SKY-SIGNS AND CONEY ISLAND
All visitors to New York speak of the exhilaration of its air, and I can but repeat their testimony. After the first few days the idea of going to bed became an absurdity.
Among the peculiarly beautiful effects that America produces, sky signs must be counted high. I had seen some when in San Francisco against the deep Californian night, and they captivated the startled vision; but the reckless profusion and movement of the Great White Way, as I turned out of 42nd Street on my first evening in New York, came as something more than a surprise: a revelation of wilful gaiety. We have normally nothing in England to compare with it. Nor can we have even our Earl's Court exhibition imitations of it so long as coal is so rare and costly. But though we had the driving power for the electricity we could never get such brilliance, for the clear American atmosphere is an essential ally. In our humid airs all the diamond glints would be blurred.
For the purest beauty of traceries of light against a blue background one must go, however, not to Broadway, which is too bizarre, but to Luna Park on Coney Island. Odd that it should be there, in that bewildering medley of sound and restlessness, that an extreme of loveliness should be found; but I maintain that it is so, that nothing more strangely and voluptuously beautiful could be seen than all those minarets and domes, with their lines and curves formed by myriad lamps, turning by contrast the heavens into an ocean of velvet blue, mysterious and soft and profound.
Only periodically - when we have exhibitions at Earl's Court or at Olympia - is there in England anything like Coney Island. At Blackpool in August, and on Hampstead Heath on Bank Holidays, a corresponding spirit of revelry is attempted, but it is not so natural, and is vitiated by a self-conscious determination to be gay and by not a little vulgarity. The revellers of Steeplechase Park seemed to me to be more genuine even than the crowds that throng the Fete de Neuilly; and a vast deal happier.
One very striking difference between Coney Island and the French fair is the absence of children from New York's "safety-valve," as some one described it to me. I saw hardly any. It is as though once again the child's birthday gifts had been appropriated by its elders; but as a matter of fact the Parks of Steeplechase and Luna were, I imagine, designed deliberately for adults. Judging by the popularity of the chutes and the whips, the switchbacks and the witching waves, eccentric movement has a peculiar attraction for the American holiday-maker. As some one put it, there is no better way, or at any rate no more thorough way, of throwing young people together. Middle-aged people, too. But the observer receives no impression of moral disorder. High spirits are the rule, and impropriety is the exception. Even in the auditorium at Steeplechase Park, where the cognoscenti assemble to witness the discomfiture of the uninitiated, there is nothing but harmless laughter as the skirts fly up before the unsuspected blast. Such a performance in England, were it permitted, would degenerate into ugliness; in France, too, it would make the alien spectator uncomfortable. But the essential public chastity of the Americans - I am not sure that I ought not here to write civilisation of the Americans - emerges triumphant.
It was at Coney Island that I came suddenly upon the Pig Slide and had a new conception of what quadrupeds can do for man.
The Pig Slide, which was in one of the less noisy quarters of Luna Park, consisted of an enclosure in which stood a wooden building of two storeys, some five yards wide and three high. On the upper storey was a row of six or eight cages, in each of which dwelt a little live pig, an infant of a few weeks. In the middle of the row, descending to the ground, was an inclined board, with raised edges, such as is often installed in swimming-baths to make diving automatic, and beneath each cage was a hole a foot in diameter. The spectators and participants crowded outside the enclosure, and the thing was to throw balls, which were hired for the purpose, into the holes. Nothing could exceed the alert and eager interest taken by the little pigs in the efforts of the ball-throwers. They quivered on their little legs; they pressed their little noses against the bars of the cages; their little eyes sparkled; their tails (the only public corkscrews left in America) curled and uncurled and curled again: and with reason, for whereas if you missed - as was only too easy - nothing happened: if you threw accurately the fun began, and the fun was also theirs.
This is what occurred. First a bell rang and then a spring released the door of the cage immediately over the hole which your ball had entered, so that it swung open. The little pig within, after watching the previous infirmity of your aim with dejection, if not contempt, had pricked up his ears on the sound of the bell, and now smiled a gratified smile, irresistible in infectiousness, and trotted out, and, with the smile dissolving into an expression of absolute beatitude, slid voluptuously down the plank: to be gathered in at the foot by an attendant and returned to its cage all ready for another such adventure.
It was for these moments and their concomitant changes of countenance that you paid your money. To taste the triumph of good marksmanship was only a fraction of your joy; the greater part of it consisted in liberating a little prisoner and setting in motion so much ecstasy.