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Hilde Weisert

Hilde Weisert is co-founder of this Society. "Coney Island Elegy" was first published in Ironwood. "Coney Island Elegy" is included in her 2015 collection, The Scheme of Things, from David Robert Books. Visit her at www.hildeweisert.com.

Huba Huba Coney Island

Coney Island Elegy

Curving in from the west, on the Belt, I pass
the Verrazano, children, dogs, fishermen and bikes

on the wide, seaside walk, under its Brooklyn arc, and beyond
I see the peninsula, like any small city

in the sun: towers, haze. The near projects are called
Gravesend, and this, Coney Island, is my country

churchyard. Inside the haze, the hidden streets
become particular: Cropsey, Neptune, Mermaid,

Surf. I cruise the empty avenues to see
down the decades to my first journey, to the war

on poverty I'd volunteered for, to the first proof
of myself in the street, of my own hands; to Marcia,

the friend I'd traveled with at twenty-one. I want to walk
then and now, knowing. I start with Stillwell,

where the trains stop. I park the car, and climb
the subway steps (elevated here) to broad cement

ramps and plazas, shuttered kiosks: a dream hotel
opening on a dozen halls and black exits.

(In dreams, this is where I am lost, but don't remember;
pursued, and don't know who.) But the dust of daylight

shafting through a high window, it's just the end of the line, terminus
of the D, the F, and the Sea Beach Express, my old way

home, the way to the Mermaid bus. As I walk it now,
Mermaid is as empty as at midnight then, but I conjure

the old carnival, the glimmering streetscape of streaks and pops
of primary color, people of color finger-popping

("This Old Heart of Mine," "Love Is Like — ," "Beauty's Only — ")
on the appointed corners. Fifteenth is the Italian-American

Social Club, a card table half out the door, a game
of endless odds, T-shirted men who have days to throw

dice. Seventeenth is the Coney Island Family Center ("People
working together will make things better"). A black

welfare mother struggles a stroller up the steps, laughing
at the soft, melodic tease of the Spanish teenager

on the stoop, stubbing out a Lucky. She's late
for the Mothers' Group, where she will stand and tell

how her first son Raymond had his head beaten, for nothing,
by the same ("Fat shark — ") cop who got two other kids

here, on this almost-island, last week. It's '66; it is all
beginning: Cant is years away. To stand, to give

common witness not to Jesus but to one's own daily life
is new, and makes light. "Any drugstore's ripped off for miles,

and he come with that stick, lookin'. For our kids." She lifts
her chin, and sits. Several people clasp, and unclasp, their hands,

hard, and one, brushing her skirt with a small fist, rises:
"We been pushed this far, out here with water on three sides.

Can't be pushed no more." The light of found voices unwalls
the crammed space. Marcia, in her green suit, sits, quiet,

on the stairs; palms a gold lighter; and watches, slowly.
Two weeks before, tutoring Vernell, she'd heard the latest,

bitter news (the cop, the kids), and said, "Let's get
the other mothers together." (Stamping out smoke after smoke,

one hourless night, she would test in new sentences a memory,
herself, and me: How, her elbows pinned, his breath a sulfur nail,

she had been taken, at twelve, her voice pinned in her throat,
jammed. How her deepest shame was her unvoicing, the rupture

at the core.) The mothers never said, "What the fuck
do you know, lady from Hood River, Oregon?" She was that

straight. So tonight they testify, and make some noise
that will bring the Mayor to this sea-locked strip,

with first promises. The echo of the Cyclone cuts in, and I turn
away from the illuminated room, off Mermaid, towards the shore.

Back of Surf, here, HUD's latest project has crushed
the old wood bungalows under thirty stories. Even then, the grey hut

had been a trick on time. The public appetite
for freaks had turned, the Side Show folded, fifteen years

before I sat, in a suede jacket and woolen hat, helping Louis
sift through shopping bags and coupons for his clinic card.

The room is full of magazines, the smell of kerosene and winter.
I am the outreach for lost cases, assigned: I listen. Once,

Louis, Donkey Boy, could headline, and his talk now
shuttles from those crowds — respect, to the surge of thoughts

that rouse him to the Boardwalk at 2 AM, to pace
and later, sleep there, with just the surf noise in his head.

He watches his hands stammer the last, unpronounceable sentence, then
grazes my eyes, embarrassment and pride in the monstrous smile.

We go to the clinic where his teeth are jimmied straight,
and now I stand in a thirty-story shadow, my hands dumb fists.

The new towers carom the wind, almost a low scream —
Home. I half run back to the Avenue, the flow of blood,

rhyme of feet on pavement restores the place to me. John's Bar
has its sign, but the open door where the Wurlitzer swirled

neon rhythms day and night is nailed. West 31st.
My stop. My block. The sneakers on the telephone wire

are a summer riddle I recognize (but never solved).
Only windows of air give away the first two apartment

houses, still two stories of brick, but no life:
neutroned. At 2864, I have to look again

to know how empty is the empty lot; I have to step
across the street to count. One, two, left; the schule,

right. So. It is anonymous debris back of
chicken wire. Even our tree is untraceable: no stump,

No root. I look for the baby, but there is only
broken glass. The first day, a one-armed baby in the crook

of the tree drew us (close up, a doll) to the little house
pitched left, as if floating on a flood. (I will dream a flood

floats the house free, and from the sinking roof, I will reach
for the children, Jerry, Eugene, Fred, and Sweetie Pie,

even Eleanor, lifting them: but as my hands close
on Jerry's wrist, Eleanor is sucked away, and in the center

of the vortex there is fire, and as they drown,
they burn; and the house drifts away

from hands, and their sound becomes the water's.)
But the dream is months ahead, and now (then) "4 rm apt

to let" fits the bill. We'd turned down ten decent
3 rm apts, Marcia, you and I, stuck

with each other (Vista's rule: no girls alone), each resolved
to have a door, to have her own year, to hold

her own. Where the pine cross holds chicken wire now,
we'd unlatched the chainlink gate, turned from the poor pink doll

angled in the tree, to the baby moving in the mud,
and the short, black-haired woman in a half-buttoned

sleeveless blouse, one eye askew. "Here's his number —
he's the landlord. Say Virginia sent you. He'll arrange it."

We arrange the things we own (books: Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men, Hopkins, mine; the Complete Shakespeare,

Inside Daisy Clover, yours; records: the MJQ, mine;
early Sinatra, yours; each one, to us, a precise choice)

in our own place. Hair combed, Virginia comes for tea,
the children — Eugene, Jerry, Eleanor, Sweetie Pie

and Baby Fred — almost shiny. They play with everything.
Virginia's lucid, funny. We grin like fools. Next morning —

I am scanning this dirt for a trickle, a spring —
there is no water. No gas. After the third time

this happens (faucet's choke, dead stove) you take down
the coffee mugs, I crack the icetray into the electric frying pan

without a word. Virginia is outside, pounding a pipe
with a spoon, crouched in a muddy pool, digging in the dirt

for something lost. "Virginia's crazy;" the landlord
wipes his forehead and stares at the sweat on his palm.

"She tears the pipes apart." But later,
she is forking the ground with daffodil seed

as we pass carrying pails to fill up at Wayne's house.
Virginia pats the earth softly, and rocks and hums.

Now — a shoe, glass, and a broken door in some weeds
mark that spot. Eleven times the door is broken in.

Three times we're there, asleep, staring at intruders
as confused as we. It was never clear

what anyone was looking for, but we sit up those nights
taut before the picture window, facing two girls

smoking, stiff holds on broom handles, our faces
pale reflections floating on the night. The cops

come and go, shaking their heads. At dawn, we see through
the window — the tree, Mr. Haring's fish truck, a bird — and sleep.

We had jumped at the "thwuck!" The pigeon slams
into the picture window. Jerry gets there first. Back

at the kitchen table, the pigeon in a shoebox, Jerry blows
smokerings at the floor, ruffles his thick hair, and asks

"What happens to a pigeon when it dies?" I try, "I guess
if it's a good pigeon, it goes to heaven, and if it's bad

it goes to hell." Marcia gives me a look, and Jerry fixes me
with olive — black eyes as he snags a smokering

on one small, yellow finger: "How could a pigeon be bad?"
Together, we bury the pigeon, wrapped in a warm glove.

I notice the absence of pigeons, strays, scavengers,
boppers, and children. There were always the children.

Eugene (14) and Jerry (12) have IQs one SD either side
of 150, but they share one school shirt, required admission

to PS 81. Jerry gladly yields the shirt for his hooded
grey jacket, for the record he's working on: a hundred seventeen

consecutive absences. When his hair is cut, he comes up, hunched
under the grey hood. As you grab, he dives beneath the couch,

a sputter of giggles: "I've lost my strength!"
That night, you and I toast the year with two-dollar wine.

No water. No gas. Virginia is looking for the baby
she lost, the baby the pipes took; she is wrenching the pipes

with her hands. I call the landlord, you snap the ice, and Virginia
wanders up to show Eugene's report, a dazzle of A's held in bloody hands.

Staking out the year, we held our own in Gravesend's
shadow, on the slim peninsula; but in the end, the fire-flood

came almost true. Pushing for the dozenth time
the unhinged door, expecting rifled clothes, the usual

dull ripoff, even a startled vagrant, we find everything we own
soaked in a viscous soup: syrup, then coffee grounds

and brown sugar, the chosen books buckled
and charred, the records a sick sand sculpture.

No torch, just the contents of cabinets, staples
spewed on hundreds of surfaces: The force

of ordinary substances uncontained. The children.
So they did violence to us, as we had done

violence to the scheme of things, like time-travelers,
the children knew, tampering with what was to be.

What was to be: The blocks ("Watch Coney Grow") deserted;
shelled. A gust up Surf from the shore scuds a beercan

by, and its long shadow takes our traces out of focus.
But in the last light, I see this: Jerry to school, twice

(a patter of jokes on the way, jabbing at the air, toughing it
out, then at the door a desperate look and in my hug,

for a flash, a boy). The Mothers. And you and me, raising toasts
and boiling ice, devising our own steady rituals,

taking hold, finding voice, meeting
the willed fear, and each other, squarely.

* * * *

It was not to be here, but on a good block, on the East Side:
the junkie and the knife, the stepping from the dark, flash of act
that in these disordered streets and years might have made
some sense; not here, but with your life intact

and won (but far) from practiced danger and the sweet rage
of our Coney Island days, you, companion on the first
passage, cease to be. So, as I came once for proof, and to gauge
the radius of my reach, I come for proof reversed,

and reach without measure; belief in disbelief — myth. No.
Our proving here was true — like the pigeon, the pipes, a grey
hood, hands, Louis fifteen years from the Side Show,
rooms lit by voices, ice — and will not betray

itself to wish, to my designs. A siren tells how randomly
mere arteries and skin surrender; and what is dark is clear:
how you leave the world to darkness, and to me
awhile, Marcia. We were here.

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