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Touring Coney Island with Jim Knipfel

Jul 3, 2004 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Writer Jim Knipfel, known for his skewed visions of modern America — and for turning that same clarity on himself — has released his third memoir, Ruining it for Everybody. Knipfel writes a column of the same name for the alternative weekly the New York Press.

NPR's Margot Adler spoke with the author about his affection for Coney Island during a recent visit they took to the legendary Brooklyn neighborhood.

The following is an excerpt from Ruining It for Everybody.

A Walk on the Beach at Coney Island

Morgan and I sat at that scarred table in Ruby's for about an hour, listening to the jukebox and ordering another beer. Some of the people who'd been sitting at the bar when we first arrived were starting to leave. There was a cool salt breeze off the Atlantic.

After we were finished with that second round, Morgan asked, "Can we go down to the water?"

"Course. Let's go." I took her arm.

The bartender — a tall man with graying hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache — waved and smiled at us as we left.

Different rules altogether, I thought.

We crossed the Boardwalk to the short flight of steps that led down to the sand. Morgan stopped and removed her shoes and socks. I left mine on.

"Aren't you going to take your shoes off?"

"Naaah, I'll be fine."

"You sure? They'll get all full of sand."

"I'm okay. I don't care."

We walked across the warm sand, Morgan keeping her eyes open for broken glass and stray hypodermic needles, but much to our amazement, the beach was pristine. Soft, smooth, almost completely free of garbage.

A few scattered sunbathers were spread out closer to the water. Most of them were in their fifties or older, the men unself-consciously letting their huge bellies flop over the fronts of their trunks. There was a time when such a thing, for some reason, would have terrified me, but now it struck me as a strange, epic form of grace. They were beyond caring, they were satisfied without arrogance. They didn't give a good goddam what people though. They were comfortable.

A man in a small, unmotorized dune buggy sped along the shore, propelling himself by means of a giant kite, which he controlled with two aluminium sticks.

There was nothing to block the sun — no clouds, no trees or buildings — but the direct heat was tempered by the ocean breeze.

We reached the edge of the water again, and my pant legs from the knees down were soon soaked. I removed my hat, as the Atlantic had stolen more than one of my hats in the past. We began to walk up the beach toward Brighton, the Russian neighborhood just up the coast from Coney, stopping occasionally as Morgan pointed out various forms of sea and beach life. The crashing waves washed across our feet.

A man who was either insane or drunk stumbled past us, muttering dark thoughts to himself and smiling. He was wearing a black suit. Ancient joggers hobbled past us with tiny, insistent steps. The guy in the kite-propelled dune buggy sped this way and that, not running anybody over, much to our surprise.

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