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Stories from the Midway

Coney Island Creepout

The air was thick with the early onset of autumn, thick with the salty brine blowing in off the seashore, thick with the hopes and dreams of generations of children, immigrants, and regular American Joes, hopes and dreams and lives all fallen victim to the awesome powers of Father Time, who swept away all the sparkle, the cheer, the pride, the gaiety, away from this place that was once the greatest amusement park on Earth, leaving only a vague longing, a sort of psychic residue from years past, the mummified remains of something once so noble and wondrous. It was a cloudy Sunday afternoon, late August, 2000, one of those days where you wonder if you'll ever see the sun again.

After quickly curbing our car on the Boardwalk, my three companions and I plunged headlong into the unbelievable world of Coney Island. It started out as normally as one might expect, in an enclosed mini-park with a bunch of cheesy little vintage rides. It was only after we started exploring the nooks and crannies of the place, as that unique late-afternoon Sunday pall set in, that we realized what a remarkable place it was. It was dreadfully empty, like somebody had spirited away all the children. At times we were the only ones around, just us and the carnies. The carnies! Whether misshapen, malformed gnomes, babbling weirdoes, or just regular folks a hair left of center, the denizens of this strange realm all had an unnatural aura about them. Was it nostalgia, obsession, or simply desperation that compelled them to work here? "Step right up, anybody anybody ..." Who was he talking to? He was standing behind the counter of one of those dollar-a-holler booths, on the echoing mic, talking to invisible people, chanting an unintelligible string of words over and over like some powerful mantra. We were the only ones in sight. The wind gusted, something started creaking, and we collectively shuddered. Visions of Something Wicked This Way Comes danced in my head.

A visit to an arcade by the beach and some of the best hot dogs on Earth did us a world of good. Bumper cars, skee ball, the Wonder Wheel -- it seemed like we had the park all to ourselves, like we'd stumbled on some collective childhood mirage, perfectly preserved from the park's pre-World War II heyday. A visit to one of Coney's many freakshow museums revealed the body of the legendary Mexican Chupacabra, perfectly preserved organs of long-dead anomalies of nature, and our favorite, the amazing Wolf Boy, encased in a glass "coffin." Well worth the two bucks. Fearing we would never be able to return to our own dimensional plane, we headed for the exit. We almost passed up a chance to see the Amazing Snake Lady, but one look at the bewildered and amused faces of the folks coming out of the exhibit, and I knew this was in the cards. I'd like to tell you exactly what I saw through that peephole after paying a buck just to look, but that will forever stay between me and the Snake Lady. I would also tell you that Coney Island is one of the most weird and wonderful places on the planet, but I really don't think it's of this planet at all.

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