It is 1996 and I’m in love with Coney Island. I’m in love with its decrepit, ancient buildings, crumbling but also vibrating with color and life. Ice cream, cotton candy, corn dogs, fried clams. I’m in love with the smell of grease and seashore. The feeling of being at the edge of the world. On the margin. Way out there. Beyond. And I can’t get enough of the freaks.
I go to Sideshows by the Seashore to see their 10-in-1 show. Zenobia, played by Jennifer Miller, is the bearded lady. She wears plain clothes, pants and a shirt, no makeup, nothing theatrical. The focus is her beard, thick and woolly, a bit wild. With her long wavy hair, she looks, if not like Jesus, then one of the apostles. A hippie.
She goes through her spiel: "I am a woman with a beard,” she announces. “If I called myself The Bearded Lady, I would be claiming that I, Zenobia, was the one, the only, woman with a beard in the entire world. The Bearded Lady. Could that possibly be true? Of course not. The world is full of women who have beards. Or at least they have the potential. They have the potential to have a beard, if only they would reach out and fulfill their fabulous potential, as I myself have so obviously done. Historically speaking, speaking historically, that is, hair has been a symbol of power. It goes back to Samson and his great mane of power. That's why men don't want women having too much in too many places. You get it? Forget it. That's what I said, forget it. So people want to know how I deal with walking down the street. Cause here I am, a gal with a beard, gallivanting around New York City. You think I'm getting hassled out there? I get more than my fair share. So what do I do?”
She picks up a machete from the stack behind her.
“After a long hard day at work, I'm hot, I'm tired, all I want is a nice cold…”
“Beer!” the crowd yells.
“Machete!" Zenobia corrects them and begins juggling three glinting, sharp blades. She’s good. The crowd roars in applause.
It is 2016, exactly 20 years since it was 1996, and I return to the Sideshows by the Seashore. I’ve been back a number of times over the years, but today it’s a revival, Superfreak Weekend, and Jennifer Miller is reprising her original Zenobia act.
She’s glammed it up since 1996, wearing a purple satin gown over her jeans and motorcycle boots, her eyelids painted with purple powder. Her beard has a few gray hairs in it now. She begins her spiel, word for word, the same as it was in 1996: “If I called myself The Bearded Lady, I would be claiming that I, Zenobia, was the one, the only, woman with a beard in the entire world!”
A boy in the audience shouts out, “You have a gay name!”
He’s maybe 8 years old. His mother tells him to “stop it.” Zenobia relishes the moment—as Jennifer Miller she’s a professor of performance studies, a lecturer on gender, and director of the left-wing political theater troupe Circus Amok. “Now we can really talk,” she says, moving to the front of the stage and kneeling down. She addresses the boy directly.
“What about the name Zenobia strikes you as gay?”
“It’s a gay name!” the boy shouts. His mother tells him again to "stop it." They go around like this, the boy repeating himself, clearly in the throes of a gender mind-fuck. The needle on his cognitive record keeps skipping. After 20 years, the bearded lady act still has the power to unsettle.
Zenobia continues to talk to the boy and the audience. We laugh at a joke. The energy moves. She asks the boy again what’s gay about her name. Quietly now, he says, “Well, it’s kinda gay. And it’s kinda pretty.”
“A-ha! Now that’s what we call queer,” Zenobia says, getting to her feet. “The place where gay meets pretty!” And the show goes on. She completes her spiel and juggles her machetes. She’s still good. The audience roars. She gets ready to do it again.
I walk out to the boardwalk, past the many bright-colored banners for Thor Equities: “Space Available,” “Stores for Lease,” “Retail Space Available,” one after another, tied to chain-link fences around bulldozed lots, strapped to shuttered building facades and empty storefronts. Much has changed in 20 years.
Giuliani illegally tore down the old Thunderbolt rollercoaster. The Stillwell Avenue subway station got a major makeover. Thor's Joe Sitt bought up acres and acres, and then kicked out the carnies. Astroland shuttered. Bloomberg rezoned the whole place, drastically reducing the space for amusement. The decrepit, ancient buildings I loved were torn down. And the chains came in: Applebee's Dunkin Donuts Wahlburgers Johnny Rockets Bank of America Subway.
I tell myself Coney is still Coney. You can still get a corn dog and a plate of fried clams. The Cyclone still gives people whiplash. Local families still come to have fun. The crowd is diverse, multi-cultural, working class. You can’t argue with that. But there is something vital missing. Coney has lost its edge, the character it boasted for over a century. Everything feels brighter, shinier, cleaner. More controlled. Less alive.
On the graffiti-covered gates of the Eldorado Arcade, signs read: “GRAFFITI FOR FILM SHOOT - PLEASE DO NOT PAINT OVER - NBC UNIVERSAL.” The graffiti doesn’t look anything like real graffiti, made by someone who perhaps has never seen real graffiti.
I walk down to Williams Candy, a sweet little spot that’s been here for about 80 years, and buy a small paper bag full of malted milk balls. I’m the only customer. They’re all going to IT’SUGAR, the massive chain. Next door, the tables at one of the last honky-tonk clam shacks are empty, while families cram into Applebee’s and Wahlburgers.
People don’t want surprises anymore, so there are no surprises left at Coney Island. Except for that scene back at the Sideshow. That is what Coney Island has always been about, shaking people out of their everyday lives, shocking and thrilling them with experiences of the unusual.
In his Coney Island history book Amusing the Million, John Kasson writes that Coney encouraged “the grotesque.” The freaks symbolized “the exaggerated and excessive character of Coney Island as a whole,” unusual bodies that “displayed themselves openly as exceptions to the rules of the conventional world.” The whole place was an escape from conventionality. But at today's Coney Island, the sideshow is the one space left where gay meets pretty.