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I can’t remember the first time I learned about Coney Island–whether it was from my sister who moved to Brooklyn for college or if I stumbled upon it in a book–but I do remember being drawn to the sound of it. Coney Island. In high school, before I had ever set foot in New York City proper, I was intrigued by seaside towns with a boardwalk and/or amusement park. Perhaps because so many of them were “has-been” resort destinations. It was like they were clinging to some far-off dream like a Fitzgerald character–there was still hope that some kind of beautiful transformation could take place, even though deep down one half-heartedly knew it wouldn’t materialize.

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When I was 16-years old, I took a photography class where we used fully manual cameras, and processed, developed and printed our film. When I got a “Landscapes in Black and White” assignment, I decided to spend my spring break in New York to complete it, thinking it was the perfect place to shoot my first ever black and white photos. It was also the beginning of something else: the uttering of what would become a common phrase in my mind and mouth, “I have to go to Coney Island.” I think I’ve said this at least 10 times in the past 5 years here, and probably have acted on it at least half of them.

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It still felt like the dead of winter when I got there in mid-March, and it actually snowed on the day my sister and I took the subway out to Coney Island. The coldness of it all only made the stark sight of both Coney Island’s closed-for-the-winter scene and the enormous, jam-packed cemetery on the way there more profoundly sensed. It really did feel like we should be seeing all of it exclusively in black and white. And in some ways we were, it being a hazy-shade-of-winter day with overcast skies and snow that made everything blurry. Not a pink cotton candy puff in sight.

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I’m not sure if I ever wrote about that trip, but I recall being struck by the strangeness that is Coney Island and trying to make sense of it without historical context. Was it beautiful or disgusting? Worth saving and remaking? This was way before I would read up on its 20’s and 30’s heyday era or happen upon Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, “The pennycandystore beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality.” It was one of those New York places that was both comforting and craze-inducing with its anachronistic bits and gritty pieces and I think that’s why I felt drawn to it, when feeling such antithetical things in my heart and mind.

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Back to the present, I’ve been having that Coney Island kind of feeling lately, a mix of opposites, loving New York and hating it, feeling ecstatic and then feeling sad, feeling comforted by some people and not at all by others, and wanting to hop on my bike or jump on the train to somewhere, anywhere, practically everyday. (Coney Island itself, is in a state of flux, of course to make further comparison). For what it’s worth, Coney Island always felt like an escape, I suppose because it’s all the way at the end of the earth so to speak, where land meets ocean. As if there, maybe maybe maybe I’d get some clarity, when in reality, I would get too distracted by hot dogs, salty air and ferris wheel screams to really “think.”

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When looking for writing I did about it, I did find something I wrote 5 years after that initial Coney Island trip, the spring of my college graduation and impending move to New York, a stretch of weeks which can be described as a similar jumble of internal uncertainty and conflict:

What can I say? I freaked out on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. I bought books from a vendor, sat on a curb and cried. I saw a grocery store where I imagined myself buying fruit on a sunny day and it made me cry even more. Everything was so beautiful and yet felt so terrible…I finished Big Sur the other day, which seems appropriate, the counting down to craziness and losing it. Dealing with everything, beginnings and endings, it’s all too much…when I closed my college bank account I thought I might vomit…I lost it at my apartment. My apartment. I cried all the way down the stairs, all the way down 9th Street, through the Holland Tunnel and most of New Jersey. I would stop to catch my breath but every time I saw something remotely beautiful–a fountain, a night-time softball game, a church–I started up again. I’m really scared of going back to New York.

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On to happier things, I guess it was just one of those days this week where I felt propelled to go to Coney Island. I was wearing striped tights and Mary Janes, which put me in an amusement park mood, even though everything is shut down not only for the season, but kind of indefinitely. I got it in my head that I should take black and white pictures before it was “too late,” and also because I had always meant to go back with this purpose and see what I could find using the monochromatic setting on my camera.

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It was bittersweet to walk around thinking about all the people I’ve been here with, recalling snippets: there’s where I ate too much friend food with a friend during a 30-mile bike trip, there’s where I tripped on a boardwalk plank, there’s where I saw a concert in only a half-alive condition, there’s where a homeless person told me the history of Child’s Restaurant, there’s where I laughed with someone I loved. Nonetheless, I took picture after picture and tried to burn the memories I do have of this place further into my brain, making notes here and there in case particular visuals go the way of the wrecking ball. To be continued…

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