The day is etched indelibly on my mind. Or should I say, "tattooed."
Coney Island, the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, is full of sights, sounds and smells ... and tattoos. I've never seen so many in one place at one time.
On passersby, on employees, on performers. Arms. Legs. Faces. Shoulders. Backs.
The one-of-a-kind Wonder Wheel prides itself on a perfect safety record for its entire 90-year history.
Insectavora, one of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow performers - whose face was artistically inked -told us that even her "shadow had tattoos."
I believe it.
"Step right up, ladies and gents!" rang inside my head over and over while sitting inside the sideshow, where Insectavora was joined by Serpentina; Krissy Kocktail; and Scott Baker, the Human Blockhead.
"They're here, they're real and they're alive! Freaks, wonders and human curiosities."
Baker, the frontman of the sideshow, invited us to join "the world of the strange, the silly, the beautiful ... and oh, so dangerous." He was proud of the show's "31 freakin' years on Coney Island!"
When he was not emceeing the show, he was pounding nails up his nose. Big nails. A 60-penny spike, used on the railroad. ... all the while singing "If I had a hammer ..." Which he did. A real hammer.
"It's a good way to get iron into your system," joked the Human Blockhead.
He also put a few spoons up his nose and a screwdriver.
"Don't try this at home," cautioned most of the performers.
Insectavora ate fire. And she climbed a ladder. Not just any ladder; the one she ascended was made of swords.
Serpentina invited an audience member to sit in an electric chair, at which time she somehow made the guest's body conduct enough electricity to light a bulb with her tongue.
As her name suggests, Serpentina also is a snake charmer. The sexy Serpentina - who is 6 feet tall and weighs 140 pounds, danced around the stage with an albino boa constrictor. The show we saw was in the afternoon; I'm assuming the show got a bit racier as the day wore on. (Actually, there is a "Coney Island Girlie Freakshow," with Insectavora, Serpentina and special guests at 10 p.m. on Saturdays, for adults only.)
Krissy Kocktail contorted herself inside a wooden box so that a couple of dozen blades her friend Insectavora drove into slots at the top and through the bottom would not slice through her. She also swallowed swords - of varying lengths. An audience member who got up close and personal verified that she really did swallow the swords.
Interestingly, all of the performers have multiple skills.
Baker eats fire, glass, live crickets and lit cigarettes; he swallows and regurgitates razor blades; he is a magician, escape artist, ventriloquist and anatomical wonder; and he performs levitations.
Insectavora also is a fire twirler, walks on glass, does whip tricks and she, too, can swallow and regurgitate razor blades.
Serpentina is a contortionist, and she can rest comfortably on a bed of nails.
Krissy Kocktail, who also is a bartender, can perform the Human Blockhead act, walk on glass, rest on a bed of nails and light up the electric chair.
While waiting to go into the show, or after, you can hang out at the Freak Bar and get a Coney Island beer; the label of each variety sports a different freak show star.
There also is a Coney Island Museum that highlights antiques and relics of old rides. You can visit the gift shop, which has for sale many items that feature the Coney Island funny face, considered the area's mascot.
Coney Island USA, which runs the sideshow and museum, also offers summer programming, produces various shows and festivals, and runs the Coney Island Sideshow School - if you've always wanted to run away and join the circus.
The purpose of Coney Island USA is to "defend the honor of American popular culture through innovative exhibitions and performances," according to its website.
Once your eyes adjust to daylight again, there's lots to explore in Coney Island.
A walk up and down the boardwalk is pleasant. Or, take a snooze on the extraordinarily wide beach.
Don't pass up a chance for a Nathan's Famous Frankfurters, where the original hot dog stand was started in 1916 by a Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker. They are delicious!
You might want to save that frankfurter for after you take a ride on the Cyclone, considered the "father of America's roller coaster revolution and the big momma of Coney Island," according to www.lunaparknyc.com, one of the parks at Coney Island.
The Cyclone's first ride was on June 26, 1927. The wooden coaster was built at an original cost of $175,000. It's 85 feet high at the tallest peak, and riders whiz along 2,640 feet of track, at a top speed of 60 mph. In a minute and 50 seconds, you'll make six 180-degree turns, you'll drop 12 times, change direction 16 times and experience 18 track crossovers and 27 elevation changes.
Says the website, "Emilio Franco, a mute since birth, regained his voice on the Cyclone, uttering his first words ever - 'I feel sick!'" At Luna Park, which is just one of the ride areas, you have a choice of high thrill, moderate thrill and mild thrill rides.
Don't order that Nathan's Famous just yet.
Step right up to get your ticket for the Wonder Wheel.
At 150 feet high, the Wonder Wheel weighs 400,000 pounds and carries 144 people up in the air Construction began in 1918, and the Wonder Wheel opened on Memorial Day, 1920.
You have your choice of red cars, white cars or blue cars. The red and blue cars swing in the breeze (and it does get breezy way up there!), while the white cars stay still as the wheel turns.
If you prefer to lay low, visit the New York Aquarium, with 14 acres of aquatic adventure, exhibits and attractions, right off of the boardwalk.
Besides the rides, the freaks, the beach, the hot dogs and the marine exhibits, Coney Island is full of history.
The Coney Island History Project, a not-for-profit organization, sponsors activities and programs that document the neighborhood's colorful past. The group records, archives and shares oral history interviews, and organizes exhibits and lectures.
The project just opened its new location in Wonder Wheel Park, where photos, artworks, artifacts, maps, books and films are on display.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Dreamland Park fire, which destroyed much of the site in 1911. It was the biggest fire in the Big Apple, prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Rides, roller coasters, amusements were nothing but ash a few hours after the fire began inside the boat ride, "Hell Gate."
From 1904 until 1911, Dreamland Park stretched from West Eighth Street to West Fifth Street, to the ocean's edge.
OK. Back to the present. Freaks, check. A few rides, check. Some history, check. A visit to the aquarium, check. A walk on the Boardwalk, check. ... NOW it's time for one or two - or 30-some if you're entering the July 4 International Hot Dog Eating Contest - of Nathan's Famous.
Enjoy! And don't forget the napkins.