CONEY ISLAND — Which Way’s the Ocean? (Sep, 1951)
CONEY ISLAND — Which Way’s the Ocean?
BY MURRAY ROBINSON – ILLUSTRATED BY LOWELL HESS.
They call this beach The Poor Man’s Riviera, but on any hot Sunday substitute Bedlam-by-the-Sea. It’s also the only known habitat of certain species yet unclassified by science—like the knish bootlegger THE defendant in Coney Island Magistrates’ Court one muggy midsummer morning was a squat, balding man in a sport shirt. He listened impatiently as the charge against him was read: A startled policeman had found him on the jammed beach fetchingly attired in a woman’s ofF-the-shoulder dress, and had given him a summons for “causing a crowd to collect.”
“How do you plead?” asked the bridgeman, a court attendant who acts as liaison between judge and public. At that, the defendant leaped hoarsely into legal battle with four fighting words that are heard every day of the week at the seaside tribunal: “Guilty with an explanation.”
Magistrate Charles E. Ramsgate peered down at him from the bench. “All right,” he said, “let’s hear it.”
“I put on a dress, it was my wife’s,” the defendant explained, “because people shouldn’t see.”
“Shouldn’t see what?” the court prompted patiently.
“People shouldn’t see,” the defendant said, “I am taking off my bathing suit and putting on my pants under the dress. My suit was all wet.”
“So is your explanation,” the court said severely. “You have just admitted you were changing your clothes on the beach—and that’s another violation.”
The defendant fell into a clinch. “All right,” he said hastily, “so I just put on my wife’s dress for fun, and . . .”
“Five dollars,” the court said.
Thus, in typically piquant fashion, began another day in the enchanting history of Coney Island Magistrates’ Court, a tiny tribunal serving a resort which will have been visited by 40.000,000 persons from all over the world between May and October of this year, according to the estimate of its chamber of commerce.
On any hot Sunday, July Fourth or Labor Day, some 1,500,000 men, women, and children swarm all over the beach, boardwalk and amusement areas of The Poor Man’s Riviera. The New York City Park Department, which operates the beach and boardwalk, covering 7,000,000 square feet of sand and board, says every visitor to its domain on such days has just nine square feet of ground to call his own, figuring the crowd at around 750,000. The other 750,000 visitors to the Island jam Surf Avenue, the Bowery and the resort’s side streets.
Numbered among these visitors is a host of summer roomers who annually descend on the Island (which isn’t really an island, but a peninsula; a tidal creek separating it from Brooklyn was filled in years ago). The population leaps from a wintertime 95,000 to a summertime 250,000, through rentals of flats, bungalows, apartments, hotels and furnished rooms. And in Coney Island, even the roomers have roomers.
But it’s the antlike swarming on the beach and boardwalk—running up against a seemingly endless list of “Don’ts” promulgated by the Park Department—that furnishes most of the quaint business of the seaside court.
For instance, another guilty-with-an-explanation case enlivened the proceedings a few days after the man with his wife’s dress made his plea. A woman earned a summons cum laude by washing her little daughter and two bathing suits in a drinking fountain on the beach. This is frowned upon.
“Guilty with an explanation,” she chirped.
“All right. I’m listening,” the court said resignedly.
“I washed my little girl,” the defendant said, “because she was dirty, and I washed the bathing suits because they was full of sand.”
“Very good,” was the verdict. “Ten dollars.”
The court is hidden away on a dingy side street and is virtually unknown to the fun seekers who throng Surf Avenue, the Island’s ancient main stem, a few hundred feet away. Yet to a handful of cognoscenti who have discovered its charm, it rates as a Coney Island attraction on a par with Steeplechase Park, the three-mile beach, the 80-foot-wide boardwalk, salt-water taffy, the Cyclone and Thunderbolt thrill rides, the carrousels, Lane’s Irish House, Professor James Bostwick (“The Man You Will Eventually Ask”), Nathan’s frankfurters, and the World in Wax, where somebody is always stealing the fancy pants off Bing Crosby.
Coney Island Court is one flight up in a faded tan brick-and-sandstone building which has come to be known as the Little Brown Jug at Coney Island. Downstairs in the sixty-year-old edifice is the 60th Precinct police station. It also has four king-sized detention pens, and a large back room used to entertain the children who forever are getting lost at the Island.
In the long ago, the upstairs court, which has 160 seats, saw some pretty tough customers—like the late Frankie Yale, Brooklyn hood, who made his court debut as a punk nabbed for busting up a Surf Avenue poolroom with billiard balls.
But in 1936, according to Chief Clerk Matthew M. Fitzgerald, the court’s grimmer cases, including felonies, were transferred elsewhere. Now it specializes in more flavorsome matters, such as beach and boardwalk violations, tenant-landlord squabbles and neighborhood feuds.
Between 13,000 and 18,000 cases, depending on the weather, humidity and other unpredictable factors, pass through the court every year. Most of them are summer complaints of various kinds. Lawyers are comparatively rare before its bench, and most of its litigants do their own arguing. They are usually well versed in the three R’s—retort, rhetoric and rationalization— and generally try to make regular federal cases out of trivialities. Occasionally, friends and relatives come before the bar to toss in a few opinions. It is all very informal, since no one is sworn in unless a trial pops up, which is seldom. And some of the customers, making their bow before the bench, figure that something fancy is expected, which they deliver.
Candy Store Owner as Lawyer In this latter category was a Coney Island candy store owner who got out a summons for a lady customer. They had become involved in argument and she had splashed him right in the eyeglasses with a rich chocolate drink called an egg cream.
When his case was called, the complainant cleared his throat and began in a heavy, dignified voice: “The party of the first part, that’s her over there, comes into the store of the party of the second part, that’s me, and the party of the first part gives the party of the second part a clop in the eyeglasses with this here egg cream; so .. .”
The judge shook off a numbing fascination, held up his hand, and said: “Please, please. Talk like a candy store owner, not a lawyer.”
Because of the nature of its cases, Coney Island Magistrates’ Court furnishes a unique insight into the manners, customs and boiling points of the myriads who live, or come to play, in The Poor Man’s Riviera. A tolerant, understanding attitude on the part of the regular magistrate is helpful in keeping the little court from turning into a bedlam. But it’s hard for a newcomer.
A judge unfamiliar with the Coney Island spirit snapped, after a bunch of neighbor cases one morning: “People come in here just to improve their neighbors’ manners. I know my duty when a crime has been committed, but I can’t make ladies and gentlemen out of people who aren’t.”
On the other hand. Magistrate Ramsgate, who has presided in the upstairs courtroom for five summers with only brief breathers, recently summed up his views on handling the resort’s cases this way: “When you come to the Island, you’re in a different world. Values change. You have to bear that in mind when you’re judging people here.”
Captain Edward F. Fagan, who has been in charge of the station house on the lower floor of the’ Little Brown Jug since last March, agrees with Magistrate Ramsgate. Captain Fagan, who is forty-three years old and looks completely unlike a policeman, made a brilliant record as head of the New York City Police Laboratory before he went to the Island.
“I wanted to study people instead of clues,” he says, “and this is the place for it.”
Recently he went walking, in sport shirt and slacks, along Coney Island’s Bowery, a miniature carnival midway which is barred to vehicles. One of the Guess Boys, a phony crew who offer to guess your weight, name, occupation, age or anything else as long as you pay them in advance, tapped the captain on the arm.
“How about it, Mac?” the Guess Boy smirked. “I can guess your job.”
“Listen, you mug,” Captain Fagan said. “If you could guess my job, you wouldn’t have stopped me.”
Captain Fagan has a squad of 12 patrolmen in plain clothes, led by Sergeant Charles De Leo, plus a force of five policewomen, to hand out summonses for beach and boardwalk violations. These are called police summonses and like the court summonses obtained by warlike residents of the Island and two other Brooklyn precincts, are returnable in Coney Island Court.
In the seething beach crowds not penetrated by the handful of summons men, 92 lifeguards, eight guard lieutenants and six chiefs keep order as best they can, under the supervision of Charles Haverty of the Park Department. Their first duty is to keep their eyes on the water, which has its own complement of screwballs. But their whistles tweet-tweet almost constantly to warn the more flagrant rule breakers around them in the sand.
The vast majority of police summonses are issued on the beach, which is not so surprising if you’ve ever seen Coney Island on a broiling Sunday in August.
Chief lifeguard Marty Alma, in charge of three of the busiest of the 22 bays, or beach divisions, says the crowds are sometimes so dense that nappers in the middle of the sand get up dazedly and ask, “Which way’s the ocean?”
The way to get living space on the Coney Island Beach, experts say, is to get there early, pick out a spot, and grab it with a hook slide. You can’t go in standing up, because if you do, that’s all the space you’ll get, and it won’t be the nine square feet you’re entitled to. Every kid at Coney knows you take up more room lying down than standing up.
Family groups have a big edge in the competition for Lebensraum because everyone in the family sprawls out as soon as the old man gives the signal to hit the sand. Besides, each member carries something—a blanket, bags of food, folding chairs—with which to establish a land claim. Loners who don’t know the ropes often find themselves standing for hours in the blazing sun, hemmed in by happy, chomping families reclining at their banquets like ancient Romans. The loners can’t even sit down.
Whispering to the Wrong Girl Fights have been started because a lovesick swain thought he was whispering endearingly into the ear of his girl, only to discover he was talking into the ear of the girl next to her, and her boy friend don’t like it. That’s how closely the sand sardines are packed.
Peppered throughout the more well-behaved members of the throng are such prime regulation-busters as ballplayers, and the muscleheads who build human pyramids and go, “Hup!” before sailing through the air. Then there are the lover boys whose idea of courtship is to keep tossing their beloveds into the heavily populated surf. And the comics who think it’s fun to bury strangers’ clothes in the sand.
Add to these the canasta and klabash addicts with double orders of middle-age spread; the amateur musicians, including the players of bongo drums, castanets, guitars, tambourines; the adagio and tarantella dancers, and the wrestlers who often wind up mashing the hard-boiled eggs of an inoffensive family picnic group.
The lifeguard sits amidst this scene of chaos and tries to preserve some semblance of order. It isn’t easy.
Some of the problems are recurrent ones, like the dunkers and the pants-losers. The dunkers are a group of well-upholstered old ladies who take their dips daily between 8:00 and 9 a.m. Their name comes from the peculiar nature of their water exercises: They stand in water a couple of feet deep, hold hands, and bend in unison at the knees until they’re in a half-sitting position; then up again, down again. They do this with great dignity in slow rhythm. Only the lower rear portions of their voluminous bathing suits ever get wet.
Chief Alma, a handsome twenty-eight-year-old wintertime trumpet player and band leader, rates the dunkers among his favorite beach people. They need his assistance only occasionally, when a heavy wave knocks one of them off her feet. Unable to rise, she waits patiently until the lifeguard helps her up (the guards call these “bathtub cases,” because that’s about how deep the water is), then gratefully resumes her dunking with the other girls.
Lost-Pants Problem Is Solved The pants-losers are a mystery to the lifeguards, who don’t understand how they do it. Alma encountered his first case of this sort a few years ago; he heard a man calling for help from the water about 250 feet out, and swam out to see what the trbuble was.
“I lost my pants, that’s what’s the trouble,” the man said crossly. “How’m 1 gonna get in without no pants?”
Alma swam back in and returned with an extra pair of trunks for this victim of a cruel, watery fate. Ever since. Alma has worn a spare—and twice more he has been called on to save face for a pants-loser. Other lifeguards have had the same experience, but none can explain why.
That isn’t the only puzzle that confronts the guards. Alma reports, for example, that some of his constituents seem constitutionally incapable of calling a lifeguard a lifeguard. They call him “Mr. Life Preserver,” “Mr. Life Snatcher,” “Mr. Life Grabber,” or “Mr. Life Snapper.”
All the Coney Island lifeguards are familiar with an old gent known as Doc, who wears a straw hat and a towel draped across his skinny shoulders. In the belt of his bathing suit, like bullets in a cartridge belt, he carries a supply of paper-wrapped candies. It is his pleasure to seek out as many lifeguards as are on duty and present a candy to each one. He then bows, tips his skimmer, and scuttles off.
Besides these regulars, other singular individuals show up from time to time. Looking around one day, Alma saw sand flying furiously out of a hole in the beach. He looked down into it and spied a little man digging diligently. The pit was deeper than the man was. “What do you think you’re doing down there?” Alma shouted into the hole, shipping a mouthful of sand.
“I’m trying to strike water,” was the muffled reply.
Alma reached down and yanked out the well-digger. “Over there,” he said, pointing to the ocean.
Well-diggers and candy-givers are a relief from the real pests, like the ballplayers. About one third of the 1,000 summonses Sergeant De Leo and his men issued last June went to these sand-lot athletes.
One defendant in Coney Island Magistrates’ Court on a ballplaying rap said: “I was only getting a little extracise. I didn’t hurt nobody.”
“No,” the court agreed, “but the next time, you’re liable to step on some poor old lady’s nose.”
“It sometimes seems.” says Mario Bigongiari, court interpreter and cashier, “that there are more ballplayers on our beach than there are in all organized baseball.”
Besides being warned about ballplaying. bathers are cautioned not to go strolling along the boardwalk in a bathing suit. This heinous infraction usually brings the “guilty-with-an-explanation” defense when the rule breakers are brought to court.
One defendant offered Magistrate Rams-gate this explanation: “It was this way, Your Honor. I lost my little boy. He has bright red hair. I couldn’t see him while I was on the beach, so I figure I’ll go up on the boardwalk and look down from there. His hair is so red, I couldn’t miss him.”
The judge respected the novelty of this excuse and suspended sentence.
Naturally, if appearing on the boardwalk in a swim suit is an offense, appearing un- der it without one is worse, and bathers who undress under that promenade rate high among the recipients of summonses.
One day recently, one of Captain Fagan’s men came upon a woman changing from street clothes to a bathing suit under the boardwalk. To his blushing embarrassment, he spotted her when she had on neither. He gave her a summons and she snapped: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for looking.”
But the cops’ most persistent annoyers are the illegal peddlers who sneakily infest every part of the 110 acres of beach.
“The ice-cream peddlers do all right,” Sergeant De Leo says. “They pay 35 cents a dozen for their junk and sell it for 15 cents each. They make as high as $50 a day —if we don’t nab them.”
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one when it comes to catching the illegal vendors, whether they sell ice cream or knishes, which are square, weighty pastries filled with potatoes and spices. They are highly fancied by Coney Island sun bathers.
“The trouble is,” Sergeant De Leo explains, “that the peddlers usually wear bathing suits and go barefooted. We wear shoes and street clothes. We start chasing the bums and they outrun us. Meanwhile, the crowd on the beach is pulling for the peddlers. They holler, ‘Why don’t you go arrest burglars?’ It hurts your morale.
“Then, if you manage to get close to the peddler, he gives you the works. Throws his carton of ice cream right at your dogs and you trip and fall flat on your face while the crowd cheers.”
Peddlers of knishes, when pursued to the water’s edge, have been known to put their baskets of goodies on the pilings that stud the water at intervals, and float away on the waves. When the cops depart, they retrieve their knishes, unless the tide got them first. No knish-peddler has ever dared take his wares into the briny with him. “He would sink to the bottom of the sea at once,” a cop once explained. “A basketful of knishes could anchor Big Mo.”
Sergeant De Leo recently discovered a new type knish-peddler—a knish-bootleg-ger. “This guy,” he declares, “was going around the beach whispering to the people. He had a little pad in his hand and a pencil. He was taking orders for knishes and promising early delivery. He’d bring back a few at a time and slip them to his customers.”
Like most of the others who are brought in to face Magistrate Ramsgate, the illegal peddlers are seldom at a loss for an explanation. “Some guy,” one said recently, “sold me space on the beach and told me it was okay.”
“Congratulations,” the judge said dryly. “They’re selling the Brooklyn Bridge again, and you’ve bought it.”
Two warrant officers are attached to Coney Island Magistrates’ Court to bring in bashful parties who ignore summonses. One is George Dillon, a huge, moonfaced man with a gentle smile. His partner is Charles Barlow, who succeeded Henry Frumkin, Dillon’s old partner, when Frum-kin retired last June.
Dillon and Frumkin were a most effective team. Once, when they asked an obstinate Coney Islander to please come along like the summons said, the man said no and held on to a picket fence in his yard. “When we got him out of the yard,” Dillon recalls modestly, “he was still holding a picket.”
The court summons cases in the Little Brown Jug—featuring tenant against landlord and neighbor against neighbor—have a heady seaside flavor all their own. Court attaches agree that no other court in New York can match their savor.
For example, there was the celebrated Ham-and-Cheese Case which recently went before Magistrate Ramsgate. The complainant was a faded, truculent blonde; the defendant, an old lady with birdlike eyes.
“She’s my landlady,” the complainant said. “She took away the ice cube trays from my refrigerator. I wanna have them back. Make her gimme.”
“Sure,” the defendant conceded, “I take them away. She ruin them. She make with ham-and-chis’.”
“You had no business,” the judge re- “I counted four,” said the court.
“It isn’t four people, it’s eight,” the landlady said, “and they go to the beach; then they come back and they all take a bath.”
“Dismissed,” was the verdict.
Some complainants are virtual regulars in the Little Brown Jug. They consider it an achievement to have more than one case going at a time.
Recently, a chubby woman sought a summons for a neighbor because she said the latter slapped her daughter. “You look familiar,” Magistrate Ramsgate said.
“Sure,” the chubby one said happily. “1 got another one going here about my landlady, she’s a mean one, and how she wouldn’t let anybody come to my flat for my daughter’s graduation party and so now I got in my house turkey sandwiches up to the ceiling.”
“I remember,” the judge said. “No summons in the slapping case. One to a customer.”
Magistrate Ramsgate presided over a lulu a few years ago. There were two property owners in this case. Call them Lewis and Clark. Clark had erected a clothesline pole that Lewis chopped down, claiming it was on his property. But in doing so, Lewis chopped it so that it fell on his own garage, ruining the roof.
Thereupon, pole-builder Clark got out a summons for Lewis, charging the ruin of his clothes pole, and pole-chopper Lewis got out a summons for Clark, claiming that Clark’s pole had ruined his garage roof.
The court suggested they shake hands and forget the whole business. But they would have none of his peacemaking, so he packed them off to Municipal Court, where they sued each other heartily.
proached the complainant, “keeping ham and cheese in the trays. The smell stays.”
“No,” the defendant said. “She don’t put ham-and-chis’ in the trays. She wantsa get the cube out, so she hit them with ham-and chis’.”
“Ooh, what a liar,” the blonde said. “I never used a hammer and chisel on her old trays in my life.”
“All right, ladies,” warned Melvin Haw-ley, the bridgeman. “Do not start a cat fight in this august courtroom.” He glared at the ladies with all the sternness of a retired bosun’s mate, which he is.
The judge stirred impatiently. “The trays are only 33 cents each,” he said to the blonde. “You can buy a couple. Dismissed.”
“Another thing,” the complainant said. “The handle on my refrigerator is busted. Make her fix it.”
The judge sighed. “Will you do something for me?” he asked the landlady. “Fix the handle—for me?”
“Judge,” the landlady beamed, “for you I do anything. Where you live? 1 gonna send a man to fix you door handle.”
“Never mind,” the court said. “Tell them to go home. Melvin.”
Many, of the tenant-landlord beefs revolve around the subject of hot water.
“It’s only me and my wife,” one tenant complained piteously. “We rent a room for the summer from this woman. We want to take a bath, but there’s no hot water.”
The judge, hep to the ways of summer roomers, asked: “Any friends visiting you?”
“Nobody,” said the tenant fervently, “except maybe a cousin, and my wife’s brother-in-law stops in, and I think his wife, and my brother’s boy, he’s just home from the Army. A couple people.”
For Putting in Her Two Cents Some of the sensitive ladies of Coney Island take neighbors into court on charges which are nebulous, to say the least. A few weeks ago. a woman had her neighbor up before the court bench for annoying her.
“What does she do?” asked Magistrate Anthony E. Maglio, presiding for the day.
“When I’m talking to a friend,” she explained, “she is all the time putting in her two cents.”
“Yes, but what does she do?”
“She just puts in her two cents,” was the dogged reply. “All the time.”
Magistrate Maglio, who, like Ramsgate, is a Coney Island student from away back, realized he had reached a dead end.
“Madam,” he sternly told the defendant, “you better stop putting in your two cents, or it will run into money. Now both of you go home.”
Whenever members of the Coney Island set blow a gasket, the Little Brown Jug seems to be their safety valve. There was the dignified housewife who slapped a summons on her next-door neighbor because, she charged, “he turned the hose on me from top to bottom.”
“I should waste water on her with the shortage and all,” he sneered. “I am watering my petoonies. and she has to come out and stick her nose in.”
“This man hit my child alongside the ear with his hedge shears,” another woman complained.
“So what?” the defendant countered reasonably. “They wasn’t sharp.”
There are two schools of thought on what makes Coney Islanders wear out the wooden stairs of the Little Brown Jug in a never-ending quest for “satisfaction.” Some court observers blame it on a high percentage of “Full Mooners” among the thousands of summons seekers.
“Court attendants all over know about the Full Mooners,” Chief Clerk Fitzgerald says. “They are people who get the urge to take somebody to court whenever there’s a full moon. Don’t laugh. Full Mooners are a fact.”
But Phil Levinson, a court stenographer who frequently works the Coney Island court, entertains a different theory.
“The salt air,” he says, “has something to do with it.” the end