Sunday, June 17, 2007

Shoot the Freak

I recently visited my cousin Amy in Brooklyn and, along with her husband Paul, we trekked out to Coney Island for an afternoon. We did it up right—we rode the Cyclone and were bruised before we climbed out of the rickety car, we ate hot dogs at Nathan's (site of the annual hot dog-eating contest), we piled into a photo booth (you'll hear about my obsession with photo booths eventually). But the craziest thing we saw was a sideshow, tucked in a dilapidated alley between two boardwalk shows, called "Shoot the Freak." The banner below it? "Live Human Target." A barker heckled the crowd, cajoling them into paying up to $20 for 75 paintball pellets for a chance to shoot an air compression rifle at a guy down in the alley pit. The target wore a plastic codpiece and helmet, and carried a paint-splattered shield.

By the looks of that shield, they did brisk business.

When we walked by, a man and his son were tag-teaming the target. This is a far cry from the bearded ladies and the strong men of yore. While I watched the spectacle unfold on the boardwalk, some memory tugged at the corner of my mind. When I was a kid, I remembered reading a series of books about the All-of-a-Kind Family, a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side. The five sisters wore matching pinafores and helped out in their dad's rag shop occasionally. As a game, their mother would hide pennies all over the parlor and as the girls cleaned and dusted, they'd have to find all the pennies, ensuring a thorough cleaning. How genius is that? It's a industrious variation on an Easter egg hunt. But during one hot day, they escaped the city to wade in the water and take in the sights of Coney Island.

I don't think they watched a Japanese man eat 53 hot dogs in 12 minutes, or looked on as a boy shot a rifle at another human being. We've come a long way in some areas but as I watched the guy in the pit lackadaisically moving from side to side, I think about how far we still have to go. Don't get me wrong: I loved Coney Island. It is defiant in its traditions, even if you can smell the slow decay. I loved the gaudiness of it all. I dug the arcade games, the old Russian men in Speedos, the smell of the ocean mingling with grilling hot dogs. But what scares me is that there are far too many people plunking down cash to shoot at another human being without any sort of awareness. Rather, they are just trying to kill an afternoon.

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