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While we didn't live right in Coney Island, we lived close by enough so that the train ride was fast and simple, and on Shabbat we could even walk to the boardwalk in the summer. For a father without much money, Coney Island had many advantages, the best of which was that for a couple of rolls of quarters even six kids can burn through several hours at the old Astroland skeeball arcade.
The tactile feel of the wooden balls banging on the backstops of the old analog skeeball machines, 8 balls for a quarter, was mesmerizing. the six kids used to line up and work out all their competitive juices, whacking and clacking those balls, ringing those bells, and collecting the piles of little green tickets that would accumulate if you scored more than 180 points. If you scored 300 points, that was especially good and the machine would whirl and sing, spilling out extra tickets. The six them would pull all there tickets together, not to mention those acquired by the adults. It eventually accumulated to a truly impressive pile which they most normally trusted to Dovid, my older son, for safe keeping and accounting. They ended up with more tickets than anyone I'd ever seen, generating a positive vibe and excitement for the entire park. In fact, whenever our kids played skeeball, we started with an empty arcade, but as they got more and more frenzied, they would attract a crowd filling the entire arcade. Dozens of other children and their parents would venture into the arcade, and follow our crowd wherever they wandered within the park.
Sprinkled into the skeeball activities, we added a few rounds of target practice with beebee guns. Dovid had a bit of a gamblers streak in him and tried his hand at grand jackpot games where you had to get a spinning light to land between markers for 100 tickets by smashing on a big green button. But chiefly skeeball was the mainstay for the arcades. They were cheap to run, virtually indestructible except for the occasional wooden ball rolling away from the tables or someone shooting a ball into a neighbors lane. Skeeball was the bread and butter of any Coney Island visit, topped off by several rounds of Disco Bumper Cars at the Eldorado, and perhaps a round on Deno's WonderWheel.
Once they got done playing they had to go cash in their tickets. Before them was several glass showcases filled with prizes, from small plastic frogs and tops to boom boxes and Marionette puppets, each tagged with a ticket prise, 3 tickets, 12 tickets, 800 tickets and so on. There was a huge selection of exciting toys to chose from and it could take another hour before all the prizes where negotiated and settled on. The kids were excellent at negotiating with each other and sharing, never needing adult intervention. I was very proud to watch them work it all out an everyone always came home with smiles. Sometimes they pulled together for one big prize, and other times they divided things up more.
One day we decided to change things up a bit. Instead of Skeeball, I treated them to a number of the standard boardwalk games that are set up about the alley in and around Deno's Wonderwheel, and behind the Eldorado bumper cars. Most of these games are separate hussles and private businesses. Games vary from dart throwing targets, and baseballs thrown at bowling pins, basketball nets, pellet guns shooting at paper targets, and a serious of multiplayer games which pit players against each other. In these games the more players that participate in a round, the bigger the prize. Every round has a winner and the more Players the bigger the prize. Players either roll balls or spray streams of water at targets trying to be the first to fill balloon or win some simulated horse race.
These can be exceptionally fun as they are Emceed by a game host who also hawks for contestants from the crowds that are walking through the Alley. The game hawks give not just live blow by blow announcements of the games as they run, but also determine prizes and most importantly sustain an air of excitement in the park, keeping people engaged and the atmosphere in Coney Island lively.
As a seasoned Brooklynite running through Coney Island with a troop of kids you become aware of things that a tourist might not notice. Coney Island can be a dangerous and seedy place full of vultures looking for opportunities. I become acutely aware of the pick pockets in the crowd, the petty drug dealing by the folks who run the rides, and game sharks.
"What is a game shark?", you might ask. Sharks are the very experienced players in Coney Island who watch games closely, looking to score big wins against novice players. They might notice that a particular seat always wins because the game is not as fair as it should be. Or they might wait for more players to show up to win bigger prizes. Or they might be working with a game to encourage participation.
A normal multi-user game might have nine participants, or nine seats. Our family, having eight, seemingly gullible children, fill almost the entire board accept a single seat. Observant game sharks will take that last seat, confident that they can beat a young family of Orthodox Jews.
At this point, it is worth saying something about the individual children and their personalities when they were young. The family consists of six children, Talyah Leah, Shoshana Rivka, Dovid Shimon, Itka Shira, Aviva Rochel, and Schmuel-Leib Eliezar Safir. When they are together, they function like a unit or a tribe, but that doesn't mean they don't have their own personalities.
Talyah as the oldest had a strong sense of responsibility and was always eager to suggest activities and actions and lead in negations. Talyah Leah was as sweat of a child as one could expect, always self-conscious, and at the time, very proper. Shani would follow the crowd but she was very assertive to get her opinions heard and to have her say. It was very important for her to be seen, even if the group chose a different direction. Shani was also extremely sweat. Dovid Shimon would lead by action, at times running roughshod over the others, but always willing to return to the crowd and remained open to others opinions. Dovid was extremely generous both of material and in his heart. It was important for him to get things right, and to do the right thing, even more important than getting his way.
Itka Shira often hung in the background, taking in the facts and events, sometimes a bit clingy to her mother or father. While quiet, she was extremely competitive and competent. She was sensitive, cerebral and private. But once she came to a conclusion or choice, she would find ways to be assertive and to get her way. In the end she would shine.
The two babies were Aviva and Schmuel-Leib. Aviva was very petite and the only blondie in the family. She was also the most assertive, and outsized in her personality. She was furiously stubborn, but highly compassionate, and caring for others. She is the most competitive of the troop, quick to learn, confident, and an excellent collaborator. Despite all that she was quick to adopt others goals and to join the team when decisions didn't go her way and very tolerant of set backs.
Schmuel-Leib Eliezar was nothing less than a force of nature. Always the strongest and the fastest, barely able to contain his energy. Schmuel-Leib is a simmering pot of stew but extremely good natured with an enormous smile. Schmuel-Leib Eliezar is never outshone by anyone. He is front and center in the middle of the action, always.
So on one Peasach Chol Meod we decide to make a day of it in Coney Island. We stroll up Jones Walk and hook a right on the Bowery where most of the games are lined up. The game hawker for the horse derby arcade game gets our attention and the family takes up eight of the 9 seats at the game. Meanwhile, the shrewd game shark identified us as easy pigeons, and sits in the ninth chair. The game is one of the more visually, tactilely, and audibly stimulating arcade games along the walk, especially when the game hawker is experienced and makes fun atmosphere. Each participant gets their own wooden lane. And the lanes themselves have carved into them a diamond shaped series of holes, similarly lined up like bowling pins. Each hole is assigned a number according to the difficulty to reach the hole. The player is given a crystal ball that they roll down the lane, in the hopes of getting the ball to fall though a hole.
On the far side of the lanes, along the wall are nine colored plastic race horses, each numbered and assigned to a lane. They are stacked up upon each other on a virtual race track. As the players drop balls into the holes, their horses move a set number of positions, rocking back and forth, as the game hawk announces the action. As the game progressing the excitement builds, the horses rock back and forth, the announcer pronounces positions, and the balls fall back to players as they fling the balls down the lanes over and over. There might be a total of 20 positions on the track, and the first to the end wins.
Each of the kids held tight to their balls as the announcers started the game, "Everyone on your mark"... they breathed deeply... "Get set"... the tension builds... "Go..." and balls are flying everwhere. Some of them even managed to remain in their own lanes. The Ball hawk is shouting out, "Number 3 is pulling out in front, followed closely by number nine and trailed by eight. Number six is now coming out from the rear, followed by 9, 8, 3 and 4." Balls are really flying about now, as the kids move into panic mode, each focused on their balls and the holes, spinning balls, and twirling them, trying to get them to land in the most valuable spaces. "and down the STRETCH they come, with 6 in the lead closely followed my 9, 8 and 3... and the winning is ... NUMBER SIX - Number six You WIN!!".
We all stop. And we look over ... who is number six?
Little Aviva, the blondie girl, was little aware that she just pulled off a minor miracle, and won the grand prize. As the chaos clears, we are all excited and the Game Shark is slumped over in confusing. He was just beaten by a 6 year old little girl with stringy blond hair. The game hawk now addressed her and she moves to the medium sized stuffed animals. "Which one do you want sweetie?", and all the kids converged on Aviva, giving their input. She decides on a bear, and the kids all beg to play again.
Sure, why not. I break another 20 dollar bill out and everyone takes their position including the Game Shark, who is sure that he won't let this happen twice. Hearts racing, and adrenalin rushing, each one takes a position, with the sun beating on our necks and the cool ocean breeze in our hair.
"Everyone on your mark... get set... go".
Blood is now flowing, and the intensity doubles.. each kid sure they had figured out the system, and the Game Shark is now grunting and spitting and the horses fly and dance down the track... and when it is all down..
The winner is Number SIIIIIIXXXX again.
Aviva at this point was as calm as a meadow. Her big dark eyes looked across the games field, confident as if she expected to win while all the world about her was in delightful turmoil. Itka almost jumped in her lap. Dovid was cheering, and Talyah was beaming in smiles and laughter, ear to ear. Shani's head was bobbing up and down in excitement and approval. Ellen was laughing up at the sky and the game Shark was muttering curses to himself, swaggering from the table and shaking his head. I shouted out... AVIVA ROCKEL SAFIR - GAME SHARK SLAYER! The women running the game was ear to ear smiles and now moved to the biggest stuffed animal section, where the bears where bigger than players. Aviva traded in her medium sized stuffed bear for one that was nearly 4 foot high.
So when you come home from Coney Island, and you live in Brooklyn, sometimes you will see a young girl with a huge bear, a precious prize from a great day at Coney Island. But rest assured, that bear is smaller than the one that Aviva Rochel Safir dragged to our house on that afternoon. Because Aviva Rochel is a Coney Island legend. And this is her very most special story.