We just got back from a weekend in Santa Cruz, where we had a great time visiting with friends, despite spending three nights in a beach-side motel that gave new meaning to the concept of cheap and rundown. (We're all in favor of saving energy, and I have no objection to replacing incandescent light bulbs with low-energy fluorescents, but the only reason I can think of for the exclusive use of twenty-five watt bulbs is to keep the motel guest from noticing the dingy state of the carpet and the general tackiness of the furniture.) The condition of the motel, in fact, was part of the charm, because it reminded me of a beach town from my childhood -- a place that defined tacky for a generation or two of New Yorkers: Coney Island.
If I close my eyes and put myself in my personal Wayback Machine, I can still remember the smell of wet sand under the boardwalk -- the public changing room for those of us who day-tripped to Coney Island by bus and subway. I'm just old enough to remember Steeplechase Park, with its cast-iron horses running on a track around the windowed inside wall of the huge, warehouse-sized amusement hall. The big wooden slide shiny and slippery after decades of butt-polishing; the sloped, slowly-revolving dish big enough for a dozen kids and adults to tumble into each other, risking broken arms and sprained ankles and bloody noses; the big, rotating barrel that did its best to knock you to your knees; the fun house full of mirrors and tilting floors that guaranteed bumped foreheads and plenty of bruises.
Coney Island, when I knew it as a kid, invited you to try and kill yourself for fun. These days, when every freak accident at a safety-conscious Six Flags grabs a headline and a gloating two minutes of faked dismay on the evening news, it's hard to imagine that once upon a time, you didn't worry about getting hurt on a thrill ride -- you half expected it.
Ah, those were the days. Parachute rides with barely a seatbelt to hold you in. Roller coasters that threatened to throw you from your car with every rattling high-speed turn. People knew what they were getting into -- they knew these rides were risky, and that was part of the fun. At least, it was for me. But as my wife likes to point out, with a kindly, tolerant smile, I'm an idiot.
Santa Cruz is no Coney Island, of course; it has a roller coaster, built way back in 1924, and it's fun, but it's no Cyclone. It has a "Double Shot" free-fall tower ride, but it's no Parachute Jump. It has a boardwalk, but no under-the-boardwalk, all-too-public "changing room."
Still, it was just enough like that Coney Island of my mind* to evoke a pang of nostalgia for those innocent days of long ago.
Wet sand under the boardwalk (wet from what????), broken bones, bruises and bloody noses.
It doesn't get much better than that.
*With apologies to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.