28 October 2011

25 October 2011


We copped a sitter and went to see Moneyball a few days ago. At the multiplex, the young emo androgyne at the concession stand posed this question with regard to the popcorn.

24 October 2011

Prayer Changes Things

Last weekend, I pulled into a Kum & Go in Clear Lake, Iowa (death-place of Buddy Holly & Ritchie Valens, etc.) and found an old prune-colored man praying the Islamic asr right out front. The rednecks and the truckers just couldn't figure him. At one point, two teenagers in coveralls pulled up beside him in their massive extended-cab pickup, yelled something I couldn't make out, then sped away, exhaust clouding around him. He was maybe seventy-five years old.

23 October 2011

15 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 14

“Why’d you go and do that, mister? It was only a lousy fuggin’ radio!” The kid's sobbing.

I reach out to console him and he shrinks back. As he does, his box slips out of his hands and onto the floor of the Torpedo, which I don’t even notice at first. But then a thousand things stolen spill out of it and it’s all indescribable.

And what’s indescribable is: No suffering, no eternal sorrow, and no world afire or lonely apartment, either. It’s Coney Island lit up and the screaming kids of the Cyclone; neon lights; tough old birds and wiseguy kids; It’s sir and ma’am and the best of luck and the baby's all right, too. Under every boardwalk a hundred pairs of lovers and a bright face in every seat on the Wonder Wheel. Throw a ring! guess your weight! Hero prize fighters in Adonis poses; comebacks eternal; nuns and gangsters and blue-assed Venus with honeybees and don’t you know that all the freaky freaks are gods here and a little lizard Jesus and two-headed Mary are smiling down on us all from jazz heaven?

And it is so because I say so. And who am I? I'm Cap'n Ellie. And who's Cap'n Ellie? He's your friend.

So I pick the kid up, straighten out his jacket, and help him get his box back together. And as he rounds the corner of Stillwell, we can both make out the rise of sirens, though still distant, and the hum of helicopters on the horizon.

“The jig will soon be up,” I say to nobody in particular. And as the leaves fall I ease into my coat and start back home, burning.


14 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 13

And then I spy a familiar face - the punk who took my radio. Skulking around the tree and still holding that shoebox.

I break no stride lunging out across the counter for him. But as he lurches back, he stumbles over the roots of the tree. I snag his jacket with my southie and start reeling him in like a fish. He’s thrashing like one, too, trying like hell to get away, shrieking all the while-

”Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!”
“Like hell, kid. I got you. It’s over.”

He's arching his back and kicking at me with both feet while I lift him up over the counter and into the Torpedo.

Ernie runs up. “Ay, yo, Ellie. Is this the kid that ripped you off?”

“Yeah, Ernie. This is him.”

And that's when the kid's foot connects with my gut and doubles me over, but not before I reach out and introduce him to Mr. Palm & his five brothers, right across the face. He slumps over like a rag doll. Then come the waterworks.

13 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 12

They come down to see the miraculous, but get hooked on something else - the Coney Islandness of it, I guess. And as the morning fog starts to lift a little, it seems the trunk goes all the way up past the clouds, disappearing beyond.

Danny, over at the El Dorado, just keeps on hawking, right through it all. He's packing them in, too. He’s got a line around the block that includes two of the nuns from Sisters of Mercy and a rabbi that lives next door to me. And the Wonder Wheel is full now. And the Cyclone is screaming around in circles endless and slammed.

Next, the cops will come, and the scientists. The g-men are probably on their way, too. After that, the tree and this whole boardwalk - maybe the whole Island – will be evacuated. Machine guns, marshal law, check points – the whole bit. But for now it’s one of the busiest days I’ve ever seen and everything's fair on the edge of reality.

12 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 11

What happens next, of course, is magical realism.

The next morning I hoof to work and find a tree growing right out from the center of the Torpedo, up through a gaping hole in the roof, and on up beyond that! Bees spiral around, coupled together in the act of primordial bee love. The whole thing is vaguely familiar somehow, though I won't remember that it's literally a dream come true for another day or so.

As you probably already know, it takes only hours for the tree to become the hottest thing on Coney Island since Topsy The Elephant. Soon, the boardwalk is swarming. A bunch of Hassidim come over from Gravesend and start hooking arms and circling around it. Flame and Liz show up. Then Eddie, the Human Anvil, and a bunch of others from the midway. A cadre of Jesuit padres and a gaggle of nuns show up to chant Hail Mary's. And tons of cameras, too, snapping shots of me, the tree, and the whole damn show.

“Hey, Cap'n. Can I take a picture of you and the tree?”
“Sure thing. You gonna buy something first?”

11 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 10

But look - a stranger wrapped tight in a blue, blue dress. She's the blue-eyed girl straight from the realm of archetypes. She's got a toasty, archetypal bun in the oven, too.

“What’ll you have this afternoon, darling?”
"Do you sell water?"

I hand her a bottle from the ice chest and she starts to reach into her purse. As she does, I notice a family of gulls pecking at a hamburger mashed flat into the grain of the boardwalk.

"Keep it. This one's gratis from Cap'n Ellie."

All smiles, she thanks me, then turns to leave. As she goes, providence allows me to catch a glimpse of what I can only describe as the Ave Maria of asses - full of grace and mystic symmetry. The type to engorge the coldest of hearts with joy and hope. Good feelings, those.

Just like that, the world offers a million strangenesses. And soon, the Wonder Wheel will light up. And I'll lock down the Torpedo and start hoofing it home.

10 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 9

Time passes and pisses on us all. (W.C. Williams once said that to Ezra Pound, and he was right.) It's late in the day, now. I've hummed every tune I know. There is only the wind, bastard seagulls and occasional creak and scuttle of passersby - mostly regulars and carnies - on the boardwalk. And in the distance, the ongoing draw and seethe of that keening abyss.

I figure at best I've got another twenty years left in me. (Maybe ten left in the Torpedo.) And just how many years are left in the boardwalk as we know it is anybody's best guess. Jellybeans in a jar. Grains of sand in an hourglass. This whole place could evaporate tomorrow and some people wouldn't mind it if it did.

Time passes and pisses on us all. And aren't we all giving up the ghost by degrees?

09 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 8

“Breakfast of champions, Ellie.”

This is Flambeaux "Flame" Phyre, the flaming sword swallower, and Liz Lizard with the split tongue and tattooed gums. Two old timers, carnie types, riding the Freak Train. Flame & Liz are working on a new act where Liz throws flaming daggers into Flame's mouth and he swallows and regurgitates them - still aflame - in rapid succession.

“Sure thing.”

I hand over two large black coffees and a pack of smokes.

"How's Monkeyboy doing, Liz?"

Monkeyboy is Liz's son (real name: Edward) - a resident at John Hopkins with his eyes on the Nobel Prize for neurology research. Monkeyboy was actually born with a human tail. When he got a little older, he became part of Flame and Liz's sideshow act. For $5 people actually got to touch Monkeyboy on the tail and make a wish...

"He's good, Ellie. Saving lives one amygdala at a time."

And down the pine slats they go to throw flaming knives at each other, the way soulmates sometimes do.

08 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 7

“Where’s your musica?” he says to me.

“Somebody ripped it off last week.”

“No shit?”


“Dag. You call the cops?”

Then we both laugh and now Ernesto’s got his Post and I’ve got my 75 cents.

“The Torpedo without its musica...damn, Ellie, what’s it all about anyway?”

And what can I say to that except what I always say?

“The world’s on fire, Ernie. I’m just an over the hill ham and egger watching it burn,” except sometimes I’ll say “pugilist” and stick a couple right jabs in the air, maybe a combo, and almost always hear that old bell ring. But my spine still feels like a jackhammer’s been waltzing up and down it, so I save those antics for another day.

Ernesto raises his cup and fades around the corner, off to grease up the Gravitron, into the dirty morning sea-fog, scar and all.

07 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 6

“How you livin’, Cap'n?”

This is Ernesto, a Dominican b-boy from around the corner. He’s got a ridge of scar tissue that runs from the bottom of his chin up to his left earlobe.

I used to coach Ernesto at the gym, and I'd drill him on how to work the bag from his shoulders out. But that ended when he took up with a half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican devil girl who didn’t want to see his face get all smashed up. Irony is that Ernesto got his scar when that selfsame angelfaced honey came after him with a box cutter a month ago. She had been hearing voices, he said.

“Hey, Ernie. How’s the midway treating you?”
“Shit, a jayo’s a jayo, Ellie.”

“You got that right, kid.” I call him “kid,” but Ernesto’s probably in his late thirties. Me, I’m into my late fifties. Anyway you look at it, it’s early morning on Coney Island and we’re both already late. Are you?

06 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 5

In more than one way, this was no isolated incident. I have had a taste or two of Fortuna's back hand. To wit: I've been drafted, maimed (overseas and in the ring), lost three toes to hypothermia, been divorced four times, and lost all my possessions to apartment fires on two separate occasions. I have also been robbed twice before and during one of those robberies had my wrists duct taped while a hooded speed freak waved a .38 special at my right eye for about a minute and a half.

So last's weeks robbery was still fairly lightweight in comparison to other shit and indignities I've survived. But it does stand out, as the first time anyone ever reached across and lifted anything right from under my nose, least of all my radio, the winged aorta of the Torpedo. But as the Lord said "If you spend enough hours on this boardwalk, you’ll see everything the human cirkus has to offer."

Right now, for example, I’m staring at a tiny little accordion-wielding chippie with an okay rack, body, and – get this – not just one, but two heads. One of them is withered and knocked out. There’s drool on the chin. Not pretty. But the other head is something else. The face betters a young Annette Funicello, terrific brown eyes, with waves of long black hair. Goddess Time.

“What’ll you have, Sweets?” Without a word, she just points to a spot somewhere on the row of cigarettes behind me. I track her finger.

“Newports? Filtered?”

She keeps nodding and holds up two fingers. The smaller, withered head stirs and winces a little, like it’s wrestling with a two-headed nightmare. I slide two packs of Newps across the counter.

She passes me a ten and smiles a 5-star smile. By the time her ten is in my till, she’s trailing impossible music and slapping one of the packs, the Stay-Fresh seal tumbling down the boardwalk towards West 12th Street.

05 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 4

“Am I all right? I ain't sure yet, kid."

While I lift myself up & start to get my bearings, he turns and hauls ass back up the boardwalk. About a block away, he spins back around and hoists his little mitt in the air. I squint to find that he’s holding the AM/FM weather radio I’ve had in my trailer since time out of mind.

“Hey! That’s my radio!”

Laughing the laugh of the victor, he displays his other hand and slowly uncurls his middle finger like it’s Nosferatu coming out of mid-Atlantic hibernation, then vanishes around the corner.

And that was that. No more music at Cap'n Ellie’s.

04 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 3

It might have been Shakespeare who said, "It is bad luck to fall on the job, but it is far worse luck to crack your head on a vintage Formica counter top as you fall."

This is what happened to me two weeks ago. I'm minding the Torpedo, listening to the WENL jazz show, when somewhere in the middle of King Pleasure's take on "Moody's Mood For Love" I start to swoon. The world went sideways before I could get my ass into a chair.

This has happened before, you see. Thanks to a dirty little punch to the head I took during a 3-round donnybrook thirty years ago, I’ve got a bum inner ear. From time to time, it shoots dice with my equilibrium.

A few minutes go by and I start to get up, but my back's screaming and I feel a goose egg forming on my right temple.

That's when he materializes out of thin air.

"You all right, mister?"

I look up and see a kid - maybe fourteen years old - holding a shoebox in his hands.

03 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 2

Any poet worth his enjambments will tell you that there are a million ways to see an ocean. Ask Catullus, Ahkmatova. Ask Hart Crane, Virgina Woolf. They'll tell you that there are a million ways at the very least.

My name’s Ellie and I'm no one's poet, but I have spent twenty-three solid years staring at those briny depths. I've staked my view from neither lighthouse nor turret, but from a sardine can on wheels, a blue Airstream Torpedo, with a big-titted mermaid, and “Cap'n Ellie’s” stenciled right under the lip of the counter.

In all that time, I've kept her parked on the corner of The Bowery and Stillwell, one block up from Iron McNulty's Freak Show & Burlesque and right across from Danny, the paintball maniac – always on the megaphone and always barking SHOOT THE FREAK! outside the El Dorado Arcade all day long to nobody, everybody.


If you’ve come down to ride the Wonder Wheel or Cyclone within the past quarter decade, odds are pretty good you’ve walked by my place. Maybe you even stopped and bought some peanuts or a Post... If it was ten years ago or more, maybe you even heard me bark, as I used to,


02 October 2011

Freak Wharf, pt. 1

The Dream: A massive, knotty tree twists straight up from a fairy tale, through the countertop of the Torpedo and branching up into the foggy murk hanging over Coney Island. The trunk is wide - too big around to hug your arms around - and is oozing a golden sap. Honey, it would seem, judging from cloud upon cloud of amorous honeybees circling and dozing around it, coupling in mid-air. The black roots of the tree reach down through the wooden sidewalk, splintering the planks and disappearing into the sand and substrate. The wind starts to sweep up off the ocean and, as it does, a few golden leaves drift down to the sidewalk...