Monday, March 16, 2009

Coney Island Chronicles: The Russians have Invaded

You have to lean right up against the chain-mail fence to get a decent picture of it. Hit The Freak. The letters are hand-made and jaunty, the explanation explicit: Human Target. Five Bucks for 3 Balls. The prices go all the way you to 70 bucks. The sign makers obviously expected a proportion of their punters to be very invested in hitting that freak. But then it was painted before last year's economic downturn, when it must have seemed like there were fortunes to be made from a sprightly human target, the darkness in New Yorkers' hearts and the fact that drinking in the afternoon can put a man's arm out.

Now the back of the lot is decayed and it's back open to the elements. I like to think that the freak has made a bid for freedom. Maybe the sign-makers and outraged punters are still chasing him down Brighton Beach. Perhaps he has procured himself a fur hat and a lap dog, and disguised himself as one of the old Russian women who've taken over the boardwalk.

I've heard that in summer Coney Island is a writhing mass of people escaping the city for some fun and freak-shooting. The old time roller coasters creak back into life, and the queues outside Nathan's Famous Hotdogs (The Original and Best: Where Hotdogs Were Invented) stretch to the ocean. There's the annual Hotdog Eating Competition, and artificial beer-beaches for the less sports-minded. But in the winter the Slavic pensioners rule supreme, watching with beady eyes to make sure the courting couples and kite surfers don't get out of hand.

The further you walk from the decaying skeleton of Astroland the fewer English and Spanish words you hear. The old Russians are lined up along the wall, drinking in the wintry sun like so many fur-hatted lizards. Chris and I are eyeballed suspiciously. We wind our scarves a little tighter and frown so our wrinkles show. Perhaps they're still on the look-out for that wily freak. After all, you get a lot of balls for seventy bucks, and it's important to get your money's worth of good clean fun.

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