“Win $100 for 2 minutes,” the man standing by a pull-up bar on Coney Island said.
“Does anyone ever win?” I asked.
“A 67-year-old just won,” he said, with enough emphasis on “just” to make me suspicious.
“What body types win?”
“Mountain climbers. Smaller people. All kinds.”
At 6-foot-four with no ambition to be higher, my best hope was “All kinds.”
The rules were strict: I wasn’t allowed to touch the ground, do a cross grip, or a pull-up (darn). Like a surfer who’s learned the meaning of life, all I had to do was hang.
“Let me tell you the secret,” the gentleman said as he lured me closer to the bar. “Don’t adjust your grip. That’s when people slip.” I wasn’t sure if he was my ally against the game, or inception-ing me to lose. “Take a deep breath in, deep breath out.” I grabbed the PVC pipe. He pulled the stepstool away and started his stopwatch. I lasted 20 seconds.
“You didn’t even try!” my friend Rebecca said.
I’d invited her along to my afternoon at Coney Island, the second stop on my adventure to fall back in love with New York via tourist attractions. We planned to pack in everything: we’d ride rides, eat a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog, win a carnival game, and brave New York’s 95-year-old roller coaster, The Cyclone. I was beat already.
The Luna Park wristband provided four hours of unlimited thrill-seeking on all Luna Park rides. It was the last week of summer and the temperature had just made a roller-coaster-sized drop from 80 to 60, so there were no lines. I felt like I had a very wealthy parent on the Board of Trustees or was a Make-A-Wish recipient. Of course, no lines meant no time to be scared. If you ever find yourself being taken to the slaughter, opt to be first.
Whenever I‘m on a theme park ride, I like to imagine the harnesses giving way, the pressurized restraints releasing, and my body being launched toward the cement or heavens depending on the angle of ejection. Luckily, the Soaring Eagle, a Superman-style ride where you lay on your stomach, had restraints that touched my entire body. I felt like I was safe on a massage table or in a panini press.
Our car left the station and began its corkscrew climb upward, giving us a pleasant view of the beach and ocean. If roller coasters were as gentle coming down as they are going up, I’d have no notes. We reached a height one revolution past my level of comfort before being gently dropped into the track that sent us flying. With our arms extended before us through the jerky twists, turns, and inversions, I felt like a drunk bird whose souring had been preceded by some pouring. I screamed and laughed and laughed; and at one point, as Rebecca reminded me, yelled “Oh my heavens!”
Without delay, we were off to the next ride. The Steeplechase appeared deceptively tamer: cute fake carousel horses with no hind legs for each rider. “You can do it!” said an older man hanging on the steel railing. The restraints pressed onto my lower back like a flirty lover. It wasn’t until I spotted the stoplight that I realized this lover was more aggressive than tender: I was on a launch ride. From zero to 40 mph in two seconds, we were catapulted through the track. My body told my brain it was going to die. My mind told my body it was fine. I managed to survive without making any more Southern grandmother declarations, but Rebecca lost her hat.
“Now I’m worried my hair will get caught in a track and I’ll get scalped,” she said. Rebecca is a real good time.
I was growing a bit too cocky in my ride abilities, so the Gods of Coney Island humbled me. The Endeavor should be renamed “A Real Undertaking” or “A Whole To-Do.” It’s a swingset that wants to be a Ferris Wheel and doesn’t care who vomits in pursuit of its dream. On the 10th revolution, I wasn’t sure where to look: my brain was seeing ride and beach and sky, right-side up and then upside down. Fear was giving way to nausea, the .0000001% chance I might die overtaken by the .01% chance I might vomit, and with each spin, the decimal spun a digit to the right.
“This is so relaxing!” Rebecca shouted.
I dissented with silence.
Safely on the ground, my stomach pickled for the day, I asked the teenage attendant if anyone had ever vomited. She answered with a beautiful picture:
“Yes. And it goes in circles.”
Cheating death made us hungry for life: It was time for lunch. Our destination was the site of Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest. Three months prior, Joey Chestnut, a porn star name if I ever heard one, won the contest by downing 63 hot dogs, a porn star activity if I ever heard one. A recent study found eating a hot dog takes off 36 minutes of your life; in only 10 minutes, Joey managed to shave a day and a half off his, a level of efficiency that would water a McKinsey consultant’s mouth.
As a vegetarian committed to extending the lives of animals, including my own, I was excited to try Nathan’s new vegan hot dog. It wasn’t on the menu boards in the wide, long kitchen of Nathan’s, and as I quickly learned, not on the menu either. Meat-free debuts always make a publicity splash; their sunsets rarely make waves. “We have stuff for vegetarians!” gets shouted from the mountaintops. “Just kidding” gets whispered from the grove. Instead, I cheated on my vegetarianism with six oysters, a third of Rebecca’s cup of clam chowder, and a mound of tasty fries next to some self-served ketchup. I watched a redhead wearing enough sunscreen to protect the nation of Ireland struggle to properly position his dog under the industrial-sized, self-serve pumps—the unspoken best arcade game on Coney Island.
On the cement seats outside, I popped the question to Rebecca.
“Do you love New York?’
“I do love New York,” she said.
“You do?!” I didn’t expect a self-described cynic to be so earnest.
“I do,” she said, before revising: “I hate it less than other places.”
After lunch, we walked through the older, seedier parts of Coney Island. Claw games with $100 bills strapped to plush animals, drink huts selling sweet, boozy delights with free refills you paid for the morning after. The delineation between the corporate Luna Park, the smaller Deno’s Wonder Wheel, and the less-polished, independent operations wasn’t always clear. Without warning, we were in an alley encouraged to feed a clown, shoot a zombie, or get inside a bumper car built in a time before lawsuits.
Searching for a carnival game, we passed another pull-up bar hang challenge. I was still sore from my defeat. A tipsy gentleman seemed like he was about to play before he turned to me.
“Will you pay for me?” he asked.
“Will you win?” I replied. I wasn’t sure if alcohol was a performance-enhancing or -destroying drug in this context.
“We’ve got a sponsored challenge!” the game attendant cajoled. “Or a side-by-side game?”
I stood around a bit longer to see if my 20-second personal best was admirable or abominable.
“Are you gonna do it?’” I asked.
“I’ve been here for years,” he said like he’d learned his lesson the hard way long ago.
I moved on because I didn’t want to win money. Also, I would have lost. I wanted to win a plush toy the size of a small child— something that might legally be classified as a roommate in my tiny Brooklyn studio. The giant, plush Siberian husky dogs were the best prize, “the Birkin of the of the midway,” Rebecca noted. My budget, though, was more Michael Kors than Birkin, so I peeked at the cheaper games.
“Pretend the moles are your math teachers,” the Whac-A-Mole attendant told the high schoolers playing. I had long ago settled my beef with Miss Toms, so I continued my search. A ball toss into milk jugs looked impossible. A victory on the basketball hoop positioned a football field away seemed as likely as my odds of being drafted into either sport. I wanted a game with a prize every time.
The water gun race always had a winner but had a three-player minimum. The attendant let us play with two. I paid for Rebecca, so I would carry no guilt about completely and utterly defeating her in a veritable water-based bloodbath. She won. Graciously, she gave me her spoil: a plush Pokeball, a small red, white, and black ball that fit in my hand. If we had played again, we could upgrade to a larger Pikachu, but I decided to save my dollars and living quarters by just pretending there was a Pikachu inside.
Our final destination, with hopefully no relation to the franchise of the same name, was the oldest roller coaster in New York City. There’s nothing like a countdown to put a pep in your step, so we jogged over as our wristbands were about to expire. #CycloneTrivia on placards along the line explained the wooden beast’s birth almost 100 years ago and its salvation from demolition in 1972. When we reached the ride, property of New York State and an official landmark, tiny rectangular cars with rich, red plush seating like old movie theatres pulled up.
“This is historic!” my date screamed. “This is older than the Holocaust!” Mass death wasn’t my favorite thing to evoke seconds before hoping to cheat it.
We got into our small box. My knees pressed against each other like praying hands, protecting my religion but really putting it at risk.
“Ya’ll have to switch,” the attendant let us know when he reached our cart.
I asked why, worried we might be on one of those small planes where the relative weight of the cargo matters.
“Something to do with the turns.” His bedside manner might have been enough for most, but he left too much room for my imagination. Plus, I noticed his age. All the other attendants were teenagers, suggesting rides so fool-proof that even a disillusioned teen, picking their nails, stressing about prom, could operate it; but this gentleman was over 40. Did The Cyclone have more room for error? Or should I be grateful he’s older, because, in the event of an anomaly, no one with algebra homework is going to risk their life for mine? I had no time to think through my own personal Trolley Problem; the attendant pulled a lever and we were off.
How we dropped so many times when we only went up once defied physical law. The Cyclone let out deep exhales on each drop, like the wood was breathing in and out, working. On one very sharp turn, Rebecca got pushed into my side and I realized the reason for our swap: the larger person wasn’t at risk of decapitation, the smaller person was at risk of squoosh.
While steel coasters slide you into the future, along the smooth, digital information superhighway, a wooden coaster bounces you right into the past, trotting along like on horseback. The Cyclone didn’t feel like a relic, but a timeless titan, the wood pulsing with stories from a century of people seeking thrills— the 1944 fire, the 2010 construction of Luna Park, long winding lines, pop music blasting over park speakers, saltwater air and taffy, carnival games and rides by the beach. When I hear “New York City,” I see a cluster of tall, lifeless skyscrapers, but Coney Island—its rides, its beach, its stretch of sky—breathes the same name.
We rode the train back to our homes, and I took final custody of the Pokeball. At home, I cut off my wristband and thanked it for filling me with a tourist’s sense of urgency. When you live in a place, you can take it for granted: when something is always there, it’s like it’s never there. That was the prize from Coney Island: the thrilling reminder, through death-defying drops and day-reducing hot dogs, that New York City won’t always be there because I won’t always be here. On Judgment Day, when I’m jettisoned to the cement or heavens depending on the status of my eternal soul, I’ll remember I packed one of my days on Earth with Coney Island. I rode rides, played games, and screamed and laughed and laughed.
Zach Zimmerman is a comedian, writer, and author of TimeOut New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) (April 2023) is available for pre-order now.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.