Coney Island Baby

You know, man, when I was a young man in high school
you believe in or not I wanted to play football for the coach

Italy was rolling by outside the train window, backlit by moonlight and Lou Reed was singing in my headphones. I was alone on the overnight from Venice to Assisi, having lost, semi-purposely, the rest of my classmates. My ticket read third class, passenger service, but I was sitting in a darkened first class cabin, letting the setting match the music pouring into my ears through the yellow headphones of my twelve dollar Sony walkman.

And all those older guys
they said he was mean and cruel, but you know
wanted to play football for the coach

A knock on the door of my cabin made me pause the cassette player and draw the door curtain back. The young conductor, maybe only two or three years older than my own eighteen, looked at me and said “Billeto?” Grinning sheepishly, I handed him my ticket and reached behind me to grab my backpack for the inevitable expulsion back to third class. The conductor looked at my ticket, smiled and punched it. He handed the ticket back to me, said “good night” in English and shut the cabin door, leaving me alone in the cabin.

They said I was to little too light weight to play line-backer
so I say I’m playing right-end
wanted to play football for the coach

I wondered about the opening lines of the song. I mean, this was Lou f*ing Reed, one of the Velvet Underground, friend of Warhol, leader in the NY scene…and he played football? High school football was for the losers who wanted to fit in. The guys who thought they were cool because they were good at sports. The jocks. And Lou was one of them? The guy who wrote “Sweet Jane” and “How Do You Think It Feels?”.

‘Cause, you know some day, man
you gotta stand up straight unless you’re gonna fall
then you’re gone to die
And the straightest dude
I ever knew was standing right for me all the time
So I had to play football for the coach
and I wanted to play football for the coach

We used to joke that this guy must wake up every morning and say, “Damn, I’m Lou Reed! How f*ing cool is that?” Because that’s what we would have said if we were Lou Reed. We being myself and Jane. Now, on the train, I was thinking about Jane. Thinking about how she was one of the reasons I was in Italy in the first place. Her going away to NY for school had made me want to get out of the hellhole and out into the world. More than want, actually, her leaving had made my own exodus mandatory. I was not going to be left behind, but nobody was going to take me with them.

When you’re all alone and lonely
in your midnight hour
And you find that your soul
it’s been up for sale

Man I loved that line. It just sounded so deep. Like that if I said it, I’d suddenly have this entire mysterious background that no one knew about. That I could sit around Italian cafes and say things like that to beautiful Italian girls who wanted to talk to me to hear my curious American accent. That when I got home I could tell people that I had been in Italy doing not much and then smile to myself and change the subject. I wanted my life to be as cool as a Lou Reed lyric.

And you begin to think ’bout
all the things that you’ve done
And you begin to hate
just ’bout everything

Yeah, just like that. I wanted to make some good memories in Italy, memories that wouldn’t make me sing along to that line. Because that’s how I felt about high school. Like no one I knew had ever really cared about me and even Jane had only needed me, never letting me need her in return. And I felt so damned angry.

But remember the princess who lived on the hill
Who loved you even though she knew you was wrong
And right now she just might come shining through
and the –

– Glory of love, glory of love
glory of love, just might come through

Yeah, but Lou, what if you don’t have the guts to tell your princess how you feel? What if you find that you’ve been sleeping with the wrong princess? What if you don’t really know what you want anymore? What if you’re sitting in a dark train in a foreign land trying to decide if you’re really homesick or just drowning in nostalgia? What if you really like that brown haired girl in your class but like a thousand times before you don’t know what to say? How the hell is she supposed to save you then?

And all your two-bit friends
have gone and ripped you off
They’re talking behind your back saying, man
you’re never going to be no human being
And you start thinking again
’bout all those things that you’ve done
And who it was and what it was
and all the different things you made every different scene

All those friends who went and let me behind you mean. All the ones who had made it out and left you there in the vortex struggling to find your own way out. All the ones who shrugged their shoulders and said “so?” when you finally did climb out?

Ahhh, but remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer
And just remember different people have peculiar tastes
and the –

In retrospect it’s amazing that I fell asleep here, at the highest point of the song. But I did, waking a few hours later to find that the battery had run down as my walkman automatically flipped the cassette over and over while I dreamt. I checked my watch and found that the train would be pulling into the station in a few more minutes. I put in a fresh battery and gathered up my stuff from the couches and floors. The train stopped and I stepped out into the pre-dawn glow of the platform, wondering if I had enough spare cash for a cab back to the hotel.

– Glory of love, the glory of love
the glory of love, might see you through
yeah, but now, now
Glory of love, the glory of love
the glory of love, might see you through
Glory of love, ah, huh, huh, the glory of love
Glory of love, glory of love
Glory of love, now, glory of love, now
Glory of love, now, now, now, glory of love
Glory of love, give it to me now, glory of love see you through
Oh, my Coney Island baby, now
(I’m a Coney Island baby, now)

The change in my hand didn’t seem like it would buy a soda, much less cab fare, so I pulled out my map and started plotting a walking route back up the hill to the hotel. If I took a left I could go by the basillica and coffee shop, saying hi to people I had met and getting back to my room with no fuss and no effort. If I took a right, I would be going up a street I had not previously explored. I could get lost. I could run into trouble. I stood in the street pondering an insignificant decision that suddenly seemed like a metaphor for my entire life. Stay in Italy with the brown haired girl I barely knew but was insanely attracted to, or go home at the end of the week to anothe brown haired girl who I knew I loved, even if it was too comfortable and familiar to be exciting. I wondered what Jane would do.

A cab stopped next to me and Jane, this Jane, the brown haired girl from NY who bore no relationship to my Jane who went to NY, this Jane, from my classes, who wanted me to go backpacking around Italy with her, this Jane, leaned her head out the window. “Hey, there you are! I was worried when I didn’t see you in Venice!”
I smiled at her. “Yeah, I’m here. I made it.”

“Hey,” she said, “Do you want a ride?” Her face was bright and animated in the dawn, her curls bounced on her shoulders and her smile seemed endless. I opened my mouth to accept but hesitated when I noticed a flickering reflected in the sunglasses still perched on her head. The cab was turning right.

I shut my mouth.

“Well?” She said, still smiling.

“No thanks.” I said, “I’m going this way.”

I’d like to send this one out for Lou and Rachel
and all the kids and P.S. 192
Coney Island baby
Man, I’d swear, I’d give the whole thing up for you

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Filed under Punk Rock Saved My Life, True Thoughts on True Life

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