Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. 1902.
“I ain’t got rickets sir, no. Nor the pox.”
“Yet,” he said, taking hold of my jaw in a hand that was cleaner than any I had yet seen in America, “show me your teeth.”
I opened up and he rummaged a finger all around the inside of my mouth. Removing and waving it under his nose, he grunted, and an eyebrow crawled north in appraisal,
“No consumption neither. How long you been on the island?”
“Since last New Year’s, sir.”
“Lucky little tyke ain’t ya? Scrawny as a plucked chicken mind, but hell, so was I at your age, and look at me now!” he said, puffing up a considerable chest and flexing both arms, so the ladies tattooed there danced like marionettes. I did my best to look impressed, and it seemed to work because he announced,
“Lucky. That’s what we’ll call you. I’m Frederic Ault,” and scooped me up onto his shoulders.
With that we set off away from the stink of rotting fish. Away from starvation and dysentery and the filthy shoreline where gulls battle for scraps and us kids did likewise.
Though I had little sense of time then, I did know that it had been summertime when mama smothered me with kisses and shoved me into a throng of za chlebem children, weeping as the sailors herded us up the gangplank at Gdańsk. I knew too, that fall and winter had passed at sea, for it was Christmas time when I first marvelled at Lady Liberty and joined the shoals of lost children clustering around the tourist spots, where coins might fall from pockets more easily than in the bustling city. Where I learnt to avoid the Fagins looking to pressgang us to pickpocketry, and the Bulls that patrolled the esplanade, swinging their truncheons to dissuade us from trying. Where we huddled together for comfort and safety. Neither of which we found.
The fall breeze was a Fagin to summer’s warmth too, on the day Mr Ault fished me from these dangerous shallows, and I rode his broad shoulders, so I guess I was about nine.
I felt I had won some kind of jackpot perched up there, my bare feet dangling against his chest, his hair pomade sticking to my picker shirt. Walking towards a life, and away from a putrid death. Wherever he was taking me, it had to be better than here.
The further inland we got, the finer folks grew. Aprons and headscarves gave way to bonnets and fantastic wide-hooped dresses. Overalls and boots became pinstripe suits and snap-brimmed hats, rolled cigarettes to pipes or long, thin panetellas. Fat-cheeked children in britches and check-print dresses gorged on yellow lumps of ice.
“Frozen custard,” explained Ault, “s’like ice cream, but sweeter. Work hard enough and maybe I’ll spring for some.” Watching the children’s rapt expressions, I made myself a silent promise to earn a taste.
A giant Wurlitzer at the boardwalk’s end played a revolving waltz, cranked by a sad-eyed monkey in a bellhop’s uniform. Wood faded to muddy sand, and we wobbled along like drunk acrobats till we stepped onto the solid sidewalk of Surf Avenue, passing a hotdog stand that set my mouth to watering on sight. I thrilled as dandies moved aside for Mr Ault’s imposing frame, and realised that he was well known around here, perhaps even famous, when a policeman nodded to him respectfully. I’d never seen one smile before.
A short walk later, past the amusement arcades, hotels, and bars, I saw the park entrance rising over the rooftops like a fairy tale castle. Three enormous crescent moons topping a gleaming white edifice, and below, three more, set upside down to serve as archways. On each, flickering lightbulbs spelled out “LUNA”.
“How’d you like it little fella? Not bad, eh?” said my ride, smiling up at me.
I could only nod in response. He patted my shin, and we entered Luna Park.
It was off-season, so the rides sat empty and silent, as if hibernating. Still, at close-quarters, the Switchback Railway’s full white-trestle framework was overwhelming to behold. To think that carriages full of people flew atop it dizzied me, and I realised with a start that I had been holding my breath, as the riders must do, imagining myself aboard.
In open ground ahead, a few roustabouts wandered around the base of a half-built big top, laying out ground spikes, while flymen casually walked the beams up high, lashing and riveting the tent’s skeleton together.
“Home sweet home.” said Frederic Ault. “Say, you know how to say shit in Italian?”
“Sir, merda, Sir.”
“É vero ragazzo mio. Molto buona. You’ve plenty of merda to shovel, and Topsy only knows Italian.”
“Topsy son,” he said, lowering me to the ground and pointing, “my elephant.”
“Elephant?” My mind balked at the word. Even here, in this fantasy wonderland, it sounded entirely absurd. But there she was, tethered to a caravan, being scrubbed with soapy yard brushes, her deep grey hide glistening in the noon sunshine, the rivulets of water swimming down its cracks like rivers on rocks.
She was beautiful. Huge. Impossible.
“She’s…” I tried.
“Ain’t she just? Come on. Let’s see how she likes you.”
Ault marched me over and nodded to the scrubbers. The four men paused work and leant on their brooms to watch, and I knew at once that I was being tested. Up close she filled your field of vision, like seeing an oncoming ship from the waterline. Her eyes were dewy and the colour of varnished wood, her lashes long and demure. I wasn’t fearful despite her size, she seemed more friendly than most people I had encountered in my short life. Her trunk snaked around my waist, and I felt its strength. I looked to my new master for instruction, but he just smiled and jutted his chin towards Topsy,
“She likes you, so I do too. Knew I’d named you right.”
The trunk continued its glide around my body, and I admit some fear crept in as it began to squeeze, but even then, somehow, I knew it was okay.
“Sir, I think…” But then I stopped speaking. I was rising from the ground, up over her head. She gave a throaty rumble and seated me gently behind her ears, much like Mr Ault had done earlier. The men dropped their brooms and began slapping his shoulders in congratulation.
I was in.