By Larry Levine –
You can go home again. You most certainly, positively, absolutely, definitely can go home again.
I’m riding on an elevated train through Brooklyn; I’m looking down on the streets of my youth. You can go home again.
I’m at Coney Island with 1 million other people on a warm, sunny Memorial Day afternoon. We’re on the Boardwalk and on the beach, mixing, mingling, laughing in a thousand different languages and children are pointing happily at the games and rides. You can go home again.
The train pulls into the last stop – Stillwell and Surf; we all get off and walk through the terminal. The Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump are on the skyline. You can go home again.
I’m standing on line (yes, on line, not in line) 15-deep at Nathan’s Famous hot dogs the first weekend they are opened after recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy; I’m sitting at a table, eating a Nathan’s original with just mustard; a Nathan’s original with kraut is waiting; the thick crinkle cut fries are hot. You can go home again.
I was just 10 years old when we left New York for California in 1949. Today, I am an Angelino through and through. L.A. is my home. But I’m back in Brooklyn and that is my home. The train station, the Boardwalk, the Wonder Wheel, Cyclone and Steeplechase … I’ve been here before and it doesn’t seem so long ago.
And on line with thousands of others at Nathan’s we are congratulating each other for being there to celebrate this victory over the elements.
Woman (to husband): “Want to share something.”
Husband (laughing): “I didn’t come to Natin’s afta all dis time to shaih nutin’.”
I’m an Angelino through and through, but New York’s my town. After one day in Manhattan, my cousin Barry commented on how quickly my instincts for crossing busy streets and negotiating pedestrian packed sidewalks had returned. After two days, the street hawkers pushing sightseeing brochures on tourists were no longer pushing their pamphlets on me. I was a local again.
You can go home again because home is a place in your mind and your soul and your heart. It exists in your memory and standing on line at Nathan’s, looking at the stoops in front of houses on tree-lined Brooklyn streets from a passing train, walking in the sunshine on the Boardwalk at Coney Island with a million other people on a holiday weekend 64 years after the last time I did it … that’s where memories reside. I did it all before and today I went home again to all of those things.
The re-opening of hurricane damaged Nathan’s was one of the important goals of this vacation. It’s a celebration of the spirit of a city that won’t give in to the elements any more than it would give in to terrorists. We were in New York to cheer on marathon runners seven weeks after 9/11 because we wanted to be part of the international coming together in support of this city of my birth. And I wanted to be here to celebrate this new triumph over Sandy. I’m aware of the disrupted lives that still suffer from the impact of Sandy, but this was an important cultural event for the city and I wanted to be here.
Nathan’s has changed from what it was before the hurricane. They didn’t just put band aids on it; they built a new facility within the shell of the historic restaurant. The big, long black grill that turned out so many millions of hot dogs is gone. The street-front counter has been moved indoors and sales stations are set up with cash registers along the new counter, forcing a semblance of order to the lines of customers waiting to place their orders. Mustard or ketchup on your dog? You have to do it yourself now from the condiment stands outside. Your server still will put the kraut on top of the dog if you ask for it. But if you want mustard on the dog under the kraut you’re out of luck. A raw bar has been added and you now can buy wine and some pretty decent beer.
So much for the cosmetics. We came for the hot dogs and they still are fabulous – skin that pops with every bite. The kraut is crisp and tasty. And the famous thick, crinkly fires are still there. I wondered if the hot dogs really are that good, or is Nathan’s just an event that makes everything seem better. Can I remember the taste of the hot dog I ate 65 years ago so I can compare it to the one I ate today? Or is it just the 65-year-old memory that is being compared?
Coney Island is many things. It’s where millions of New Yorkers go to cool off on hot summer days, lining the beach with blankets so closely arranged that one could walk from the Boardwalk to the water without touching the sand. It’s the Boardwalk, lined with carnival games and rides. It’s fireworks shows over the water on summer nights. It’s a still new stadium with a minor league baseball team to fill a small part of the void left when a major league team packed up and left Brooklyn half a century ago. It’s home to hundreds of thousands who have ocean views from their apartments and condos. But the heart that beats within Coney Island, the one most essential ingredient that defines it and gives it magic is Nathan’s Famous at the corner of Stillwell and Surf. Just ask any of the tens of thousands of customers who lined up 15-deep all around the place Memorial Day weekend to welcome this old friend back.