Photo by Alvaro Gonzalez
It’s a bone chilling day in winter as I park my car on a side street next to the Cyclone roller coaster. My head is spinning with all these old Brooklyn memories, and I’ve come back here now looking for signs of them, looking for pieces left behind from the sad sweep of time.
Sometimes, when the sky is just right, it is still possible to feel the era of the 50’s blowing eternally down the boardwalk as it gets caught up in the ancient swirl of time that always seems present next to the sea at Coney Island.
On this raw, late Sunday afternoon in the late 1990’s, just before the turn of the century, I can see down Surf Avenue the orange colored neon sign of Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand, glowing like a beacon through the gray winter’s mist coming up from the ocean. It’s as if I was peering into time.
In the dead of winter in the 50‘s, my father used to take me down to Nathan’s when I was 12. We took the McDonald Avenue Trolley that made the nine mile run to Coney Island from the end of the line where we lived in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.
He’d be wearing a perfectly blocked fedora and a starched white shirt, dark blue dress pants, and an overcoat. He would always order a plate of raw clams and a glass of ice cold tap beer, and he would get me a hot chocolate and a hot dog.
And then the two of us would sit in this room on the side street next to Nathan’s as the wind whistled up and down the alleyway outside. The snow that was piled up against it would reflect a bright winter light into the room. And a stillness would set in.
Nathan’s stayed open all through the winter. Sometimes the snow drifts would be so high we had to climb over them. I never saw anyone else eating there. I remembered that you had to move this heavy sliding door to get into the room. The door had been covered with years of coats of dark green paint, and I remembered that it had a porthole type window in it.
Few people from my Brooklyn neighborhood ever came to Coney Island in the winter, but my father who came from Galway, Ireland came there often for the raw clams, probably because he missed looking out at the sea that he once lived so close to. The sea that he was born next to.
According to the 1901 Census forms recorded on “the night of Sunday, the 31st of March, 1901“, he was born on the Long Walk in Galway Ireland at house # 20. His mother was Honor Fenton, described as a fish woman who can read and write both Irish and English. She’s a widow. And she signed the census form that long ago Sunday on the Long Walk in Galway in the spot where it said, “I believe the forgoing to be a true return, Honor Fenton, signature of head of family. “
I ordered a large plastic cup of Budweiser and asked the woman behind the counter at Nathan’s where the men’s room was. I remembered that the room had a tiny bathroom off in a corner. She handed me a long stick with a key at the end of it and told me it was around the corner on the side street.
I slipped the key into the lock on a large metal door, and when I opened it I saw the old sliding door, still covered with years of green paint, that lead to the small room that I once sat in with my father. It was dark, but I could see the old wooden table that the two of us sat at in 1954. Next to it were a few other tables. The room looked like it hadn’t been used in many years.
Over in the corner was the small bathroom. After I switched the light on I left the door partially open to get some light. Then I sat at the table where we used to sit, and as I looked across it, memories of my father from Galway came rushing back to me. There he is, tossing his head back and eating raw clams covered with lemon, and washing it down with a glass of tap beer.
And I couldn’t remember a time when my father looked so content with life. What was he thinking about at that very moment in his life, maybe walking as a young boy next to the ocean in Galway, Ireland on the Long Walk where he was born, a time when places like Brooklyn, New York were so far away. And he was so far into America now. He was in Coney Island, Brooklyn at Nathan‘s Famous Hot Dogs. So far away.
That winter afternoon we spent together went on and on, all through so many decades as it relived itself each day in this room. I could sense it. Someday they would bulldoze the room down and it would all slip into the passing of time as if it never existed. As most things do in Coney Island.
I was glad I was here now before that happened. I sat there in the half darkness for a long time, hanging onto it, thinking about my father, and that long ago afternoon in the 50’s when so much of his life in America was still waiting for him. And I drank some more of the tap beer.
Pat Fenton was born in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn on St Patrick’s Day. His father was born on “the Long Walk” in Galway, Ireland. After eight gritty years as a cargo loader at New York’s Kennedy Airport, he quit to take a civil service job as a Court Officer in Manhattan’s courts, and to continue a freelance writing career as a journalist.
His writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Newsday, The Daily News, and New York Magazine. He has worked as a New York City taxi cab driver, bartender, and radio host.
“Confessions of a Working-Stiff,” an account of a cargo handler’s life at JFK Airport, which was published in 1973 in New York Magazine, has been published in numerous writing anthologies.
Other anthologies his work has appeared in are, “The Irish, a Treasury of Art and Literature,” and the “Book of Irish Americans.”He is also a frequent contributor to The Irish Echo based in Manhattan.
His play “Jack’s Last Call, Say Goodbye to Kerouac,” after appearing at the Boston Playwright’s Theatre, was picked as one of the best New England plays of 2008.