The Coney Island Cyclone is a roller coaster that opened in 1927, when most people weren’t expected to live past the age of 45. Since most riders were already resigned to their early deaths, designers of the Cyclone were not much concerned with comfort, or user experience, or safety.
Instead, the designers were more concerned with word of mouth, to get people in line and to fill the coffers. After riding the Cyclone, one might work out the business model of the original Cyclone owners, Jack and Irving Rosenthal. The business model: The more people we put in the hospital with twisted spines and shattered pelvises, the more people will talk about the Cyclone, and the more people talk about the Cyclone, the more people will pay to have their spines twisted and their pelvises shattered.
A few years back, Greg and I took my little brother Alex to Coney Island. We went not long after the park had opened for the season, so there weren’t many people around—which means the good people at the Cyclone let us ride the menace several times in a row. No waiting. Sit right where you are, sirs, and we’ll just shoot you around again. And again. And again.
Let me be clear: It is a fun roller coaster, if you drift into a Zen acceptance of mortality and fate upon being strapped in by the flimsy lap bar. As the track throws your caution to the sea breeze coming in from the Atlantic, the ride can be a thrilling and visceral test of your own will to live. You need only to relax a bit to allow your body to be thrown clear of the tracks and out into space. If you have even a slight desire to see the end of the ride, you will tense each muscle in your body, clutch any surface connected to the car, and trick your mind into thinking it is fun to be slammed, slapped, yanked, dropped, and propelled around like a loose sock in an unbalanced washing machine.
So yes, despite the brutal savaging of our bodies, Greg, Alex and I rode the Cyclone three or four times in a row. It was fun.
It was also not without consequences. In 1927, when the coaster was built, America was more of a God-fearing nation, and did not believe in pleasure without pain. The Cyclone is a monument to that time: Enjoy me, the Cyclone says, but know that you will regret your enjoyment.
No wonder the same time period gave us Prohibition and the rise of J. Edgar Hoover.
Alex, in his late teens at the time, suffered only minimal collateral damage—in that his collar was bruised from slamming into the side of the car. Greg limped around for a few days from where one of the smaller hills of the track threw him full-force into the lap bar, then shoved him back into his seat. I’ve always had a bad neck, and the numerous runs around the Cyclone track undid years of chiropractic visits. Couldn’t turn my head without wincing for several months.
So naturally, when visiting Coney Island again yesterday, I couldn’t wait to get back on the Cyclone.
That’s a lie. I could wait. And I did wait. I insisted on saving it for last—but I insisted on riding it all the same.
Here’s the thing about the Cyclone: it is not passive amusement. And I’m not talking about the line-waiting or the hefty ticket-per-ride cost; the actual experience of getting into a car, strapping yourself down, and hurtling along a 80-plus year old track is different than going to Six Flags, say, or even a State Fair, and riding a roller coaster. In those more modern venues of amusement, one may be a passive participant—the rides are smoother, the harnesses stronger, the seats more cushioned and protective.
You can sit back and pretend you’re in danger even though you know you stand a more than reasonable good chance of exiting the ride without consequence, as if you’d never ridden at all.
The Cyclone leaves evidence of your amusement. You feel it in your joints for days after. Your skin reminds you of just how much fun you had by displaying bruises. Your muscles remind you of how badly you want to live to have more joy because they are in so much pain from clutching on for more life as you hurtle around the wooden track.
Yeah, Thoreau can toddle off to the woods to remind himself of living. I’ll take the bone-crushing, harsh-God treatment of the Cyclone.
Which is to say, maybe I’m old-fashioned: as much as I’d like to believe pleasure should come without consequences, I also believe that pleasure for pleasure’s sake quickly leads to laziness, complacence, and an inability to appreciate that moment when you’re suspended between the lap bar and the seat just before your pelvis crunches into the bar that is quickly followed by that moment your tail bone is slammed down into the seat again.
After the Cyclone, I was ready to enjoy the more sedate New York Aquarium. It takes brutal confrontation of permanent injury or even more permanent death to help one appreciate the other creatures scuttling around on the same planet.
We're all in this together. Humans, I think, are the only ones who need reminders of this.