Of merfolk and Coney Island

The Coney Island Mermaid Parade is, as the name suggests, an annual parade undertaken by people dressed as mermaids. It is held to mark the start of summer, and I’m told that it is a quintessentially New York experience. Also my room-mates (one of whom won Best Mermaid last year) have spent the entire week in a sort of prolonged arts-and-crafts working bee to prepare for this year’s parade, so all the portents point to boarding the D train down to Coney Island to check out what it’s all about.

So, two hours later, here I am, waiting for the mermaids, standing under a relentless sun and cursing the fact that I didn’t bring sunscreen. I’m standing next to a man in a sort of improvised g-string that appears to be fashioned from a rolled-up teatowel and is designed to display his full-body tattoos, which make him look – topically enough – like a stranded sea-creature baking in the sun. I am not, I hasten to add, dressed as a mermaid, or a merman, or anything else aquatic. I’m not sure if this makes me feel more or less absurd. At least I’m not the guy with a huge placard that says “Trust Jesus” on one side and a list of reasons why we’re all going to hell on the other. I fear it’ll be a tough crowd for fire and brimstone today.

The arrival of the sea-creatures is preceded by a long-winded but well-meaning speech about the dubiously glorious history and uncertain future of Coney Island, given by a man whose name may be Steve – he has been the compère of this event for over a decade and clearly cares deeply about the whole thing. The crowd is less excited by the history lesson, and gets restive. A couple of metres away from us, a pretty spectacular territorial dispute breaks out: a woman has set up a camping chair by the barriers that separate the marching area from the rapidly swelling crowd, and despite the fact that a) there is no room for anyone and b) she is not actually sitting on said chair, she cracks the shits at anyone who dares to touch it or her. Much bickering ensues and will continue throughout the parade. I am reminded of the passage in Shantaram about India working remarkably well considering that there’s a billion people crammed into one subcontinent, and the observation that a billion Americans or Australians in similarly close proximity probably would have annihilated themselves centuries ago.

Coney Island itself is like a supersized hypercolour St Kilda. The seaside location (and the fact that only bewildered tourists or true wastoids would dream of actually swimming there), the dilapidated amusement park and general air of semi-gentrified seediness are the obvious parallels, although Coney Island clearly hasn’t had a Secret Life of Us to ruin it completely yet and thus remains more seedy than gentrified. It has a history of attracting freaks, misfits and artists (or various combinations of these categories), which is what makes it interesting. With typically American hyperbole, Steve refers to the Island as “the world’s playground” – in the same way that the NBA Finals are the world championship, presumably.

Coney Island, in all its glory

After what seems like an eternity under a cloudless sky, but’s probably 20 minutes or so, Steve wraps up his speech by announcing the arrival of this year’s honourary King Neptune and Queen Mermaid: Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Laurie is resplendent in an aquamarine outfit with matching parasol; Lou is wearing shorts and a baseball cap, sipping an iced coffee and making a strange grimace that may be a smile. And then it’s time for the parade! Or is it? There are still no mermaids to be seen, only a long procession of vintage and not-so-vintage cars. It turns out that the whole vintage car business precedes the parade every year. The irony of all these gas-guzzlers preceding a parade where a good proportion of the mermaids will be doused in faux-crude oil and carry signs lambasting BP for the Gulf oil spill doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

The cars are followed by an octet of dancers and a forlorn elephant, which deposits a steamer of elephantine proportions on the pavement as it shuffles sadly past, perhaps registering its opinion of proceedings. One of the dancers turns out to be on elephant shit duties and whisks the offensive matter away so quickly and efficiently that you’re left wondering if it actually happened in the first place – or you would be if the smell didn’t linger for a good quarter of an hour afterwards.

And then, finally, the mermaids. As mentioned, oil spill mermaids are a prominent theme this year, but there are mermaids and mermen and Neptunes and miscellaneous sea creatures of every shape and size. We see morbidly obese mermaids, zombie mermaids, mermaids on stilts, zombie mermaids on stilts, junior mermaids (several of whom look a bit hot and fed up by the time they reach the judges), pole dancing mermaids, Bollywood mermaids, ladyboy mermaids, mermaids in drag, mermaid floats, a huge piranha that seems to have been fashioned from car parts, and a man with a shark’s head attached to his crotch. The parade goes steadily past for a good two hours, all the participants pausing slightly further up the road from us to do their thing for the judges before heading off to find some shade. Here’s a selection of the crew:

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There’s something compelling about crumbling grandeur by the seaside; Coney Island seems to embody a disappeared ideal, and the unashamedly shambolic nature of the parade seems to capture the mood perfectly. The man with the shark Speedos poses proudly for a photo – this is his moment to dress up and strut the boardwalk with a ravenous carnivore yawning from his crotch. God only knows what his day job is. The whole thing is spectacular and chintzy and endearingly amateurish and somehow both sad and occasionally hilarious, and well worth the evil sunburn I cop for standing out in the sun for hours on end with no hat or sunscreen.

Shark crotch man!

When the last mermaid has finally gone by, it seems that the thing to do is to decamp to the boardwalk, which runs along the seaside – the sea, incidentally, is co-ordoned off by a cyclone fence that we never find a way to get through – and is home to a lot of bars, a smattering of food joints and one famous local business that you have to rub your eyes to quite believe you’re seeing. It’s called “Shoot the Freak” and it involves shelling out in order to avail yourself of a paintball gun and, yes, shoot a “real live human target”. The target is a muscular and somewhat downtrodden black guy, who wearily dons a facemask and protective shield every time someone ponies up. I note with fascination that you can get five shots for $3 and more on a kinda sliding scale, right up to 75 shots for $20. Even if you’re actually completely blind, it probably doesn’t take 75 shots to hit your target. Presumably, therefore, the supersized paintball serving is just for the good old-fashioned fun of shootin’ the freak again and again and again and again. This impression is reinforced by the conversation we observe between the paintball dispensing guy and a happy customer:

“Can I shoot him in the head?”

“Man, we want you to shoot him in the head.”

Shoot the freak! There he is, hiding on the left

Shoot the Freak aside, the post-parade scene is people-watching gold. As we shuffle slowly along the boardwalk, we observe progressively more wasted mermaids in various states of disrepair. Eventually, the crowd grinds to a complete halt. The logjam is caused by a hefty heatstroke-afflicted mermaid, who’s collapsed to the decking and is being doused in water by her friends. The whole scene is being observed, hilariously, by a stately old lady in a wheelchair, who’s sipping a sly Budweiser. The combination of wheelchair and collapsed mermaid and well-meaning friends and assorted banked-up prams etc. has completely stopped everyone, and soon tempers begin to fray again: “Throw her back in the water!” shouts one red-faced man as he barges past.

Ancient Neptune

As the sun finally sinks over the horizon and the sky darkens, the crowd is starting to get noticeably messier, and we decide it’s time to head back home – Lou Reed is supposed to be giving a speech, but no-one seems to know where or when. On the way back to the station, we pass the Trust Jesus guy arguing earnestly with a grinning metalhead who sports a 666 tattoo and is denouncing Christianity and religion in general.

Further on, a man sniffing an inexplicably discarded pair of panties on the sidewalk catches our eye and implores us “not to judge” him. He needn’t worry. On a day like this, no-one gives him a second glance.

All pics by Leila Morrissey

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