Saturday, March 12, 2016

MY BED AND I (published in Litro Magazine, UK, 2016)

Although I had never considered it as anything other than the site for sex and sleep, when I separated from my wife I not only entered into an intimate relationship with my bed, it became the center of my existence.

My wife and I slept on a futon for the last dozen or so of our twenty-three years together. After only a week or so sleeping there I had to admit (to myself, not to her) that I didn’t really like the futon at all. The beds we had before were nothing memorable but they squeaked occasionally and I liked that. Our futon was so firm it never squeaked. As firm as it was, however, over the years a hump began to emerge in the middle as we each gravitated to our own side. When the hump eventually became a mound we separated.

I spent the first night of the separation in a chintzy bed in a tiny room with paper-thin walls in a local hotel that usually charged by the hour. It was the first time I had ever stayed the night in a hotel in Mexico City and, although hundreds of couples had rolled around in it over the years, it was probably the first time someone had spent the night alone in that bed.

For the next three weeks I stayed in the house of a recently divorced friend and slept in his son’s room, surrounded by children’s books and toys, on a bed in which my feet jutted out beyond the mattress.

One day I saw a For-Rent sign hanging in the lobby of a building in my neighborhood. I was the first one to inquire and clinched the deal. I signed the lease, the only legal, permanent real estate arrangement I’ve ever had, in the most uncertain moment of my life.

For the first month or so, splitting the week according to our post-marital arrangement, I slept with one of my twin sons on an old mattress I brought from his room in my ex-house. My older son slept in another bedroom with the other twin on a single bed where their nanny used to sleep years before.

After a few months of living like this, my son’s guitar teacher told me he was upgrading his daughter’s bed and was going to throw the old one out. I arranged for a truck to bring it to me all the way from the south of the city and installed it in my bedroom, at which time my sons each got to sleep in their own bed.

The bed is an Intermezzo, which translates as interlude, perhaps underlying its function as the transitional object it has become for me. I doubt it was anything special when it was first christened, but after having to support so much dead weight for so many years the mattress seems to have entirely given up its struggle against gravity. When I sit in bed for long stretches of time, which I’ve been doing a lot since my separation, my butt sinks deep into the mattress and it becomes harder each time to extricate myself.

A couple of weeks after my separation a tenacious flu made me take to bed for a whole week. Sickness brings people closer to their bed and it made it acceptable to spend more time there, even after I had recovered.

Never before have I spent so much time in bed, and never before have I slept so little. At first, the shock of the separation kept me too agitated to sleep. Having to wake up at 5:30am to get my kids off to school a couple of times a week also screwed with my sleep cycle. In addition, mosquitoes zoomed overhead and my cat strolled across my chest.

In addition to insects and animals, humans also disrupt my sleep. Car alarms, police sirens and groups of drunken revelers pass by my bedroom window on the first floor of a building in the middle of a ‘trendy’ neighborhood. The restaurant directly below the window of my bedroom and a music studio in the apartment directly above me, however, are responsible for the majority of the noise. I can pull a pillow over my head or turn on a cheap plastic floor fan, but it’s impossible to drown out the vibration from the bass lines that rattle my bed. I often can’t sleep until the wee hours of the night only to be woken up scant hours later by the early rumblings of the city.

Sleep deprivation produces odd effects, including brain tremors, increased mood swings and a feeling of emotional brittleness, all of which makes it even harder to sleep gently in the dark night. It would be wrong to assume, however, judging only from the amount of time I spend there and the problems I have trying to sleep, that my prolonged time in bed reveals merely insomnia, depression and loneliness.

Since my love’s bed smashed against the daily grind I often felt I‘d been set adrift in the world. At those times my bed became a life raft to which I clung to ride out waves of grief and despair, but it has also felt like a ship sailing towards self-fulfillment. I can feel more alone in my bed than anywhere else on earth, but it is where I’ve had the most intimate contact and experienced the most intense pleasure, as well.

Due to the forces of entropy and gravity, sex in a marriage can wind up restricted to a single bed and inevitably sags in frequency and intensity. Sleeping around was not only about having sex with other women and increasing the frequency, but also about freeing sex up from the stultifying stuffiness of my marriage bed.

It’s curious, then, how the sex I’ve had with women since my separation has usually taken place in my own bed. Although the location has been exactly the same, each woman has brought a whole new world with her into my bed and lovemaking once again feels like an adventure. The fact that my current mattress has become concave physically reflects the difference between married and bachelor life.

When there is no woman in bed with me I jerk off occasionally. My ex-wife once caught me jerking off in our marriage bed. Instead of doing what any loving partner should do, that is, lend a hand, she got disgusted and thought I was weird. Being that most people masturbate for the first time in their own bed and continue to do so throughout their lives (most of the porn they jerk off to takes place in bed, as well), it’s all quite normal and natural, especially when one is forced to handle their own pleasure.

As with sex, pornography and masturbation, many people’s first contact with literature also begins in bed. Kids are usually introduced to books by their parents who read them bedtime stories, which tends to give rise to the fantasy aspect to the act of reading. Much of the attraction of reading comes from an emotional regression to childhood and its slumberland of imagination, as can be seen in the way some people curl up with a book in bed.

Like young children, many adults can’t go to sleep at night without the ritual of reading in bed. My ex-wife’s literary consumption was almost completely restricted to the few paragraphs of popular literature she read in bed to help her fall asleep at night (although the book clutched in her hand often seemed more like a defense against any unwanted advances on my part). The fact that she never read anything I wrote used to bother me, although perhaps I should be grateful she never used my writing as a soporific.

Since the separation I’ve begun reading once again, something I had practically given up years ago. I’ve even started to read in bed, something I never did before, though it doesn’t seem to help me fall asleep at all (masturbation is more effective).

Books and beds are quite natural bedfellows. White sheets resemble nothing so much as a sheet of blank paper, and the key moments in the life of a person (birth, childhood, sex, procreation, disease and death), like the keys moments in novels, tend to occur between covers.

Besides prostitutes, writers are among the few professionals who can actually work in bed. Although I had never written a word in bed before, nor had I ever kept a diary, I began to write about my life that night in the cheap love hotel, banging away on my laptop in an attempt to figure out how I had wound up alone in that bed, and I continued to write all the way until the divorce had been finalized months later.

The 400, single-spaced pages I accumulated document this period from the perspective of my new bed. I never would have considered writing about my life while lying next to my ex-wife in our marriage bed, her back to me always, snoring, and instead wasted all those late night hours gazing helplessly around the room and wondering what I was doing there.

As one of my only contributions to our home’s décor, I had hung upon the wall facing our marriage bed a framed piece of art in which a man who looked much like me lay in bed staring back at me with his eyes open. My wife, sick of having another unshaven, emaciated and depressed man hanging around her bedroom, eventually asked me to take the work down from the wall, a clear foreshadowing of our separation (that is, had I been able to read the writing on the wall).

The work of art that hung on the wall is a lithographic reproduction of an Egon Schiele self-portrait, painted in prison during a three-week stay for abducting, showing pornographic material to and having sex with one of his underage models (whom he often painted naked in bed while standing above them on a ladder).

The text accompanying Schiele’s self-portrait reads “Hindering the artist is a crime, it’s murdering life in the bud.” (I often wondered if the last word wasn’t a typo.) It took getting divorced to awaken me from my dogmatic slumber and to realize that, by limiting the use of my bed almost exclusively to sleep, my life as an artist was being hindered by such a routine lifestyle.

Egon’s self-portrait currently sits in a box in my new apartment, the walls of my bedroom currently being covered with much larger, colorful photos of love motels in the Dominican Republic. I took the photos just before and exhibited them in two art museums in Mexico just after my separation. To accompany the photos, I had a large bed brought into each museum, in which visitors were encouraged to sit and view the work, and complimented this with a large overhead mirror, towels folded in the shape of a swan and a bowl full of condoms.

This same series of large photos was also shown in the Hotel Oslo, one of the most traditional love hotels in Mexico City, where the owner gave me the use without charge of four rooms plus a suite (with a Jacuzzi) in which to hang my photographs.

At the opening I took portraits of people in different beds in different rooms in front of different photographs of mine. While doing so, I noticed how certain attractive women responded to having their picture taken by me in bed. A couple of these same women passed through my own bed, where I continued to take photographs of them. Photographing attractive women in bed, my own and in hotels around the city and in other cities in other countries, has since opened up a new line of work for me while at the same time enriching my personal life.

Although I’m enjoying the time I spend in bed with women these days, in the not-so-distant future I will get probably sick and be taken to bed to await death. During the first month or so after my separation, late at night, alone, racked with insomnia, I sometimes imagined myself sinking so deep into my mattress it eventually engulfed me and became my tomb.

Regardless of its inevitability, I’m not ready to rest in peace quite yet, and thus before death do we part. We are still on good terms and I make a point of visiting at least once a day, more often when I’m with company, but I no longer look to it as either a transitional object or the base of my existence. Even if we no longer have such an intimate relationship, I still dedicate this text, of which it is the protagonist and the place where I wrote every word of it, to my bed.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

THE AVATARS OF THE MARTIAN (published in Guernica, 2016)

The Martian, a recent Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, is the story of an astronaut mistakenly left behind during a mission to Mars and all the subsequent measures taken to rescue him.  Besides touting the advanced technology available to NASA, The Martian reflects the compassion of this governmental agency as its super-smart, multi-cultural employees use their American know-how to solve the nearly impossible task of rescuing an astronaut stranded on Mars.

The idea that the US government would spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars and risk the lives of several others to save one astronaut is, of course, a fantasy, but for Hollywood such an idealistic, nationalist narrative is good business. Like Black Hawk Down, which Ridley Scott also directed and which was also a box-office success, the “no-man-left-behind” imperative in The Martian serves as a distraction from its real mission, which is never explained or even mentioned (in Black Hawk the original mission is to illegally kidnap a terrorist). In the first scene of The Martian, however, just before things go awry, we see the astronauts digging around in the dirt and taking soil samples.

Since Total Recall (1990), the idea of extracting minerals from Mars has been played with often in Hollywood films, especially in the past few years. The interest in outer-space mining, however, far from being a fiction, has everything to do with the fact that Mars is a tempting investment option for the wealthiest corporations on Earth and an integral aspect, perhaps the largest motivation, of NASA’s future space missions.

The Mars Exploration Program (MEP) was created by NASA in 1993 and has since sent orbital spacecraft, lander and rover to explore the possibilities of life on this planet. More importantly, and less advertised, is their mission to investigate the chemical and mineralogical composition of the planet (which is precisely The Martian spacecraft’s original mission).

The race to privatize and exploit the resources of other orbs is on, and the USA aims to be the first. The Space Act of 2015, recently approved by the US Senate, grants “space resource” rights, including water and minerals, to US Citizens. This bill provides an exit from the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967 that stated that no “celestial body” could be subject to “national sovereignty.” Although the passing of this bill ensures the future funding of NASA, it major purpose is to fuel the private sector’s space race.
Planetary Resources, a company whose co-founder is the creator of the X Prize Foundation, which organizes competitions to stimulate privately funded space technology, has set its sights on installing precious-metal mines on near-Earth asteroids. Planetary Resources receives funding from billionaire executives of Silicon Valley (including Google, Microsoft and Dell), and is advised by ex-NASA employees and also by James Cameron, the producer, director and writer of the movie Avatar, all of who stand to share future profits.
While asteroids are known to be rich in platinum, nickel and other precious metals whose value keeps increasing, large rocks in orbit around the earth can’t compare to the natural resources that a planet such as Mars offers. This is why NASA’s sixth annual Robotics Mining Competition invited 46 universities from around the United States to compete in designing robots that can dig in simulated Martian conditions.

Although NASA is very busy preparing to help the human race (or at least those from the United States of America) conquer outer space, it gladly took time off to provide the producers of The Martian with scientific and technological expertise. In fact, not only did NASA work closely with the filmmakers on everything from the script development to the cinematography, it also helped market the film, promoting it on its website and even timing the announcement of the dramatic discovery of liquid water on Mars to coincide with the film’s release. (As a promotional stunt, the front page of the script for The Martian was included in the payload of a spacecraft during a 2014 test flight.)

The role of the US government in the production of Hollywood blockbuster movies has increased greatly in the last decades, so much so that it is often hard to separate their financial, ideological and even aesthetic interests. Movies such as Black Hawk Down or The Martian could easily be confused as slick advertisements for the US elite military forces or NASA. The thing these two entities most share in common, however, is their love and complete devotion to advanced technology, precisely that which keeps them ahead of other competitors and countries.

Although technology in Hollywood is advancing as fast as in the US military or in its space program, the narratives of Hollywood blockbuster action movies remain very much rooted in the Industrial Age, when America was still a manufacturing economy and the individual worker had real skills and know-how (for instance, Matt Damon’s character, a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, manages to survive by creating a self-sufficient environment with plants grown on the planet’s soil).

The contradictory relationship of traditional American film narratives and technological advancement is nowhere so present as in the blockbuster movie Avatar, which takes place on Pandora, the moon of a distant planet, and begins with a mining corporation’s search for unobtanium (an imaginary mineral described in the movie as essential to human space exploration and survival). While Avatar might deliver a radical message by supporting the local creatures’ eco-defense against heartless Earth-based mining companies (within “an emotional journey of redemption and revolution,” according to the press release), the film’s total reliance on state-of-the-art technology, available only to the largest entertainment corporations, problematizes the movie’s supposedly progressive message.

The term avatar is revealingly contradictory, coming from the Hindu belief of an enlightened deity or spirit embodied in a human but now widely used in video games to designate a player, thus illustrating both it’s spiritual and commercial usage. The avatar in Avatar is a man-made creature that humans can inhabit and control from a distance, the perfect metaphor for the innovative motion capture digital simulation technology perfected for and employed in Avatar. Not only did this technology allow Cameron to convert human actors into big, blue creatures from another planet, it also allowed him to control all aspects of lighting, make-up, and even wardrobe digitally, thus freeing him from hiring so many traditional film-industry, unionized workers. Most of the software programmers that create these digital miracles work freelance in far-flung places on the planet and thus receive lower wages than in Hollywood and few if any health benefits.

Just as digital and robotic technology are designed in large part to displace workers, the marketing and distribution of blockbusters are designed to create increased economic inequality. To make big money you have to spend big money, and few filmmakers around the world can match Hollywood’s budgets. The producers of Avatar spent half a billion dollars in the production and promotion, but recouped double that amount in just 20 days after the commercial release, with the movie going on to become the highest grossing film of all time in the USA and Canada, and in 30 other countries, as well.

Avatar’s aggressive global marketing strategy, like that of The Martian and all Hollywood blockbuster movies these days, designed to squash all competition and to extract resources from the pockets of people all over the world and to deposit them into the bank accounts of certain corporation’s and individuals residing in southern California, makes the Avatar movie itself seem like nothing so much as the heartless and imperialistic mining corporation its depicts. And given James Cameron’s involvement in the privatized space mining industry, the contradictions between the progressive narrative and the corporate structure of his movie become even more pronounced.

“As on Earth so too in the heavens” seems to be the corporate battle cry these days of the largest mining corporations, especially as environmental disasters, workers deaths and increasingly radicalized miners unions continually plague the mining industry on this planet. Outer space is fast becoming the utopic future for global (or better yet, universal) capitalism’s most visionary entrepreneurs, as it provides unlimited natural resources to exploit without having to pay for digging rights, with an added plus that there are no environmentalist groups or unions there to worry about.

As advanced robotics obviates the need for human workers on Mars and elsewhere in outer space, rescue missions will become a thing of the past. No man will ever be left behind again in outer space, although the billions of human workers who will be left behind without work on Earth might very well feel like aliens on their own planet.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


(Coney Island and the 20th Century Avant-Garde)
 Kurt Hollander

In the late 1980s I wrote my last short story, Skinny Takes a Walk, which I self-published at that time in my magazine The Portable Lower East Side. In the story I take the subway out to the last stop in Brooklyn, walk over to a residential building a few blocks away, ride an elevator up to the twelfth floor and stand in front of a door behind which my father is living. In the end, though, I don’t ring the bell, but rather turn around and take the elevator back down and walk around the Coney Island amusement park, boardwalk and beach. Instead of actually avoiding my father, all I think about that fictional day are the stories he used to tell me about hanging out here as a kid. My trip to Coney Island in the short story is aimless, devoid of any great adventure and without any real connection to the place, and the story ends on a depressed note, wondering how I can do anything of value in a world in which everything of any consequence has already been done, a world in which my father had done so much more than I ever will.

As I mention in the story, Ida, my grandmother, lived in Coney Island in the dozens of identical International Ladies Garment Workers Union co-op buildings. As a young kid, the gangs of elderly Jews sitting on benches outside the buildings sunbathing and gossiping as they awaited approaching death used to scare me, as did the plastic seat covers on the toy-like furniture and the smell of camphor in my grandmother’s cramped apartment. Ida was a tiny old white-haired woman by the time I knew her, an immigrant from Odessa who had come over as a child during the pogroms and worked in Manhattan sweatshops throughout the Depression. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than one-third of NYC residents were immigrants, most from Europe and Russia, and although the majority of Russian and Eastern European Jews settled in the Lower East Side many moved out to Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg (where my father was born) and to Coney Island, where his mother moved after he ran away from home at the age of 16.

My grandmother died in the 1970s, and my father, an artist living in funky studios on the Lower East Side, moved into her Coney Island apartment, where he was living when I wrote this short story. On the not-so-frequent occasions that I visited him there, my father would get stoned and bombard me with messianic diatribes and artistic rants. To bring him down to earth a bit I would try to get him to tell me more stories about his life growing up in Brooklyn. The story that most disturbed and fascinated me was how he used to go on the Cyclone rollercoaster with the pinhead girls from the Freak Show and as the car careened around the curves and the pinheads were screaming in fear my father would reach over and squeeze their titties. The fact that my father as a young man (along with his friend and future filmmaker Mel Brooks) had worked as a barker for the Freak Show to get people to “Come on in and see the show,” meant that he had taken part in a significant piece of New York City history, while the pinhead breast-squeezing was a detail better than anything I could invent in fiction. Which is probably the reason I gave up semi-autobiographical fiction and began writing semi-autobiographical nonfiction, instead.

If Skinny Takes a Walk has anything of value beyond what I lifted directly from my father’s life it’s the references to Coney Island’s unique history. As I research this history more seriously today, I realize how my own experience of using Coney to bolster my own (meager and minor) literary production was common practice, and that in fact Coney Island provided not only essential material but also, more importantly, a fantastic, fictionalized esthetic to many of the leading artists, writers, performers and thinkers responsible for producing the 20th century avant-garde.

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Although neither they nor any other indigenous group actually lived there, the Canarsie Indians would comb the Coney Island beach, which they called the “land without shadows,” for seashells to barter for other goods. When he sailed the Half Moon through uncharted territory in 1609 for the Dutch East India Company and first caught sight of this small beach island off the Atlantic coast of Brooklyn, the English Capitan Henry Hudson was one the first Europeans to behold what would eventually become the United States of America. Much like the famous purchase of Manhattan (which Hudson discovered the following day), the Dutch bought Coney Island from the local Indians for a few guns, gunpowder and beads, among the sweetest real estate scams ever conducted.

 In 1839, the pirates Gibbs and Wansley, after having jacked the treasure from the Vineyard as it sailed to Philadelphia, buried the chests of Mexican gold and silver coins within the uninhabited dunes in Coney Island. Caught soon afterwards, they were given the opportunity to return the treasure they had stolen and have their lives spared, but as the shifting sands had rearranged the monotonous landscape, the pirates wound up swinging from a rope. Almost ten years later, during an exceptionally low tide, one local resident stumbled upon a thousand coins and a mini-gold rush overtook Coney Island. Since that time, Coney Island has been a constant destination of treasure seekers, gold diggers and fortune hunters from all over the world, especially those who traded in ideas and images.

The earliest seaside hotels in Coney, built the 1840's, enticed NYC’s wealthy and cultural class to make the long trip in carriages for fresh air and tranquility. Few visitors of that time, however, actually went into the water, as most feared drowning or having the sea leech them of their essential salts, and it took decades and the assurance of doctors to convince visitors that it was not risky to bathe in the ocean. Herman Melville, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe all wandered around Coney Island, and Walt Whitman was a fan of Coney’s “long bare unfrequented shore… where I loved after bathing to race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf and seagulls by the hours.”

The Coney Island Elephant, one of many hotels designed to attend the needs of the increasing crowds of visitors, was built in 1885 out of wood and tin in the shape of a giant pachyderm, 122 feet high and seven floors tall. A cigar store operated out of one leg, several body parts were used as hotel rooms (and at times as a brothel), and the head was an observatory that offered vistas of the Atlantic Ocean through the eyes. The Elephant Hotel was merely the first of a long line of fantastic constructions in Coney, as three huge amusement parks soon rose up in Coney Island, each one more spectacular and surreal. Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland boasted hundreds of extreme rides, lavish performances and improbable structures, the latest and greatest in vernacular visionary esthetics. Like the magic tricks performed within the parks, the architecture relied more on sleight of material and facades than actual foundations and constructions.

The Elephant Hotel was built one year before the Statue of Liberty, but even after the Iron Lady began officially greeting immigrants in the New York City harbor, the first glimpse of America that the “tired, huddled masses” saw as their ships arrived in the New World were the quixotic constructions and bright lights of Coney Island. Coney Island’s dream world was the perfect greeting card advertisement for America, a country that has always sold itself to the world not so much a land of freedom but rather as a fantasy world where the most extravagant dreams come true.

Like Hollywood today, Coney has always fueled people’s fascination with death and disaster. Spectacular fireworks provided the special effects for the recreation of famous battles, such as the defeat of the Spanish fleet at Manila or that of the Russians at Vladivostok. Other natural disasters, such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a tenement fire, and The Last Days of Pompeii (a show recreating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, complete with a cast of 400 extras), were reenacted several times a day.

Miniature cities were erected in Coney to simulate exotic cultures. The Streets of Cairo, which opened in 1897, boasted Egyptian architecture and Kasbah-like alleyways. Besides offering camel rides, the attraction featured the wonders of the Turkish dancer named Little Egypt, the first and most famous hootchy-kootchy, muscle and belly dancer in all of America. Thousands of natives from far-off lands were brought to live permanently in Coney, including a tribe of more than two hundred Spanish-speaking Filipinos who spent their workday blowing poison darts through reeds and making crafts; eighteen Algerians who did tricks on horseback; a tribe of over a hundred Somali warriors with self-inflicted scars on their bodies; nineteen near naked Wild Men from Borneo and a real Hindu village transplanted intact to Coney.

Beauty and ugliness, physical prowess and physical deformity were all equally exploited in Coney. Lilliputia, a half-scale city built to resemble 15th century Nuremberg, housed three hundred midgets from all over America who enjoyed their own Parliament, a Midget City Fire Department and their own beach. Midgets were publicly married and divorced daily (unintentionally leading to dozens of children born out of wedlock). The Dreamland Circus Sideshow, the first major freak show in America created in 1911, included albinos, a man billed as a tattooed ‘art gallery’, a human salamander, a legless man, the tallest and the fattest lady in the world, and the very popular Zip, also know as "What is It," a black-skinned pinhead with a small tuft of hair on his head. Several other freak shows sprung up in Coney Island to compete with the original, often employing simulated freaks (such as the famous Mexican Siamese twins who after a fight during one of their shows each walked their separate ways).

Many of the scientific wonders associated with Coney were actually imported or copied from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and later World’s Fairs. While these Worlds Fairs displayed the latest technological advances to educate people and to advance science, Coney Island used technology to titillate people’s morbid curiosity. The Infant Incubator, basically a small hospital that housed a dozen or so iron-and-glass incubators heated by hot-water pipes connected to a central boiler, was designed to care for hundreds of babies that had been born prematurely. The fact that the emaciated babies could die at any moment made this one of the most popular exhibits in Coney.

Even more so than any single theme park or act, the greatest new technology on display in Coney Island was electricity. Only recently invented, electricity powered the futuristic rides and at night lit up the amusement parks’ million electric light bulbs. Thomas Alva Edison, America’s most prolific inventor, not only patented the first electric light bulb he also patented a system to distribute electricity in 1880 and supplied much of NYC (including Coney) with direct current (DC).

Edison’s monopoly, however, was threatened by the higher voltages and cheaper distribution costs of alternating current (AC), invented by the Italian Nikola Tesla and promoted by George Westinghouse. To take out the competition, Edison devoted much of his time and money convincing people that AC was dangerous by creating the electric chair just to illustrate the lethal potential of his competitor’s electricity. Edison offered public displays of the dangerous AC current in which he electrocuted (or as he referred to it, “Westinghoused”) all sizes and species of animals up to and including horses and cows. His greatest publicity stunt came in 1903 when Topsy, an elephant at Coney’s Luna Park Zoo, squashed three handlers (including one who had fed her a lit cigarette) and had to be put down. Copper wires attached to her feet were connected to an electrical plant and a 6,600-volt AC charge slammed through her body, frying Topsy instantly.

Besides killing animals in public, Edison was also responsible for another form of entertainment first introduced to the masses in Coney Island. Edison was granted a patent for the motion picture camera Kinetograph and for the Kinetoscope, a peephole viewer, both first publicly exhibited in 1891, and in 1896 the Vitascope, also manufactured by the Edison factory, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in nickel theaters and outdoors at night. By 1906 as many as thirty moving picture venues were operating in Coney Island, with hundreds of tents and movie boxes showing films, as well.

Not only were the earliest films being viewed there, but Coney also served as the ideal location for producing films. In 1896, Edison started to film the rides, acts and theme parks at Coney Island, and continued to do so over the next ten years. Between 1895 and 1905, over 50 films were shot at Coney Island, including films of Harry Houdini performing such acts as the Substitution Trunk or Metamorphosis Illusion.

Films by the French producer Éclair brought Coney’s unique dreamlike theme parks and architecture to Europe and influenced a whole generation of artists and thinkers, including the avant-garde filmmaker George Méliès, known as a “cinemagician.” A Trip To The Moon, one of Luna Park’s most popular rides (850,000 tickets sold during the first summer), was installed in 1902, the same year that A Trip to the Moon, directed by Méliès and credited as the first science fiction film, was shot, and the film’s theatrical sets and futuristic effects are surprisingly similar to the ride of the same name in Coney Island. Méliès was unable to release his film in the United States but Edison managed to get his hands on the film and made pirate copies that he distributed in movie venues in Coney Island and throughout the country, netting him a huge profit.

Coney Island dreamland architecture and theatrical extravaganzas might have been a major inspiration for the dream-drenched artwork and films of the European Surrealist movement, but their influence was even more direct in the creative horizon of many other avant-garde US and European filmmakers. Little Fugitive, directed and shot by photographer Morris Engel in 1953, portrayed a day in the life of a kid lost in Coney Island, filmed in and around the amusement parks, boardwalk and beach with camera in hand. The film won the Silver Lion prize in the Venice Film Festival and was a major influence on Francois Truffaut and his film 400 Blows, as well as a major influence on French New Wave Cinema.

Coney also provided the film world with future stars of the big screen. The Marx Brothers first performed together in Coney Island in 1908, while Buster Keaton’s first appearance was in Fatty Arbuckles’ 1917 movie entitled Coney Island. Although not shot in Coney Island, Freaks, directed in 1932 by Todd Browning (who had just made the box office success Dracula with Bela Lugosi the year before) was cast with many of the freaks from Coney Island’s Sideshow, including the bearded lady, midgets, pinhead girls and Zip. (The idea of treating freaks as real human beings created such a scandal that Browning’s career never recovered.)

Even more than the featured performers, in Coney the crowds were the protagonists and the biggest attraction. Marilyn Monroe’s famous pose, with her white dress fluttering up in the air over a subway grating, might very well have come from Coney’s crowd-pleasing air vent that lifted women’s dresses as they stepped off of certain rides. One ride, the Barrel of Love, forced strangers, both men and women, into intimate physical contact, or had them come tumbling out head over heels into the jeering crowd, creating a semi-erotic reality show for the crowd’s enjoyment.

Walt Disney loathed Coney Island for he saw it as too crude and vulgar and too full of low-rent immigrants. Although the urban, erotic, exotic Coney was the opposite of the all-American fairy tales Disney created, one of Disney’s finest films, Dumbo, about a female elephant who turns on her trainers when provoked, was based on the story of Coney’s Topsy. Even though Disney films dominated the animated film market in the US, Disney’s amusement parks could never match the success Coney Island enjoyed for decades (only 5 million people went to Disneyland the year it opened in 1955, compared to the 46 million people who visited Coney in 1943).

Although Disney attempted to avoid Coney Island’s cultural anarchism and cheap thrills, his work was very much inspired by the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Little Nemo, the dream-child of Winsor McCay and first published in the New York Herald at the beginning of the 20th century, was arguably the most surreal children’s comic ever, and by far the most avant-garde in its design and layout. Living in nearby Sheepshead Bay, McCay lifted many of the most fantastic architectural landscapes within his comic strip directly from Coney’s theme parks, the typography and titles were inspired by its sideshow posters and signs, while the very name Slumberland in the comic’s title was surely inspired by Dreamland. McCay’s versions of Coney Island’s Human Roulette Table, the Laughing Mirror Gallery and the Loop the Loop, as well as the air vents in the floor routine, were amongst the most striking images within Little Nemo. Like many other artists, the settings of Little Nemo’s worldwide adventures that McCay didn’t get from firsthand travel experience were mostly likely borrowed from Coney Island’s theme park ‘cities.’

Due to all the film and cultural production that was inspired by its theme parks, Coney Island’s fantastic allure reached far and wide, stimulating the European subconscious. Intellectuals and artists from all over the world were irresistibly drawn to the buzzing lights of Coney. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung stood and watched Coney Island pass by as their ocean liner, The George Washington, was tugged into the New York harbor in 1909. On deck that day Jung gushed about how they were bringing enlightenment to the New World, to which Freud dryly replied that they were bringing with them the plague (the dreamland he called psychoanalysis). Freud, an analyst of dreamlands of the mind, also remarked: “The only thing about America that interests me is Coney Island.”

The Russian writer Maxim Gorky came to Coney Island in 1907 and, wowed by the electric lights and fantastic constructions, wrote about the “fantastic city all of fire”. “Fabulous and beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful, is this fiery scintillation.” Another visit in the daytime changed his views. In his essay Boredom, Gorky went on to note: “The city, magic and fantastic from afar, now appears an absurd jumble of straight lines of wood, a cheap, hastily constructed toy house for the amusement of children. (…) Everything is stripped naked by the dispassionate glare. The glare is everywhere, and nowhere a shadow,” (unknowingly referring to Coney’s original, indigenous name). Along the same lines, E. E. Cummings remarked how in “the theater we are merely deceived, at Coney we deceive ourselves.”

In 1926, the Mexican José Juan Tablada, a longtime New York City resident and the man credited for bringing Mexican poetry into the modern era, wrote about the Coney Island Freak Show: "… long before Coney Island rose out of the ocean like a common, commercial Venus, Montezuma had jesters, dwarves and hunchbacks, caged beasts and botanic gardens."

José Martí, another longtime New York City resident, realized Coney Island’s importance to American culture, calling it “that immense valve of pleasure opened to an immense nation.” Yet this champion of popular culture and democratic values wrote disparagingly about the crowds at Coney, condescendingly noting that "such people eat quantity, we quality." Martí wasn’t referring so much to the hotdog, invented and sold by the millions in Coney Island, but about the whole Coney experience, which he believed epitomized the cheapness and excesses of the American imagination.

Federico Garcia Lorca felt the same as Martí, describing Coney Island as, “monstrous,” as well as “stupendous although excessive.” Yet it is just the monstrous American technological and cultural excesses best epitomized by Coney Island that gave rise to the surreal, grotesque flights of fancy in Lorca’s own poetry. In his Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude (Dusk at Coney Island), his greatest poem from the collection Poet in New York (1929), an afternoon trip to the amusement parks inspires delirious images that perfectly mirror the spectacles in Coney and helped ushered in European avant-garde poetry.

With jammed-packed crowds of summer beachgoers and fun-seekers letting it all hang out and playing up to the camera, Coney Island has long provided the raw material for some of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Weegee’s best known photo was taken of the Coney Island beach on the 4th of July in 1938, while Coney provided Diane Arbus and many other photographers with some of their most iconic images of freaks, decadence and failed dreams.

The mere inclusion of Coney Island within their work has given many artists and writers a huge boost in both critical and commercial success. In his 1935 story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Delmore Schwartz uses the Coney Island boardwalk and amusement parks as the backdrop for a filmic recreation of the day his father proposed marriage to his mother. Written when he was only 21 years old and hailed by the poets Wallace Stevens and TS Eliot for ushering in a new narrative form, the story achieves its vanguard status in large part by introducing Coney Island’s working-class culture and history into a highbrow literary medium (my own short story, inspired in part by Delmore’s work, created no such literary excitement).

Lou Reed, a student of Delmore and his greatest fan, struck gold as well with his 1975 album Coney Island Baby, in which the title track, despite its name, is actually about his football team in a Long Island school and only mentions his ‘Coney Island baby’ in passing at the end of the title song. In 1958, the San Franciscan Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a collection of poems entitled “Coney Island of the Mind.” Even though it was barely referred to within the book, Coney Island’s presence in the title and a photo of one of its theme parks at night made it the best selling American book of poetry ever and showed just how much influence Coney exerted on the American highbrow imagination.

By the mid-1960s, the three main amusement parks that had inspired so many filmmakers, poets, artists and thinkers from all around the world had burned to the ground (a victim of their own electric fantasies), marking the end of the Coney’s golden age. Despite the fact that some rides and games survived, and despite the fact that the boardwalk and beach still attracted millions of visitors in the summer, Coney Island ceased being America’s favorite dreamland destination. Like other inner-city neighborhoods with large minority populations in New York City during the economic downturn in the late 60s and 70s, social services were slashed, the white middle- and upperclasses fled to the suburbs, and Coney Island was overrun by gangs and crime. Low-income housing projects, with mainly black and Puerto Rican families stuffed into tiny apartments, replaced much of the area the amusement parks had occupied. At this time, right when I first starting going out there with my family and then later on my own, most tourists kept away from Coney except during the summer weekends or holidays, and the elderly, Jewish residents, such as my grandmother, tended to huddle nervously within their apartments.

The dreamlike fantasy of Coney that had so inspired poets and intellectuals for decades was replaced by a tough, crime-ridden world. Yet, even during these hard times Coney managed to find its way into and inspire some of the greatest works of urban realism, including Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel Warriors (adapted to the screen by director Walter Hill in 1979), a tale of New York City gangs that travel from the Bronx all the way to their home turf in Coney Island. Hubert Selby’s 1978 novel Requiem for a Dream (decades later directed for the screen by Darren Aronofsky), the story of the amphetamine addiction of an elderly Jewish woman living in the Jewish housing projects and the crimes her son commits to feed his heroin habit, all take place within the bleak backdrop of Coney Island.

Yet just when it seemed that the Coney Island dream world had smashed against the daily grind, a new wave of Russian Jewish immigration began to repopulate the area in and around Coney Island in the 80s and 90s. Jews were among the few people allowed to emigrate from Russia before the Berlin Wall came down, and Odessa in the Ukraine supplied the largest portion of early immigrants to Brighton Beach (which soon became known as Little Odessa), settling along a beach community that remarkably resembled the city they had just left. (The sea-front city of Odessa had itself been an artistic motor, home to a group of avant-garde Jewish writers that were eventually executed for being “rootless cosmopolitans” during the 1949 Stalin-orchestrated Night of the Murdered Poets).

Although much of the immigration was organized and populated by the Russian mafia, it helped “whiten” the neighborhood, lower crime and increase real estate value, thus eventually making the area attractive for larger, corporate developers. In 2005, a developer purchased Coney Island's last remaining amusement park and razed it to install three expensive, Disneyworld rides. This same developer has been lobbying to receive permission to build a shiny glass and metal, Las Vegas-style hotel complex so tall it would dwarf the Wonder Wheel. While approval for this hotel complex is currently pending, several decades-old boardwalk restaurants have been torn down and replaced by venues where middle and upper class families can consume behind thick windows that buffer the noise and sight of the “huddled masses” outside.

In his book Delirious New York, superstar architect Rem Koolhaas dedicated a chapter to Coney Island in which he describes it as the “fetus” of what was to become Manhattan’s skyscraper center. Yet it is precisely this corporate skyscraper culture, the same one which recently decimated the ethnic and cultural hotbed that was once Times Square, that now threatens to drag Coney Island into the global tourism market. As it inevitably tilts toward mid-American and European package tourism, as glass towers and insurance-friendly rides displace the old theatrical facades and haunted houses, and as corporate interests consolidate their stake in the area and national chains such as Hooters are set to arrive, the artistic and intellectual attraction of Coney Island has finally ended.

Due to its bawdy excesses, cheap theatrics and technological innovation, its prefab fantasy and futuristic fictions, Coney Island remained at the forefront of modern life and culture for nearly a century, and more than any other single place on this planet figured prominently in and inspired the work and imagination of some of the greatest American and European avant-garde thinkers and creators. This privileged cultural position has been lost, and Coney Island will never again provide material for our era’s greatest fictional fantasies.

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Twenty-five years after writing my epic short story entitled Skinny Takes a Walk, I step off of the elevated subway in Coney Island and walk through the 4th of July heat and crowds on my way to visit my father. I abandoned New York City, which I felt had betrayed its long, oppositional history, more than two decades ago to live in Mexico City, where corporate culture is only now devouring the city and its working class culture, but I’m back here now on assignment to write about and photograph Coney Island for a Mexican cultural magazine that paid my plane ticket and expenses. I spend the day smoking pot and taking photographs of all the people sitting on the boardwalk benches, and in the afternoon I walk over to visit my dad.

After having lived and painted for a couple of decades in upstate New York in a twenty-room house with half a barn in front of a river and train tracks, my father is currently spending what’s left of his life in a retirement home twenty blocks from Coney Island. Within this modern ‘home,’ elderly Jews, Russians and Brooklynites shuttle around the hallways in wheelchairs in no hurry to go anywhere. Although I wish my father would once again recount to me his early adventures, filling in some of the blanks of his early life and what it was like hanging out in Coney Island over seventy years ago, he will never add a single word to his past stories, as he suffered a massive stroke over ten years ago and is now semi-paralyzed and unable to speak.

I unsteadily wheel my father out through the huge revolving door of the retirement home and then speed up, exaggerating the curves and maneuvering him over to the oceanfront walkway as if we were making a run for it. Instead, I slam the brakes on and then sit down on a bench next to him, watching the seagulls fly overhead, the dirty waves bumping against the concrete wall, and take a few photos of him in front of the Atlantic Ocean. The Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone and the abandoned Parachute Jump, locally known as the Brooklyn Eiffel Tower, colossal structures that have witnessed the rise and fall of “America’s Playground,” appear as dim lines in the background of the photos.

The sun beats down hard on my shaved head and when I can’t take the heat any longer I stand up and slowly wheel my father back inside the air-conditioned building. An image of the elderly people here ramming their wheelchairs into each other like the Coney Island bumper cars I used to ride as a kid flashes through my mind but quickly fizzles out as we arrive at my father’s room. The reality of aging and dying is just too overpowering to let imagination take wing within these grey-green walls. I park him in front of the television and kiss him goodbye on his forehead in a clumsy, ashamed and sad way, not knowing when or even if I will see him or Coney Island ever again.