Coney Island Babies:

The 1997 Mermaid Parade


The 16th annual Mermaid Parade at Coney Island was as singular as the title suggests. It was full of filmy, iridescent fabric in stunning blues, greens and purples; bikini tops fortified with scallop shells, fake pearls and glitter; and, of course, flesh. Lots of flesh.

Please do not copy, distribute or forward without the copyright notice intact, which is: Copyright Kathy Biehl 1998. All rights reserved.

One woman's top consisted solely of a pair of carefully positioned rubber lobsters, held in place by a cord around her ribcage that was detectable only because of the indention it made in her skin. Another woman's bust was covered by nothing more than sloppy blue spokes of paint encircling her exposed nipples, which passed within inches of a policeman without incident. There were child mermaids, one sleeping in a tiny, old-fashioned carriage that made everyone coo; retired mermaids in wheelchairs equipped with Evian water drips; drag mermaids; slatternly mermaids; pre-Raphaelite mermaids; and dancing mermaids. Three teen-aged girls in white, winged jumpsuits, periodically froze into choreographed poses threatening the crowd with guns; they were, their sign said, Charlie's Angel Fish. Two mermaids screeched into tiny plastic cheerleading cones as they encircled a Jewish Odysseus, who was running between them with his arms tied behind his back around a pole.

The most striking aspect of the event was the audience's behavior. As it approached our section of the boardwalk, they stepped out in front, not just ahead of fellow onlookers, but right into the path of the parade. Sightlines evaporated for those of us under 6' as a mob of humanity enveloped the parade so tightly that everyone had to move back to let a float pass. The same thing happened later on the street below, where I caught the end of the automotive portion of the parade, which hadn't come down the boardwalk. Nobody was standing on the curb, because it would have taken stilts to see over the crowd, which had pushed into the middle of the street from both sides. Every so often, a policeman would order folks to stand back, but even then the cars passing through the gauntlet had only a few inches clearance.

Somehow the mob rule fit the locale. Coney Island has its own standards of acceptability, quite apart from most of the rest of our increasingly homogenized nation.

Only hints remain of the grandeur that once characterized this amusement capital: ornate maritime medallions atop a Spanish-style building with plastered-in archways; an imposing parachute tower, the ride apparatus of which was long ago dismantled; a massive roller coaster, the Thunderbolt, now overgrown with vines and fit for a Garcia Marquez story.

The less savory elements that have always been part of the area now dominate Coney Island. It still has freak shows, one established and large enough to occupy a building, which is draped with outrageous painted signs like the banners that used to cover carnival sideshows. This one has aconnection with the local museum, which happens to be upstairs and was denying the public access to its treasures from long-gone parks, like a Steeplechase horse, so the freak people could use it as a dressing room.

The other freak shows are one-trailer enterprises, the kind that make patently ridiculous claims to lure passers-by to hand over some money and walk up a tiny set of stairs to see whatever is really inside. The world's smallest horse ("Lilliputian among horse flesh!" crooned the tape-loop barker) was around the corner from the world's smallest woman, to whom, it was claimed, you could actually talk while you peered down at her.

Next to her was a billboard claiming that a beautiful model had been decapitated in a car wreck and was being kept alive by medical science -- just like one I'd seen at the 1972 State Fair of Texas, except that the date on the fake newspaper headline on this one had been painted over with "1985." Had I been a medical doctor carrying my credentials, I could have seen her for free. Since I wasn't, I passed up the chance to see if she was in fact obviously altered with mirrors, as friends who'd ponied up the fee in 1972 had reported.

The neighboring trailer was the most disturbing of all. As if enormous lettering on the billboard didn't convey the point, an over-amplified recording proclaimed the evils of drugs, which had left the person on display irreversibly brain damaged. Surely prolonged exposure to the insistence of the spiel was enough to do the same; I wondered what it was doing to the ticket seller. Eldorado Auto Skooters ("Disco Bumper Cars!") raised the same question. There must be a limit to how many times a person can hear "Bump -- bump -- bump yo' ass off!" and not be affected.

A carnival atmosphere was everywhere -- in the streets, on the boardwalk, in the narrow, densely packed amusement parks, in the game-filled alleys, even in the appearance of people passing through. Tattoos were rampant, elaborate, attention-grabbing, skin-consuming works of art, across chests, arms, calves, napes. One young woman, one otherwise perfectly middle class and extremely attractive young woman, had cuffs of flames circling her wrists, lapping at the backs of her hands and extending into her forearms. She was the most extreme of the women I saw with gorgeous but prominent tattoos that amounted to a fairly unbreakable commitment to an alternative lifestyle. They certainly weren't likely to lead their bearers into most ordinary ways of earning a living.

My favorite sight was tucked under the Wonder Wheel, in a cluster of coin-operated amusements: a fortune-telling automaton called Grandmother's Prophecies. She was a beaut. Her hair was white but her features were young and well-formed. Her eyes were glass and eerie blue. She showed wear and tear from movement; the lid on one dropped half-way, and a small comb had fallen loose in her hair. One pointing finger was resting on a royal flush in spades. A spider, a fifth and an electric candle were her other props. I had to see this in action.

Between her and me stood a man and a woman listening intently while a young woman gave a Spanish translation of the card they had received from the machine. When they moved away, I put in my quarter. Her head moved. Her hand went back and forth over the cards. Her chest heaved in and out, up and down. A breathing mechanism! I was mesmerized. The Spanish-speaking man tapped my shoulder and pointed at the bottom of the machine. A card was waiting. I'd already got what I was after, but I took the card anyway. It didn't say anything about going to lots of parades.

Excerpted from Ladies' Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban Anthropology, Vol. X, Nos. 2&3.

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