Friday, August 31, 2012

Vanishing Houses

I had this nightmare last week. I wish it were just made up.

In it our house was magically shifted a block to Fourth Avenue. We were all sharing one room, sitting up in a large bed. It was night. Suddenly, from the north, an army of figures, all dressed in dark suits, came racing down the avenue jeering & screaming. I suddenly realized that the front wall of the house was missing. How had we not noticed until now? One of the crowd, a thirty-something guy, glanced in as he passed, and slowed down. He walked right in and looked around the room, with a smile of undisguised contempt. He could take whatever he wanted.

I woke up, heart pounding. Quick wall count. One, two, three, four. All there. But the wooden building felt like a house of twigs.

Postscript. Woke early up this morning to pounding next door. The shared roof coming off.

--One More Folded Sunset

Friday, August 24, 2012

1947 Bowery Meet-Up

Last night I dreamed I was walking on the Bowery with my mother, only it was also kind of Greenwich Avenue. We came to Partners and Crime bookshop, which had recently shuttered. I was anxious to see what had replaced it. A green flag on the shop read, "Pim Cup Books." (Spelled Pim, not Pimm's).

"Another bookstore?" I said, "That's amazing! That never happens."

We went inside. There were no books. It was a big cafe theater, with tables and chairs, a bar, and a stage. And it was filled with people--all of them in flawless 1940s period costume. A sea of gray fedoras. Sailors, Bowery bums and prostitutes. Children dressed as street urchins hustling shoeshines. Onstage, a vaudeville show. Everything was perfect, like I'd stepped back in time. I felt a bit like I was intruding, dressed in my modern clothes.

"Are they hipsters?" I asked, but they couldn't be hipsters because there was too much age diversity, too many older people. "It must be a movie. But where are the cameras?" I looked for the cameras. No cameras.

While my mother went off to find cigarettes and an ashtray, I walked around and around, looking at everyone and their amazing costumes. Finally, I asked a man dressed in a sailor suit what it was all about. He told me, "We're a meet-up group. We're the 1947 Rodgers and Hart on the Bowery Meet-Up Group." Then he told me all about his uniform, how he found each piece, which had come from 1947. The only imperfection, he said, were the tap shoes (tap shoes! he was an MGM musical sailor!), which were brand-new and had cost him a million dollars. "But," he said, "I figured, once I wore 'em a few times they'd get scuffed up and no one would know the difference."

My mother came by and I told her what the sailor had said. "Oh, I love Rodgers and Hart," she said, smoking her cigarette, even though I'd told her it was illegal to smoke in New York now. She didn't care. She smoked anyway. She said to the sailor, "1947, that was my era." And I envied her for having lived during a better, more interesting time.


The Cheesy Apple

Last night I dreamed that a new, swank restaurant opened up in Chelsea called Studio 9. It was only for real, old-school New Yorkers--only for the fierce and the extraordinary. Well, a 400-pound tourist woman tried to get a table and was turned down. A riot of thousands of 400-pound tourist women ensued, all trying to get in to the restaurant where a few, rarified real New Yorkers were eating steaks and drinking dirty, unflavored martinis. A gender-bending drag queen walked through the crowd with a big sign that said, “The Cheesy Apple,” i.e., communicating that New York is now tacky and full of riff-raff.

I have dreams like this regularly – like that I’m trying to have a roof party with friends and a stroller harpy busts in with her kids. Even in my dreams I can’t have a New York experience anymore.


$6 Wedding Ring

I was walking down Clinton Street on a bright and sunny day. The entire east side of the street was a thick forest and on the west side were ramshackle 2-story wooden storefronts. It was humid, bugs buzzed, and the air smelled of wildflowers. I was happy in the dream until I remembered that I was supposed to get married in an hour and had totally forgotten.

I immediately wondered where I could buy a wedding ring on such short notice. It also had to be cheap, as I only had about $6 on me. I rounded the corner on Delancey and went to that jewelry store on the corner of Norfolk. I asked the guy for the cheapest gold ring and he put it in a paper Cracker Jack type bag, like something you'd get at a carnival. Relieved, I walked back over to Clinton and headed north, feeling everything was now right with the world.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

An Alternate Coney

I have a recurring dream, which I will embellish only a little: It is of an old, but not entirely abandoned, amusement park that once rivaled Coney Island—but apparently never existed. An alternate Coney Island on the other side of the borough, North Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard. They have their own trademark mascot, a competitive cousin of the Steeplechase Imp. They have their own famous hot dog joint, an alternate Nathan’s. An abandoned subway El runs alongside their own famous roller coaster, both casting rusted-iron shadows. The cityscape is sepia-toned. Nothing is gentrified here whatsoever. When I awake, I feel certain this place exists.

Is this amusement park the foiled plan of some visionary—not George Tilyou or Walt Disney—but some would-be conjuror of mass entertainment whose dreams never got off the ground? Are these the ruins of what never was—as if it once had been?

I walk along the rusted perimeter of this archeological ruin. I sense that a few sparsely attended attractions still operate somewhere inside. The roller coasters, shoot-the-ducks midway games and sideshows are closed. The park had an affiliation with the image of comedian Joe E. Brown—the “Generalissimo of Joy,” who was once chairman of National Smile Week. He, too, had a grotesquely overblown smile, like the Steeplechase demon. Brown’s trademark cavernous mouth is on the twin pillars of the park’s main entrance.

I can barely make out faded depictions of Little Lulu, Popeye, Olive Oyle, Betty Boop and Wimpy on fun houses. Faded ads testify there was once a spin-off here of Auster’s Egg Creams, from the Lower East Side, called Egg Cream Land. And for longshoreman or wayward dads at night, there was The Ritz Bros.’ Shayna Tuchas Burlesk.

The park peaked in the 1930s, when Coney was long past its technological prime. It was slightly more modern than Coney, 1930’s state-of-the-art, yet not so futuristic as the 1939 World’s Fair. One concession’s faded logo claimed to have first introduced cotton candy, the first spinning sugar machine. There is a pre-WWII airplane ride for children. Little planes that once rose and fell have lost their original colors; the metal parts have rusted through. Yet, I wonder whether this ride still operates. There’s an abandoned electric-track spook house, with dancing Mr. Bones skeletons on the facade. One advertises a choice of three doors to enter, like the spook house in a Little Rascals short. Its entry doors that burst open are, of course, embossed with the giant mouth of Joe E. Brown.

A creaky hot dog joint around the corner still operates. I head for it. The front entrance swings open like a spring screen door. This joint once competed head-to-head with Nathan’s from the other side of Brooklyn, like the underdog Dodgers against the Yankees. They still serve seltzer bottles and egg creams. I’m one of the only customers present. There are old-timers who swear by it, over Nathan’s. But how do they maintain a license to operate, much less a Board of Health rating?

There appears to have been some kind of bathing pavilion—not Brooklyn by the Sea, like Coney Island, but Brooklyn by the River. The East River. The presence of the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge looms nearby. Tires once swung over barnacled dry docks where kids could leap off and swim. Floats are now obscured in seaweed. Popeye the Sailor’s tattooed anchor forearm is on the Admiral’s Row pavilion. Some kind of longshoreman ethic once ruled. The skeleton of a carnival tent rusts by the pier, where you could once get an illegal tattoo.

Closer to Manhattan, right over the bridge, these were the stomping grounds of incredible hipster Al Dubin, lyricist of “42nd Street,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” His heart belonged here, not in Coney Island, and his enormous girth was enhanced by the hotdogs and egg creams. After all, this park was just a few subway stops from Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street.

People in this part of Brooklyn today seem barely aware that it exists and are indifferent. The amusement park is just over there, always had been, no one pays any attention. Time marched on without it. But is it possible no one ever sees it, just me?

My dream also begs the question of whether New York City, not to mention Brooklyn, could have handled two great amusement parks simultaneously. Well, why not? They nearly supported three major league baseball teams for 75 years. Palisades thrived for 70 years in New Jersey. Freedomland in the Bronx only lasted four. But just how much had these two parks—Coney and The Joe E. Brown Grounds—undercut each other’s business over the decades, leading to the demise of both?

In popular song, this park was associated with the ditty “I’ll See You My Dreams.” Ukulele Ike performed it there. “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” was Coney Island’s most famous song. And by odd coincidence, 50 years later, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” became popular by another, unrelated Joe Brown, the English ukulele player who does fine throwback numbers. Always playing second fiddle, many things were nearly, but not quite the same, as Coney.

--Josh Alan Friedman