By Julie Klam
In the summer of 1989, I was living on the Upper West Side near where my friend Leslie worked as a bartender at Lucy’s, the legendary surf bar. Every night while she mixed Sex on the Beaches and Blue Moons, I’d sit at the end of the bar looking as unalluring as possible under the water-colored lights, reading a novel, eating a brownie and drinking a big glass of ice water with plastic mermaids hanging all around the rim. On the sweltering July night when three U.S. Navy sailors strolled in, I was feeling restless. They were talking very loudly about what to do in New York; they’d already seen all the key tourist attractions and only had one day left before they set sail. “Coney Island?” I suggested. They were really excited. They’d heard of it! One of them, named Tommy, pulled out his subway map and while I was crayoning the route, he looked at me and said, “Well, you have to come!” I chuckled. The guys appeared to have popped out of a Preston Sturges movie, and the sweetness was so surprising I said yes.
The next day, I put on a thirties-style dress, red lipstick, and scuffed Mary Janes. Only Tommy and his crappy camera were at the subway station; the other two guys had gotten Yankee tickets. We took the 1 to the D train, and I was completely self-conscious. People smiled at us like I was with my guy who was about to ship off to the Pacific Ocean Theater. Tommy pressed up against the windows when the train went above ground, snapping pictures of the distant Statue of Liberty. By the time we reached Coney Island, the hazy sun was lowering in the sky like a big orange egg yolk, and we walked down to the boardwalk talking closely. It’s a strange kind of thing where you go somewhere new with someone you don’t really know and when you get there you know him better than the strange place, so a sort of false intimacy hatches. I, Tommy’s tour guide, had never been to Coney Island before, but I acted like I knew what I was doing and where I was going. We ate a Nathan’s hot dog (which twenty years later is still repeating on me) and held hands. We stopped at a photo booth so he could get a picture of himself in front of a brightly painted backdrop of frolicking mermaids. The Korean photographer screamed at me to get in the shot with Tommy even though I kept insisting I was not his girlfriend. But then I worried the photographer thought I was a hooker, so I got in the picture. Tommy and I walked down to the water and he told me how strange it felt to look out at ships from the shore. “It must be weird to you that I’m more comfortable out there,” he said. On the train ride back we talked like old friends, he kissed me, but it was very held-back. Walking me home from the station, under faint city stars, he kept shaking his head and saying proudly, “Oh, sometimes I hate what a respectable guy I am!” He gave me a kiss good-bye and I sauntered up my stairs. When I got inside the vestibule I watched him walk up the street, stopping to take a picture of my deli.
Julie Klam is the author of a memoir, Please Excuse My Daughter.