console myself with the notion that fish are too stupid to be afraid but this thing has death in its eyes. It looks like it is suffering, and it looks like it knows that the end is near.

We have that ice cream and a saunter around the fairground and it's blissful if uneventuful. Coney Island isn't the most exciting place you will ever visit but it has a unique charm. It's how Blackpool would be if you removed 90% of the people and banned stag and hen parties. It feels old. Almost as if everything should be in grainy black and white. At the fairground there are still armies of children, one of whom looks at me with deep suspicion when I roll past him. I must have disturbed him. While Emma is in the ladies a bearded man in a hat approaches me, great purpose in his walk as if he has something important to say to me;

'Shalom' he starts;

'Are you Jewish?' he asks me.


I spare him the lecture about how all religion is intellectually and morally dubious. Fortunately, he's ok with my non-Jewishness. He's not a fanatic wanting to cure me of my wretched atheism.

'Have a good day' he says, and wanders off happily.

Before we leave there is time to pay a visit to the strangely located Brooklyn Nets shop. The Brooklyn Nets are an NBA basketball franchise based until recently in New Jersey. I have absolutely no affinithy with them whatsoever but holidays and Christmas are just about the only occasions that I am moved to acquire any sportswear. I buy a t-shirt at a reasonable-ish $26 but I pass on a hat once more. Neither the peak nor the price are quite right. I'm at a loss to understand why the Nets have a store here on Coney Island anyway. It's not quite Brooklyn and basketball doesn't fit in to the rest of the Coney Island theme. It's all fairgrounds, ice creams, blissful strolling and dying fish. It's not a place you want to be doing much slam-dunking.

True to her word the subway booth lady helps us get through the gates and back on to the platform to take the D train back to Manhattan. The journey back is again a nervous one but this time there are a couple of good reasons for that. At one stop a man with a cane gets on and spends his entire journey (around three stops or so) chanting about something or other. It's a bit like the time we ran into a rapping beggar in a park in Barcelona only the chanting feels more sinister. He's not begging, he's trying to convince us of something but it's not clear what. That he is stark, staring bonkers, perhaps. Another man is an inexhaustible bundle of energy. He can't keep still and he can't keep his mouth shut. He shouts something at the chanting man as he gets off and every time the door opens he leans out of it and looks around as if he is expecting someone. Maybe he is just looking for someone to shout at. Inside the train he fidgets constantly, adjusting his ruck sack, grabbing a pole, releasing a pole, moving to the other side of the train to perform what look like small stretching exercises. He gets off before his ruck sack detonates.

We get off the train at 42nd in Times Square and have another ludicrous wrestle with the disabled exit. At least this time we know not to put anything in the swipe slot. Not that we have anything to put in there at the moment. A staff member is passing with a trolley full of something and I ask him to open the gate, which he does without asking questions. We'll have another chance to work the gate out for ourselves in a few hours. We'll be back on the subway then to head for Queens, where the New York Mets take on the Milwaukee Brewers at Citifield.

"Hey pig! Do you really give a fig, pig? And what's your favourite sort of gig, pig? Barry Manilow....or the black and white minstrel show!"

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