A poignant half-hour at Coney Island:
I'm sitting on a curb in the shade beneath the boardwalk with my friend Steve, who is recovering from a sudden dizzy fit, while the rest of the boys hie off to the Wonder Wheel. We're talking in a desultory way. Above us, on the boardwalk, the people of Coney Island trudge and trundle by: women in summer dresses, women in bikinis, men with tattoos, men in wheelchairs, women in cargo shorts, men in work pants, children in flippers, children in flipflops, children in carriages, children in tears, drunken soccer fans, sober soccer fans, teenagers eating fried clams, teenagers shrieking in fake terror, teenagers pushing strollers, teenagers embracing, teenagers flipping each other the bird.
Beside us, in our shady hideaway, which reeks of urine and seawater and carnival grease and the detritus of Nathan's Famous Hotdogs, sits a grandmother. She is a tiny, tiny grandmother, dressed neatly in a go-to-church dress and saggy stockings and sensible go-to-church shoes, and she is sitting in a tiny, tiny folding chair, the kind of chair made for four-year-olds, but it fits her because she is so extremely little. The grandmother is surrounded by beach bags and blankets and playthings; clearly she has been left to watch the belongings while the rest of her family has rushed off to ride the rides. She sits up very straight in her tiny, tiny chair and looks intently into the crowd, longing for some member of her family to come back and see how she is doing.
For most of the half-hour that Steve and I sit on the curb, no one comes back to check on her. So she sits there, still and silent and attentive, surrounded by bags and playthings, doing everything she can to retain her reserve and her dignity. And this is difficult, because on the other side of her sits a man in the throes of an opium dream. He laughs and orates; he lifts his arms regally toward the boardwalk; he speak in tongues to invisible listeners. Occasionally he returns to this small corner of Coney Island. When a beach ball bounces against his leg, he tosses it neatly to a running child. He opens a bag and pours a small amount of soda into a paper cup. But such moments are brief: he sinks back almost immediately into his dream; he smiles at his invisible acquaintance; he brandishes his hands like a Shakespearean actor; "Yes, yes!" he cries. "Actually, yes!"
The tiny, tiny grandmother refuses to turn her head in his direction, though he is no more than six feet away from her. She refuses to turn her head in my direction, though I am sitting no more than six feet away on her other side. She sits alone, her back as straight as a fencepost, her tiny hands clasped in her lap, and stares into the crowd, waiting, waiting, for her family to come back to her.