EACH SATURDAY of my childhood, my parents and sister and I visited my paternal grandparents in their home near Coney Island, the Brooklyn landmark. As I recall the place, it was ornately over-decorated in what I call “Early Godfather.” Crammed with comfortable furniture with lots of fringed cushions and potted palms in all the corners, the dining room was completely mirrored–all four walls. Those mirrors greatly amplified the huge feasts we had there, seemingly into infinity, like those milk cartons with the missing child shown on the side of the carton, showing the carton with the picture of the missing child on the side, again and again.
After an ordinary brunch worthy of a bar mitzvah celebration, in nice weather I would run up to the roof and watch the enormous Wonder Wheel spin around and around. After many hours the visit would be declared over and our family would take our leave and drive the few miles to the amusement park for an early dinner and a few thrills. I lived for this.
While my mother and my sister stood by holding our coats, my father and I rode all of the scariest rides: The Cyclone, the Thunderbolt, the Tornado, the Wonder Wheel, even the Parachute Jump which I probably should have skipped. I was only four, and it seems to me that any ride where you have to take your shoes off is too extreme for children.
Next we hit the Steeplechase, sort of a private club within Coney Island where the rides were really dangerous. Rumor had it that the young daughter of the actual designer of the actual Steeplechase ride had died on opening day by falling off a faulty electric horse and being electrocuted on the spot. Naturally this story made the ride all the more popular.
When my father couldn’t possibly take one more thrill, we’d head straight for Nathan’s Famous for some all-beef kosher hot dogs and French fries and, in a time-honored family tradition, eat until we couldn’t breathe, our signal that the meal was over. After dinner we hit the pinball machines, the Throw Things at Bottles and Win a Stuffed Animal games, the Fortune Teller. One particular Saturday, however, something new was added to the mix: I got kidnapped.
The old woman had been following us for several hours, or perhaps several weeks. What I clearly remember is my mother letting go of my hand for a moment to put mustard on her hot dog. When her hand took mine again I took it unquestioningly, eager for the next adventure. We had gone several blocks before I realized that the hand I was holding was the next adventure. It wasn’t my mother’s hand at all. Instead, it belonged to a babushka-wearing crone missing a few teeth who looked just like the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.”(I’m drawing a blank here– how were they saved?)
What happened then is hazy. (Not important, according to my shrink, who was so excited to have uncovered this buried memory during his first and only attempt at regression that he almost called the American Psychiatric Association right then and there to apply for a medal or something.) The old lady took me home to her tiny hovel in the shadow of my friend, the Wonder Wheel. Somehow I did not cry, knowing even then that she was not playing with a full deck. The next morning, after a fitful sleep on top of a pile of old newspapers, we went out for a walk and I easily escaped.
Never looking back, I ran fast and far, the tears finally welling up. Despite this event pre-dating the Amber Alert by decades, the local police had been on the prowl all night. Very quickly I was spotted and taken to a nearby precinct where the nice police sergeant called my parents. They appeared in minutes for our tearful reunion.
My mother never got over it. Her daily mantra became, “Don’t talk to strangers.” This of course proved impossible advice to follow much of the time, like when, at the age of 30, I traveled alone to Europe. (“But Ma, I gotta eat!”) Still, when I became a mother myself I fully understood her terror, not to mention her shoddy parenting style. My own son, now almost 27 and living like a nomad here and there, has never once been kidnapped.