Paradise regained

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2005, 12:00am

There are occasional slivers of glass in the sand, the water is a little murky, and there are still many boarded-up buildings - a reminder of a recent past dominated by drugs, arson and gangs. The food is as greasy and unhealthy as it gets, the sun worshippers come in all shapes and sizes - many of them obese - and their dress hardly makes for a fashion parade.

Yet something makes New York's Coney Island beach in Brooklyn a delight - and brings me back several times a year, even though it is 90 minutes away by train, and there are cleaner, less seedy alternatives just as close on Long Island.

Perhaps it's the picture of an unpretentious working-class New York at play - an antidote to the preening urban sophisticates of Manhattan. After all, Coney Island and its amusement park were once called the 'poor man's paradise'.

Or perhaps it's the sense of belonging one has among a multi-ethnic sea, where Spanish or Russian is as likely to be spoken as English.

Or maybe it's the beachgoers' refreshing ability to ignore all the rules. 'No selling without a licence' the notice board declares. Well, on this beach, you can buy everything from peeled mangos to clothing, beach umbrellas, water and beer - all from unlicensed vendors.

Alcoholic beverages are also supposed to be banned, of course. As for the loud music ban - that rule is broken every few metres.

But I think it's the honesty of the place that has decided to celebrate its political incorrectness. A place that has a barmaid named Willy working in a heavy drinking hole called Ruby's; a place where you can watch an elephant being electrocuted in a movie clip made when such things didn't lead to open warfare with animal rights activists; a place where you can read the story of the premature babies put on display by the Incubator Doctor as a boardwalk attraction early last century.

It's a place where the bizarre, the weird and the chaotic are celebrated to this day.

The biggest events each summer include a hot-dog-eating contest (usually won by Takeru Kobayashi who can consume dozens), a mermaid parade, and a twins' day out featuring hundreds of twins.

There is also burlesque on the beach every Friday night: a sideshow starring freaks, wonders and curiosities such as The Great Fredini and The Pain-Proof Rubber Girl.

And there is 'dunk the creep' and 'shoot the freak'. You get the chance to throw balls at a bullseye and drop a guy into a tank of water, or fire paint balls at a helmeted and shielded 'freak' hiding at the bottom of a shooting range.

And you can do all that without one pang of guilt about the appropriateness of it all.