First published in the Brooklyn Rail, July-August 2005
"We got cold Coronas! We got cold Heineken! We got whatever you need out here! Ice cold!” is the chant that permeates the air above the sand along Coney Island and Brighton Beach.
For decades, beach goers have relied on an army of vendors to supply them with beer, water, pretzels, ICEEs, cotton candy, and anything else that can be carried through the sand. Unlicensed vending has recently become a controversial issue, as Manhattan retail storeowners have asserted that the police must clear the sidewalks of vendors. Yet on the beach at Coney Island, both shuffling vendors and sun-tanning customers agree that vending on the beach is honest work, which provides a much-needed service.
The businesses on the boardwalk complain that the vendors take away their customers, yet on the day of the Mermaid Parade, Joey Clams, the manager of Gyro Corner, cannot count fast enough to keep up with the money being shoved into his hand. Although Mr. Clams is no power broker, the beach vendors are at the bottom of the Coney Island corporate ladder, and every year the police respond to pressure and chase after them, handing out summonses and desk appearance tickets.
As major real estate interests more powerful than Joey Clams line up to capitalize on the hordes of people headed to Coney Island on hot summer weekends, the question of how Coney Island will, and should change over the next decade is an important one for all Brooklyn residents to consider. Fourteen-year-old black youths, hustling across the sand selling beer, will certainly be the first to go if the Disney-fication and corporatization of Coney Island finally takes place. But Ferrone Malone, who has been vending on the beach for decades, has no plans of stopping.
“Everybody out here knows Ferrone Malone. I love this beach. The people out here are hot and thirsty. They need drinks. They need Ferrone Malone. Just say my name and I’m comin’. Ferrone Malone! It rhymes. The police? I love the police. They’re beautiful people. I got no complaints about the police. And they got no complaints with Ferrone Malone. They know Osama bin Laden is not out on the beach. They know Ferrone Malone is not Osama bin Laden. I’m just a man who likes to work hard. My grandfather put me in this business. That’s why we got these beautiful young kids out here,” explains Ferrone Malone, pointing to the two teenagers vending with him. “This is a family business. You know Stephon Marbury? That’s my cousin. He’s a beautiful person. Our family works out here.”
Mr. Malone is certainly not alone in the Coney Island community in claiming to be Mr. Marbury’s cousin. Yet another vendor who introduced himself as Allan was able to confirm Mr. Malone’s assertion. “Allan. Allan Houston. You don’t see the jersey man. Number 20,” offers Mr. Houston as he smiles showing his three gold teeth. “I been out here since I was 13, man. I’m 33 now. It’s a good way to make money. I work in a warehouse the rest of the week, and then I come out here on the weekend. A lot of people in the projects do it. Surfside Gardens, Marlboro projects, all over C.I.
“Stephon Marbury used to be out here when he was a kid. His cousin Ferrone is out here right now. A couple families started this shit back in the day. It’s a good way to stay out of trouble. Better than selling drugs, right. You can make 500 dollars in a day if it’s crowded out here. But that’s if you work like a dog. All day. Eleven until six at night. Break your back, man. But you get your exercise on. Take a picture? Nah man, I’m on parole.”
William, 16 years old, of Lincoln High School, Mr. Marbury’s alma mater, claims that his best day was 300 dollars. But he concedes that this is only his second summer working on the beach. John, of Marine Park, one of the few white vendors on the beach, claims to have made 900 dollars on Labor Day of 1997. “That was the best day I ever saw. Labor Day ’97. But that’s not gonna happen everyday, pal. Plus now you got more cops out here. You got more cops everywhere. But out here especially. I got 15 tickets in ten years. A lot of times the judge throws ‘em out because he knows I’m just tryin’ to make a buck. But the whole thing is a pain in the ass. They should leave us alone. You can write that in your little newspaper. Get off my ass. You can tell ‘em I said that. John. John Freakin’ Doe. From Marine Park.”
Neither William nor Mr. Doe were able to confirm or deny that Allan Houston is on parole.
Another white vendor, Sal of Midwood, has opted for the sunglasses hustle to make his living. “Look at these, man. Louis Vuitton, Gucci. Its all from Chinatown. I sell a box of these, I got 400 dollars. And people pay. You got Russian gangsters out here. You got dope pushers, you got thousand dollar hookers. People with money. People who need sunglasses. The cops? They ain’t so bad. They’re too busy checkin’ out all the tits. Besides, they usually give white guys a break. They get the blacks and Mexicans. Look how many Mexicans are on the beach. It’s twice as many from last year. They don’t even have shorts yet, brother. They just got here yesterday. Don’t get me wrong. When you’re in Brighton Beach you’re in Russia. These Russians are out here all day. They don’t work. I been in New York all my life, and I never seen a Russian working. A store, a restaurant, an office, a cop, a token booth clerk, you ever seen a Russian? Hey, but they seem to be doin’ just fine. Don’t ask don’t tell, right? But on that side, see, you’re in Puerto Rico. On the Coney Island side. You got whole buildings, no, whole blocks from Sunset Park. They plant the Puerto Rican flag in the sand and then they spread out as far as the eye can see.”
Rodolfo, of Puebla, Mexico, was able to confirm that he does not have shorts yet, as he has only been in New York for three months. He plans to get some soon, because the work of pushing an ICEE cart across the sand is difficult and strenuous work. He also confirms that he is simply happy to be alive, breathing the air, and making money for food.
Rodolfo’s vending services are greatly appreciated by the public. Evelise Santiago of Sunset Park, with a tattoo of her name above her left breast and another of a rose on her neck, explains that the vendors are nice and the beer is cheap. Her mother, Gladys, also of Sunset Park, whose bathing suit allows a view of her C-section scar and whose nail tips feature the Puerto Rican flag, agrees that the vendors are nice, and adds that the lines on the boardwalk are too long and the beer is too expensive.
The boardwalk is watched closely by officers Brennon and Jacobsen of the NYPD. They were able to confirm that Osama bin Laden is not on the beach, and that Ferrone Malone is not Osama bin Laden. Yet they denied any allegations of checking out tits. “We’re not here to give people a hard time. We’re here to show presence. We don’t want people to get hurt. The businesses on the boardwalk want us to crackdown on the beach vendors, so we crack down a little. But we’re not looking to get these kids tripped up in the system. There’s a lot worse things they could be out there doing. We’re not immigration either. We just want people to be safe and have a good time.”
Times Square provides the blueprint for how New York grit and grime can be sanitized and quickly replaced with family fun for tourists. Yet crime is not what it was, and perhaps Coney Island would do best by preserving its gritty charm. Before Bloomberg breaks ground on a freedom stadium out in the ocean just past the wave break, and before powerful mall developers can round up the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers on the beach, send them to Guantanamo, and replace them with heartland families and European tourists, Brooklyn residents must make their voices heard.
As developers salivate, and proclaim that Coney Island is poised for a comeback, the people who know that it has been here all along must fight to preserve the principal function of this rare location. Coney Island forever has been, and forever must be, a source of recreation for working class New Yorkers, not another opportunity for chain restaurants and corporations to gouge tourists for their money.
Many of us like this place the way it is. We got cold Coronas. We got cold Heinekens. Ice cold! We got Ferrone Malone, Stephon Marbury, and Allan Houston on parole. We got Lincoln High School’s finest just tryin’ to make some money out here. We got John Freakin’ Doe. We got Russian gangsters, dope pushers, thousand dollar hookers, whole blocks—no, whole buildings from Sunset Park. We got Mexicans with long pants planning on getting shorts just happy to be alive breathing the air. We got neck tattoos, C-section scars, and nail tips with the Puerto Rican flag. We got cops checking out tits, just trying to keep everybody safe, and Osama bin Laden is nowhere in sight.
This is Russia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Surfside Gardens, Marlboro Projects. We got whatever you need out here. This is Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City.