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The way Coney Island is, you can never pinpoint how exactly it’s supposed to feel; it’s different every time. On the last day I visited it felt especially gritty, from the way the gray overcast sky made the small shops look even more battered to the way the wooden boardwalk creaks with each passerby, the same wood that gave my dad splinters as a barefooted kid. Hearing the whirring of the Cyclone harmonizing with the screaming of its passengers and smelling Nathan’s nearby is enough to conjure a more glamorous idea of Coney Island though. Something about the rich history at every turn is enough to put a starry gloss over both its commercial touristy features and the parts that show it’s practically the ancient ruins of Brooklyn. Or maybe that thinking is just another grand romanticization of the site.
The history that draws me in, however, isn’t what you’d find on Wikipedia but rather the stories of my family. I was even named after this city. For as long as I can remember, and even decades before this, my grandma has called Brooklyn her home. What’s more is that she lived on Coney Island Avenue, giving a kind of bragging right that she’d never understand but makes it easy for out-of-towners to ooh and ahh over. As a kid my family would visit her each year in the three-story apartment building she owned, a building we still drive past on the way to Coney Island on each outing. When her A.C. failed she’d stubbornly endure the sweltering heat, saying she can “feel the ocean breeze”, which was practically nonexistent as her house was a couple of miles from the ocean.
That’s how Coney Island first became an important part of my memory, always intertwined with the people who matter the most to me. Stories that I typically hear from family have a vague sense of place or are strung out across cities I might never visit in my lifetime, but Coney Island is where the stories will connect every once in awhile. As my brother and parents and I walked along the beach we could see the Parachute Jump where my grandma had once had a first date. We walk the same path my dad did with his friends when they were still teens. We eat Mr. Softee ice cream and dip our toes in the water and take pictures of us against the gray sky, and somewhere along the way we’re making our own memories that will come back every time I’m reminded of Coney Island.
Driving past buildings in New York makes me wonder about all the life that’s inside of them and I want to be inside of every room some day, soaking up every last bit of something new. But being at Coney Island I realize that maybe the best things there are to find aren’t in rooms but out in the open, out in the gray space between a city and an ocean.