An O.G. Returns to Coney Island

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:09

    Or guidos easing into their 60s by now, wading through the barefoot kids who cluster on the old blocks in Flatbush. They live out on the Island, now, too, or in southern Westchester, or else they've gone no farther than Sheepshead Bay. They drive cabin cruisers on weekends. They made their bundles off accountancy or something, working numbers for guys who'd rather their numbers stayed discreet. They come back to the slums to show their younger women where their mothers raised them. They stand outside the tenements pointing, mooning around. It's as if you trace your way back long enough and you find that everybody's from the same slum, the same loamy primordial urban biomass.

    And it's not even necessarily hood-types, like the guys I'm talking about above.

    And it's not even necessarily hood-types, like the guys I'm talking about above. My father's no less slight or unintimidating than I am, but if you put him down in his native East Village?on those afternoons, say, when he and I are down to do some paperwork at the Ukrainian savings and loan in which lurk secret piles of my late grandfather's paranoid cash?my father struts like it's 1954 and he's on his way to clobber some other kid over a stolen basketball. All of his body language registers a happy aggression, an awareness of his native cityscape's possibilities for movement and escape, an even eerie comfort amidst hard urban spaces that his three decades in the suburbs haven't eliminated. He and the last remaining streetcorner hoods in Alphabet City are products of the same broth, and so on some secret level they understand each other. They make knowing eye contact. It freaks me out?it's my father. But it's really one of the beautiful things about New York, this subtle affinity.

    Recently I watched a block-massive old Italian guy drive kiddie go-karts with his woman and a bunch of Hispanic kids at Coney Island's kart track on a clear Sunday evening. A huge cheroot poked from his face like he slept with the thing in his mouth; like every morning he screwed it into his head with a wrench. And God knows I don't want to slander the guy, but he was wearing the old hood's uniform of black blazer over a polo shirt that was, in turn, stretched over a barrel chest, and his vastly younger girlfriend was drenched in paint and gold, and he was obviously there to access his olden days. Cool blue air washed over the mostly empty amusement park, over the salt-rimed and abandoned little spur of Stillwell Ave. that meanders down to the boardwalk on the seaward side of Surf Ave. Autumn by a northern seaside is always lonely and brutal and huge. It reminds you that summer's skit has stretched on too long by now, and everybody's just laughing out of reflex.

    Anyway, the go-karts: And now this big old dignified bacon slab rolls from the little track pit in his ludicrous vehicle and into the crowd of little puertorriqueños with sideways ballcaps zapping around the track yapping hiyeeee hiyeeeeeeee in their puertorriqueño Spanish. His woman, wearing wondrous black hair and huge shades and tight black capri pants and towering black heels?her tanned breasts hemorrhage in waves from her halter top?toodles behind him wearing the goofy, loose grin of a woman who's used to being well-protected in situations of potential danger.

    And immediately as he pulls out?and amazingly?some weird, sub-verbal, unarticulable hood-culture hierarchic mojo kicks in. It's as if this anarchic little kandy-kolored go-kart world now reconfigures itself around this guy's bulk, and even the puppyish two-stroke whining of the kids' go-karts resolves itself into a more dignified rumble as the huge fellow just...imposes order on the circling pack. Oh, shit. Dangerously, he's going half as slow as the five or six kids; he hogs the track like he's not aware that they're there. He certainly doesn't glance laterally, as go-kart drivers must to fend off disaster, but drives at his own pace, dragged forward in that same bulling forward direction in which that huge cigar points like the glowing headlamp on a locomotive that no one, not that baddest punk on today's streets, will ever figure out a way to argue with.

    Meanwhile, he's screwing everything up. First he hugs the tight curve of the seaward track. Then?but again, who's going to argue??he swings out wide without even looking, all 300 relatively solid, placid, ineluctable pounds of him strapped into and overwhelming the stupid vehicle as his jowls shimmer in the gas-choked seabreeze. Yo, fuck, man! Go! No man! You go, maricon! Aieeeeeeeee!

    Behind him, the kids yammer at each other, jaws a-flapping, throwing each other evil signs and fronting. Blocked Hispanic go-karts cluster in confusion: the innocent, speed-happy grins wipe themselves from the kids' faces. The Spanglish hollering between the karts seizes up. It's over. Everything's serious all of a sudden, and it's like some organizing street principle's been corporealized in several hundred pounds of regal old-school dago flesh. And so the kids' karts, respectful of his space, cluster behind him: grind; brake; wipe out into each other, the kids muttering and bummed behind him under their ballcaps, yo man, why you in my fuckin' way.

    But our man rolls on persistently. One kid spins as he's side-nudged by another. The fellow rumbles on, unperceiving. A kid stalls his kart sideways, his friends braking to violent stops in his wake?he's botched everything, and his friends turn to jeer at him as if it's his fault, and not?no, it couldn't be, no one could hear of it?that of the atavistic rock in the black blazer and the bullying cigar?

    "Yo! All right! Cool it down! I said cool it." Humiliation. The track attendant stomps out onto the track in his boots in disgust; swaggers over to right the stalled kart in which the kid's blushing, his big gold teeth shining as he hunches and grins stupidly.

    ?And meanwhile our man doesn't stop?not right away. He's immune to consequences. It must be amazing to live that way. He doesn't look, doesn't break his stride; just barrels in the same buffaloing way you figure he's done everything else in his life, his face registering zero?nothing?behind his mirror shades. The attendant's swaggering along the track, bullyragging the Hispanic kids, and this old monster's rolling still, breaking every track rule?like, um, stop driving if there's, you know, people on the race course?in his bearish persistence. And no one mentions it. No one even looks at him. His face sticks out of the cart like a huge swollen berserking pumpkin, and...well, he's cool. It's the kids' fault. He might as well be wearing a sign around his neck, says DO NOT MESS WITH THE BIG-ASS DAGO.

    After the session was up he could barely rise out of the kart. Amazing. Still staring blindly and dumbly forward over his jowls and his cigar he just waited there for the two attendants to approach, as if they were aware of their duty, and haul him out. Didn't look at them, didn't tip them, nothing. His girlfriend, too, who was slight and younger and lithe enough to do these things by herself, fluttered her lovely red fingernails from her seat until the attendants approached and hoisted her from the kart's depths and deposited her, his giggling and precious damsel, on the track-side boards. They, in turn, didn't spend too much time looking at her. Why push it? The tough guy stared into the low sun.

    The gaggle of kids dispersed into Stillwell, pimp-rolling somehow more gently now. A bummed night. The couple followed them out, the woman mincing behind her date's slow, waddling form through the crabgrass fields and littered wreckage beside the boardwalk as a huge off-season ocean night swept down around and toward him and down on this edge of the city. I wonder if it ever meaningfully registered on the guy that, on that track that evening, they'd ever been anything but alone.