Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Farewell to a Freak

Coney Island buried its freak last weekend (one of them at least), a lamentable passage for anyone that ever tried to plink him.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decided it’s time to “Disney-fy” the place. It’s a figure of speech of course. Thankfully, despite early rumors, Disney won’t actually be coming here (nor will Trump, another early rumor).

Instead, Central Amusement International -- an Italian company -- will lead the rejuvenation, a good part of which involves stripping the boardwalk of the businesses that made it unique, to be replaced, no doubt, by Dippn’ Dots and I'm guessing at least two Starbucks. At last word, a handful of the original places – the Coney Island 8 as they come to be known -- have been given a one-year reprieve, after which they will have to skedaddle. Shoot the Freak will not be one of them, having been bulldozed (illegally) back in December.

They say all good things come to an end. I wish I could be so conciliatory.

Over the years I’d made it a Sunday ritual to pop off the Belt Parkway on the way back from weekends at the beach for a hotdog, a beer and a shot at the Freak. (In truth, I much preferred to watch other people shoot the Freak, which made for more continuous fun).

You could plunk down five bucks for a rack of marble-sized balls of red and yellow paint and go to town; the words “Live Human Target” in giant yellow letters on the back wall left no mystery about what you were supposed to do. There was the Freak – a modern day gladiator in his arena of dirt and detritus -- puffing on a cigarette and taunting his assailant with a hand on his crotch, or shaking his ass and spitting at his sneakered feet. Or else he’d cut and run, zigzag, bank and spin, navigating the soil pit like a ballerina on crack behind his paint-smeared tin shield and acting, well, perfectly Freakish. Other times he’d just stand there, quietly contemplating his fate with the stoicism of a Greek god, too hung over from Saturday night to resist and in no shape to dodge the paint pellets that were about to slam into him.

For while it was hard to tell if there was one Freak or many. The helmet and goggles covered anything identifiable. I always guessed there were many. I think being the Freak must have been a limited engagement gig, with a high rate of burnout. But once in a while I liked to entertain the possibility that over all those years there was really just one guy, an ├╝berFreak, who took enormous pride in his role as human target.

Years later I read an interview with the owner of Shoot the Freak, Anthony Berlingieri, who confirmed that there was more than one Freak; in fact there were many, many Freaks – a succession of perhaps 50 since Berlingieri opened up shop in 2002. High turnover, he said. It’s hard to find a good Freak these days.

The Freak’s sendoff was fittingly over-the-top: a New Orleans-style funeral procession spewing brassy jazz down West 12th Street and onto Riegelmann Boardwalk – the crowd at varying times somber and celebratory. The mourners, their heads down in reverence, wind past Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar & Grill. They wriggle and jerk past the Wonder Wheel (how small it looks now!).

The procession advances. The Freak’s coffin is hoisted by six dark-clad pallbearers, until finally, it reaches its destination.

The word of the day is “Rebirth” and without missing a beat the eponymous guest of honor (in the form of a busty mermaid) pops from the Freak’s coffin, a vision in gold and green hell-bent on scrubbing away the pastiche of sea water, burnt sugar, sweat, blood and Fry-O-Lator grease; the aroma of the Caucasus, the Levant, the Maghreb; the odor of cigars, cheap perfume, hairspray and weed smoke. And grease. Did I mention the grease?

I can almost remember the first time I smelled it. It was thanks to my father, a native New Yorker whose teen-aged jaunts to Coney Island were the stuff of legend. He took my sister and me every summer for a Nathan’s and hot caramel corn. Two, three times a season...more if we pressed him.

I remember feeling like I’d wandered into a forbidden movie set. Tattooed men and women, transvestites, an endless sea of Puerto Ricans, the barkers hawking rigged games, salsa music blaring from the Eldorado Bumper cars, and the Hellhole, forever unexplored; the very sight of its winged devil, standing guard above the door, raised the hair on my young neck.

And of course there was the Wonder Wheel. The first time my father took us on it he insisted we sit in one of the swinging cars. I think I probably resisted but it wouldn’t have mattered. He reveled in this shit. He smiled devilishly as he watched us grip the sides of the metal cage for dear life, our eyes counting, surveying, testing every 60-year-old nut, every rusting bolt. I was sure that every next pendulum thrust of the car would be our last, that the crunch and screech of metal on metal would be the last thing I’d hear (besides my sister’s screams) and we hurtled through the air to the boardwalk below. We always had our hot dogs after the Wonder Wheel.

I remember biting through the tensile skin of my first Nathan’s (at the time only available at Coney Island), its telltale pop baptizing the tongue with nitrates and pork grease. Now you can find the grill-seared delicacies in every mall on the East Coast, but they’re not the same; they're more fizzle than pop, which, I suspect is what people who remember the old Coney Island will soon be saying about the new one.

Alas the sands of time are finally shifting on this wondrously bedraggled strip of sand and surf. What washes up in its place remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure, it won’t smell as good.