It would be a crime to separate these two pieces of my early life. I hope you will excuse an old man who can’t forget his past.
The Ecstasy and the Agony
Part 1 — Steeplechase
by Harry Buschman
When I fly into La Guardia on the southern approach I look down and see the Coney Island Housing Project. It’s a prison-like complex of red brick, built quickly with little love or respect for the people who live there. A form of residential incarceration you can find on the outskirts of any major city in the world. In happier and simpler days it was the site of “Steeplechase” Amusement Park.
In those days Steeplechase was called “The Funny Place.” It was a wonderland of merriment and un-corseted fun. No matter who you were, rich man, poor man, beggar man or thief, you could have a good time at Steeplechase. A steel frame and glass structure built in 1897, It flourished until 1964 when it was torn down to make room for the housing project. There has been little love or laughter there since.
Steeplechase was America’s first Disney World, conceived and built by George C. Tilyou. It was Maxim Gorky’s favorite place in America. Imagine! Not the Library of Congress, not the Lincoln Memorial – STEEPLECHASE!
You bought a ticket, one dollar; that’s it. The ticket entitled you to one ride on every attraction in the park. They called them “attractions.” Some of them were as simple as ten minutes on the dance floor, or the privilege of looking at yourself in a warped mirror, or maybe having your fortune told by a stuffed swami in a glass box. The grandest attraction of all was the ride on the steeplechase itself, a breathtaking sprint on wooden horses set up on trolley rails. They circumnavigated the entire park complete with hairpin turns and even a brief sprint out over the heads of strollers on the boardwalk.
There was a carousel with chickens instead of horses. There was a magic elephant. There was even a clown with an air hose who blew the skirts of unsuspecting ladies sky high. No wonder Gorky loved it, how could a man not have fun in a place like that? On a more sober note, many a maiden was de-flowered there, and many a lusty young male discovered forbidden fruit there. There, riding on a papier mache chicken built for two, the secret of life might suddenly reveal itself. Ah Maleness!, Ah Femaleness!, Ah Wilderness!
(I hope you’ll pardon me, I am an elderly gentleman, and such thoughts may appear unseemly in a man my age. I hope you’ll forgive me, but the memory of Steeplechase is still a magic elixir that stimulates me as strongly as the first Martini of a long winter evening.)
I was seventeen at the time, full of pimples and unrequited satisfaction. All my friends had been “laid,” (we called it that in those days. A term I hope that has been changed for the better today.) I had not …. been laid that is. The fantastic sexual adventures of my high school friends stirred my libido the way my mother stirred chicken soup. I wanted desperately to be a member of that ‘laid’ fraternity, so that I could add my personal chapter to the teenager’s book of conquest.
Steeplechase was a likely spot, and Florence Sawchuk seemed a likely subject. My friends told me that Florence was a ‘good sport’. Phil Miller had many good things to say about Florence, and Phil was a recognized expert in sporting matters. We agreed to double date on a Saturday evening, he with Pearl Elefant, (everybody knew Pearl was a good sport) and me and Florence.
Florence was a tall brunette with a relaxed and promiscuous air. She wore a mixed expression of wonder and bewilderment. She vaguely resembled Fay Wray, and had eyes like two porcelain doorknobs. She shared Fay’s overbite as well, and for reasons I can’t remember, girls with overbite signified unbridled lust to me. Fay Wray you may remember played the part of Anne Darrow in “King Kong.” No doubt Kong and I shared a similar taste in women with overbites. Flo and I were not total strangers, we had spent some time together as volunteers making a mess of the high school library catalog.
As Saturday evening drew closer I spent more and more time on personal hygiene. On more than one occasion, my father was forced to hammer on the bathroom door and shout, “What the hell’ya doin” in there!” My father would get very cranky when he was locked out of the bathroom. I eventually confessed to him I had a big date coming up Saturday night at Steeplechase, he grinned knowingly and gave me a dollar to get a haircut. My father and I had never indulged in a man to man talk concerning the origin of life and the events leading up to it. I believe the subject was as great a mystery to him as it was to me. He did, however, warn me to be careful because he knew all about “what went on” over at Steeplechase.
I picked up Flo about seven on Saturday. I was early and she wasn’t ready, so I sat in the living room with her mother and I was sure she could see through me as clearly as if I were made of glass. Her husband, Max, was building a shelf in the kitchen so I went out and sat with him.
“Where you takin” Flo?” he asked guardedly.
“We’re thinking of going to Steeplechase.”
“Humph, she hangs out there a lot–be careful, the two of you.” Then he added, “I know all about what goes on over at Steeplechase.” Her two younger brothers were sitting at the kitchen table and they began giggling together. Flo finally walked in and the two of us fell over each other getting out to the strains of “Don’t do nothin’ I wouldn’t do,” from her mother.
At that particular moment the prize didn’t seem worth the game, and I was half tempted to call the whole thing off. But I didn’t. We took the subway to Coney Island and met Phil and Pearl in Trommer’s for a beer. That was Phil’s idea. He told me earlier it was a good way to start off, “It loosens them up a little–know what I mean?”
The first ‘attraction’ at Steeplechase was the revolving tunnel set horizontally at the entrance through which young and old had to walk to get inside. It couldn’t be done. Someone young and agile might have done it alone but the tunnel was normally filled with people who had already fallen down and couldn’t get up and it had to be stopped periodically so they could crawl out. Flo and I went down in a tangle of arms and legs along with Phil, Pearl and a half dozen other couples. It was impossible for us to restrain ourselves from playful grabbing and groping, and with whetted appetites and the evening hardly begun we headed for the Chicken Carousel.
Most of the ‘attractions’ were built for two and the Chicken Carousel was no exception. It was a choppy ride. With Flo in front and me close behind, the chicken heaved and jiggled–up and down and side to side and had it lasted a moment longer, I believe the magic moment would have come and gone before the evening was underway.
“Wait’ll you try this,” Phil enthused as we approached the “Human Roulette Wheel.” The diabolical ‘attraction’ was indeed a roulette wheel about fifty feet in diameter. Made of polished hardwood it had a raised center hub upon which twenty or so eager couples sat. From this hub, the wheel sloped down and back up again to an almost vertical rim. It began to spin slowly, almost lethargically, then gathered speed. Two by two the riders lost their grip on the center hub, and spun off by centrifugal force they were plastered to the outer rim. Once there it was impossible to move and people remained immobile in whatever position they arrived until the damn thing stopped. People lay plastered to the outer rim like swatted flies.
Flo and I clung to the hub longer than most but the laws of physics eventually prevailed and away we went. We were squeezed together on the outer rim and forced into a modified missionary position from which we could not extricate ourselves. It could have been pleasant except we were in full view of more than a hundred spectators.
Today, as I look back at Steeplechase, I am convinced that George C. Tilyou created a monumental machine devoted to foreplay. A mammoth mechanism dedicated to the proposition that all women are created differently than men, and need the stimulation that most men are in too much of a hurry to provide. The ‘attractions’ had stimulated Flo with no effort on my part and I believe I could have accomplished my goal right then and there on “The Human Roulette Wheel.” But that was yet to come. We danced, we looked at ourselves in curved mirrors, her skirt was blown up over her head before my very eyes and we groaned and grunted our way through the “Tunnel of Love.” We even had a dance to the music of Nathaniel Shilkrat and his Collegiate Orchestra.
Steeplechase had done its part–the rest was up to me! …. It was Phil who saved the day.
“Meet you under the boardwalk!” Ah! Now I understood the where, how, and what of it. That’s why they built the boardwalk! There in the dark and dimness, with the smell of pine pitch and popcorn, and with the shuffling of feet on the boardwalk overhead, I heard the distant rumble of thunder–the roll of drums, and the clashing cymbals of ecstasy.
At last I had achieved what all men treasure the rest of their lives. Their own personal Richter scale of sexual experience by which they measure all succeeding ones. It was my baseline, and although at the time I didn’t know whether it was high or low, I’m sure Flo did.
Looking back on it now, I’d have to say it was a 5, not powerful enough to cause structural damage, but strong enough to rattle the dishes on the kitchen shelf.
The Ecstasy and the Agony
Part 2 — Bitter Rice
by Harry Buschman
Phil Miller, all eighteen years of him, and with six months to go until high school graduation, was getting married––and I needed a suit. You can’t be a best man without a suit. I was seventeen without a dime to my name, and the only way I was going to get a suit was to ask my old man for the money.
“What do you need a suit for? You’re seventeen years old, you don’t need a suit. I don’t own a suit myself, and I sure ain’t goin’ to shell out no .50 for a suit for you if I don’t have one. You look fine just the way you are.”
I expected that, and I dreaded having to explain why I needed a suit. “I’m going to be a best man, Pa.” That was the pure unvarnished truth. I should have broken the news more gently, but I had not yet reached the age of diplomacy. Diplomacy would have been wasted on my father anyway, he was a blunt man and he always knew when he was being suckered.
After all, it wasn’t as though I had to tell him I was going to be a groom. When I thought how close I came to being one it made my blood run cold.
I’m sure it happened that Saturday night under the boardwalk in front of Steeplechase. Phil, the smart one, the one who knew all the answers. Phil, at the age of eighteen was going to be a father. There he was, a senior caught in the middle of the most profound depression the world had ever known was marrying Pearl Elefant, a girl everyone knew was a ‘good sport’.
“Who do you know’s gettin’ married?” My father asked.
“Phil Miller, Pop, he’s a senior …. he’s been here once or twice.”
“Is he that skinny blond kid with the glasses?”
My mother was more understanding …. “It’s his best friend, Fred …. besides it’s time he had a suit.”
My father had a habit of thinking and talking at the same time, and the talking part of him would often get ahead of the thinking part. He reminded me a lot of my old friend Ernie, whenever Ernie used to talk ahead of himself, his mother would stop him, take him by both shoulders and say, “Ernest …. first you’ll think, then you’ll talk.” My father’s lips were moving and I could tell his thinking processes were doing all they could to catch up to where his mouth was.
“Too young to be gettin’ married …. kid in high school …. where they gonna live …. how they’re gonna get along?”
Mother knew the story …. “it’s to give the baby a name, Fred.”
“What baby? …. they ain’t married yet …. how can there be a baby?” Then his mind finally overtook his mouth and all he could say was, “Jesus Christ!”
He lit up his dead cigar and eyed me warily, “That ever happens to you, I’ll …. I’ll …. ” But he had never made plans for what he might do if that ever happened to me, so he and his voice trailed off to the bedroom where I knew he kept an old black leather wallet with the house money.
He came out again and mumbled …. “Come on, let’s get a suit, we’ll have it cut full, maybe I can wear it too.”
Phil and Pearl beat the stork by seven months, and it really wasn’t much of a wedding. They were married by a impassive Priest in the business end of the vestry behind the altar where he kept the wine and the wafers. Other than the few grains of rice that were thrown at them at the side door there was no reception. It was a cold late autumn afternoon and I remember the rice being gritty on the sidewalk under my feet. I wiped them in the soft grass before walking home alone. I thought to myself this was one attraction Steeplechase never mentioned. Phil and Pearl drove off to a hotel in Atlantic City in his father’s De Soto for the weekend. Phil was working part time now and he had to be back in school Monday morning.
A cold autumn weekend in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I wondered how they would spend the time … they were back early Sunday afternoon.
For the duration at least, they were going to stay with Pearl’s mother, father and two sisters above Esposito’s candy store. Pearl’s father got Phil an afternoon job as a loader at the Wonder Bread bakery with a chance of getting a truck route for himself some day. He was pretty excited about that. I wondered why, it didn’t look like much of a future to me.
I soon lost track of Phil and Pearl. Phil had no time for fooling around now, and Pearl, in her confinement, (a polite word we used for pregnancy in those days) rarely left the house. The baby was still-born, (another polite word we used for an infant born dead). My father’s words, (“If that ever happens to you …. I’ll …. I’ll”) kept coming back to me, I could hear them as clearly as if I’d said them to myself.
Another friend gone. Yesterday’s friendships seemed so unbreakable, like the monoliths on Easter Island; today’s were fragile, quickly terminated and they left a bitter taste. I was growing up and the world was closing in on me. It was 1937 and people said there was a war coming, a big one––bigger than the one my father fought in. What would I do with my life after high school, go on to college? Join the army? Both? Would there ever be another Steeplechase?
Steeplechase was a door to a joyful world that had opened a crack for a moment. The music and the laughter filtered through, then it closed again forever.
My father was getting gray now and there was a stoop to his shoulders I hadn’t noticed before. He talked only about the old days––how things used to be back in Brooklyn when he was young. He was only forty. He had more than fifty years to live and he would spend them trying to remember how good things used to be. In time his memory would fail him, exhausted perhaps from chasing his mouth for so many years and he would remember nothing …. not even me.