Coney Island

Memories of 1950s Brooklyn: A picture is worth a thousand words

December 4, 2020 William A. Gralnick
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Two items in this past week’s Brooklyn Eagle brought back tons of memories. The first was the headline and old picture of the Polar Bear Club doing its thing at Coney Island Beach.

I remember, as a kid, looking forward to the annual front-page pictures in the Post, News, and Mirror of these lunatics running into the ocean, often through the snow on the sand. I was always intrigued but never enticed. To me, as I said, it was lunacy, but it was Brooklyn and seemed to fit perfectly into things one would expect to take place in Coney Island.

Then came the day. Was this as big a deal as everyone made of it? After all, the ocean wasn’t frozen. They didn’t have to run in with axes and chop their way to the water.

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It was a nutty stunt. You know where this is going.

Every winter, several times, I would accompany my friend and his father to check on their knitting factory about three blocks from Nathan’s. We’d go to the factory, walk the boardwalk, and then take a table at the never-too-crowded winter wonderland that was Coney Island in January or February.

I said to my friend’s dad, “Hey, would you mind if I ran down to the water?” I told him the genesis of the wish. He was one of those fathers who kept his four sons on a very long leash, unlike my mom, who preferred choke collars. He said, “Sure. Go for it!” So, I did.

Now I didn’t do a strip job down to my skivvies and tear across the beach like an arrow aiming for the next wave that would rise up out of the waters. I slowly second-guessed my way the lengthy distance from the boardwalk to the edge of the water. Once I got there I figured, “What the hey. I’m here, so…”

I took off my shoes and socks and rolled my pants legs up to my knees. I touched my toes into the briny water and … it wasn’t so terrible. “PR stunt,” I thought. So, I took a breath and jumped in up to my knees.

I don’t know if that breath froze in my chest or if the shock exhaled it to France, but I tell you true, it was cold! All it took was up to my knees to know that the rest of my body would not be doing this. It also confirmed that these fun-loving water nymphs were, as I’d thought, lunatics.

The other picture was of a brand-new subway car. It almost looked space-age. The most remarkable thing about it was that it was clean — clean inside and out.

I can remember back to 10-cent subway rides and the iconic token. A token’s value, or cost, seemed to rise faster than that of gold. And the cars: The old IRT cars, for some reason, looked like postmodern metal carts with squared shapes. Mel Gibson should have been the engineer. I never rode the IND. The BMT was more rounded in look. They all, including the one I didn’t ride, were tattooed with graffiti.

A subway car often looked like the sideshow at Coney. It was full of odd people, oddly dressed. Very old women whose makeup appeared to have been put on by a commercial painter. Very tall people who rode bent over, very short people who, if they didn’t get a seat, hung onto the pole for dear life hoping no one would put a package down on their heads. Blind musicians wandering from car to car; an occasional singer whose song was, of course, blocked out by the rattling and squealing of the train. Usually I looked for the car with the engineer; it was safer.

Weird things happened on the trains. Robberies. Kids throwing up in the middle of rush hour in cars packed so tightly that no one in range could get out of the way. Screaming and yelling from arguments and fights. One year the papers reported a kid who decided to push up a window and stick his head outside to see what he could see in the dark tunnel, which wasn’t much because he was decapitated by a steel girder. In case you’re interested, his head fell onto the tracks and body back into the car.

Cleanliness: they say it’s next to G-dliness. Let’s say you wouldn’t be eating off a subway car’s floor, even though there was, on occasion, stuff on it that looked fairly tasty — a french fry, a quarter of an ice cream cone slowly creating a tributary to nowhere as it melted, a fairly large piece of hamburger, sometimes with bun, sometimes without, and every so often stepped on so that mustard or ketchup — or both — “squoze” out of the sides. It was a ride that never ended without some kind of story or another.

I wonder if the new cars will be as interesting.

Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.


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